SECAUCUS, N.J., Nov. 16, 2007 -- It's been a slow start to the season for the 2-5 Washington Wizards. Struggling to find cohesion on the court, the Wizards could desperately use center Etan Thomas.

"You always miss a big body like that, he brings a lot of energy on the court," said Antawn Jamison. "We just miss the tenacity and how hard he plays and definitely his rebounding."

During the offseason, Thomas discovered that he had a leak of the aortic valve and he underwent open heart surgery to correct the problem. While Thomas feels lucky to be alive, Chris Daniels, brother of Thomas' teammate Antonio Daniels was not as fortunate.

"Shock, I guess that is the easiest way to put it. I remember I dropped the phone," Daniels said. "I heard my mom telling me on the other end to pick the phone up."

Antonio was referring to that fateful day of Feb. 8, 1996. He can still vividly recall the moment he received the news that his older brother, Chris, died. At just 22 years-old, Chris' heart stopped unexpectedly as a result of a cardiac arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat. Chris, who played center for the University of Dayton, aspired to play in the NBA. While Chris' sudden death cut his life short, Antonio managed to keep his brother's dream alive.

"My mom, she says all the time that I play with the body of one but the spirit of two, which is true." Daniels said. "Anytime I take the floor, I take him with me. If I disappoint myself I feel like I am disappointing him also."

Antonio uses basketball as a tribute to his brother's life and as an outlet for the pain he suffers. Following Chris' death, Antonio wore 33, his brother's jersey number at Dayton, instead of his usual 10. Motivated by his brother's death, Antonio spent hours on the court and pumped out endless reps in the weight room as a junior at Bowling Green. Increasing his scoring average from 16.0 points per game to 24.0 points per game in his senior year, the Vancouver Grizzlies selected Antonio fourth overall in the 1997 Draft.

"When you deal with something like that you can kind of go two ways. You can use it as a negative or use it as a positive," Daniels said. "I definitely wasn't going to use it as a negative and let my family down and let my brother down."

In his 11th year in the league, Antonio sports a wrist band every game that reads "remember why you play," as Chris is a major reason for him. Antonio thought of Chris not only as a brother but also as a best friend and still speaks to Chris daily through prayer.

"I feel like I have a moment with him every night." Daniels said with a slight grin.

While many consider Thomas' condition debilitating, Daniels believes his teammate's story is headed toward a happy ending.

"My major thing with Etan is that they found the problem and that he gets an opportunity to watch his son grow and to spend time with his wife," Daniels said.

With his brother's spirit in his heart and his memory on his mind, Daniels is overjoyed to know Thomas is recovering and striving to achieve his goal of returning to the court. While the Wizards team anxiously awaits Thomas' homecoming, Daniels is not concerned with the absence of a talented center but rather thankful for the life of a friend.


Etan Thomas is not the first to have a heart abnormality in the NBA. Hawks' Jason Collier died of a heart related problem in 2005. Active players Malik Allen, Eddy Curry and Ronny Turiaf all have been diagnosed with heart irregularities. The 10-year career of Minnesota's Fred Hoiberg, now the Timberwolves GM, ended after open heart surgery. In order to protect its athletes, the NBA implemented mandatory cardiac tests in 2006. So, is this a problem specific to athletes? To answer our questions we asked a cardiologist from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Is it more common for athletes to have heart problems?
"I think not but there is a lot of confusion around it because there are changes that are seen with sustained athletic training (known as athlete's heart). That could be normal for an athlete or that could be the sign of a more dangerous disease. When an athlete suddenly dies on the field or on the court, that's Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart muscle and it is very difficult to distinguish that from the 'athlete's heart.'"

Is height in addition to weight a factor with heart conditions?
"The one main disease that you think about with height is something called Marfan Syndrome. Some of these guys that are seven-feet tall, that is Marfan Syndrome, people are very tall, that's one feature and they have very long arms. That disease is associated with problems in the aorta."

Why do some athletes have seemingly no symptoms?
"The unfortunate reality of the Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy is that its first presentation can be sudden death."

A cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heart beat) seems to be a common problem but the affects on various people are very different. Why are some arrhythmia problems more serious than others?
"There are different types of arrhythmias. The ones that are more dangerous are the ones that are called ventricular arrhythmias. They originate from the real muscle of the heart, the ventricle, which tends to be more life threatening. Other arrhythmias arise from the atrium and those are not as devastating in their outcomes. So it really depends, if people have this Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy it predisposes them to what we call the malignant arrhythmia, like a ventricular arrhythmia. I think it really depends on what the underlying problem is. Arrhythmia is such a big category."