By Art Garcia, NBA.com
Posted Jan 6 2009 11:48PM
OREM, Utah -- The nine-inch scar across Renaldo Major's chest serves as a reminder, though not necessarily a painful one.
It's impossible for most to imagine the physical and mental torture he went through, having his chest opened up to fix a loose aortic valve. Perhaps on the verge of realizing his NBA dream, Major had to give up basketball cold turkey in late 2007.
"The first two months after the surgery, I cried every day," Major said. "I cried every day."
Envisioning the likeable Major as anything but upbeat is not easy sitting in the McKay Event Center stands after he scored 14 points as the Dakota Wizards beat Iowa in Tuesday's second game at the NBA Development League Showcase. Times weren't as rosy 15 months ago.
The D-League defensive player of the year in 2006-07 was headed to training camp with the Denver before last season. Major had a good feeling after meeting with Nuggets coach George Karl.
"I felt like I was on top of a pedestal. I was ready to make that jump," Major said. "My body was feeling good, I was doing the right things, Coach Karl was acknowledging me and they wanted me to come in to be a defensive stopper."
Golden State had signed Major to a 10-day contract during '06-07, but the Denver situation felt as if it had a chance to be permanent. As permanent as a 25-year-old free-agent small forward from Fresno State could hope for.
So just when it seemed his basketball career was falling into place, a routine physical done by the Nuggets medical staff in September revealed an irregular heartbeat. Major was staggered. He unwittingly lived with the condition his entire life, and even though he dealt with shortness of breath at times, the news came out of nowhere.
His budding career was put on immediate hold, perhaps forever. New priorities were born. Major relied on his faith for strength, returning to his hometown of Chicago for open-heart surgery on Oct. 18. John Stroger Hospital did the procedure at no cost. (Major said such surgery normally runs $50,000.)
His sternum was pulled apart and glued back together. The long rehab road began. For months, Major couldn't sleep comfortably. Forget picking up a basketball. Major's brother had to help him eat and wash.
"You feel helpless," he said. "You never want to be in that position."
He watched as much basketball as he could, whether it was his former Dakota teammates, college basketball or the NBA. His family was also around all the time. Mom, dad, grandma, brothers and sisters pitched in to aid the healing process.
Then his father passed away in May.
"My dad did a great job of keeping me up," Major said. "Being without him hurt more than my surgery."
Major missed the entire 2007-08 season. He didn't take a shot until six months after the surgery and wasn't pain free for another two months. He decided against returning for 2008 NBA summer league, deeming his body not yet fit.
Major worked out in Atlanta all summer with the intent of returning to Dakota. He could have tried to hook on overseas for considerably more money, but Major wasn't ready to give up on the NBA.
At his age, this may be his last chance. Major is using this season strictly as rehab and isn't expecting a call-up. The plan is to find the right situation this summer and hopefully earn another NBA camp invite. If not, he's probably headed to Europe next season.
"We're getting calls about him and everyone here at the Showcase is asking about him," said Dakota coach Duane Ticknor, who "discovered" Major years earlier in the now-defunct CBA.
"Everyone knows what he's capable of. He has such a great personality and leadership qualities. He's just one of those kids that everyone cheers for."
Ticknor didn't know what to expect when Major arrived for this season's training camp. Ten minutes into the first practice, he was knocked to the floor after driving to the basket and popped right back up.
"There was the old Renaldo back," Ticknor said.
Major began the season wearing a chest protector donated from the Washington Wizards. (It once belonged to Wizards center Etan Thomas, who also had heart surgery.) A few games into the season, Major forgot the piece in his hotel room.
"That's a sign that I don't need it," he said.
He took a blow to the chest that night against the Utah Flash and, just as in practice, got right back up. Major didn't think about it for the rest of the game. Mental win.
"I'm just a basketball player," he said. "I didn't fear anything out there. I take charges. I get bumped around. I'm not scared. I'm back to normal. I'm healed."
Major is filling up the stat sheet once again, displaying the all-around skills that put him on the NBA radar. Major went into Tuesday averaging 16.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.7 assists. A knock on his game used to be his shot. Since he couldn't do much more than shoot during the early stages of rehab, the refined stroke has led to a respectable shooting clip of 46 percent.
The life-altering ordeal over the past 15 months doesn't get Major down. He actually feels lucky finding a problem with the physical makeup of his heart.
"Many people don't even get a chance to have it found," he said. "I'm blessed, blessed with a capital B."
He considers the extra time spent with his father to be another unintended but welcome blessing. The loss still hurts.
"That's a bigger scar than the one on my chest," Major said. "But I'm doing well. I cry sometimes when I wake up, but I get it out of the way."
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