By Talia Bargil

When James E. Ray heard his name announced as a first-round selection in the 1980 NBA Draft, he thanked his lucky stars for the privileged opportunity to play professional basketball. Nearly 30 years later, the NBA veteran – who breathes with the 24-hour assistance of an oxygen tank – is thanking his lucky stars for something else…his life.

A Denver Nuggets alumnus, James, 49, is suffering from a fatal lung condition called Sarcoidosis. Diagnosed about six years ago, his condition is rapidly deteriorating, and, in order to survive, he needs a lung transplant and tremendous financial assistance, as his health insurance covers a mere fraction of his medical expenses.

“The doctor has told me that this disease will kill my husband if he does not receive a transplant,” said James’s wife, P.J. Ray. “His disease has gotten progressively worse in the last two years and will continue to worsen until a donor is found.”

For the 6’9” and 240-pound Jacksonville, Fla., resident, his height and stature only complicates the process. According to P.J., a potential donor must be 6’5” or taller in order for James’s body to accept the new lung.

“He has zero quality of life,” said P.J., who works as a receptionist at the Early Coalition Center to help pay the bills. “He was shy before, and now he’s really withdrawn. We don’t visit family, go to restaurants or to the movies. My husband is very depressed and so far removed from where he was.” v While James has yet to be placed on a transplant list, the Ray’s, who have a son in college at Charleston Southern University, are facing yet another obstacle. With the costs of uninsured medical expenses piling up, the family is in dire financial straits.

“You wouldn’t believe the cost of air alone, and the bills are mounting,” she said.

In one week’s time, the Jacksonville University graduate goes through 11 oxygen tanks – that’s two, 150-liter tanks in his bedroom, one in his office and eight more portable tanks throughout his home. In his house, he is attached to the tanks by a 50-foot cord, even when showering. Each week the tanks are replenished and the Ray’s are billed, majority of which is not covered by their insurance.

Although he is in and out of the hospital, James continues to remain employed as a counselor for juvenile offenders at Gateway Community Services, where he has worked for 12 years. P.J. says he needs to be on disability, but their family simply cannot afford to go without the income and insurance.

“He’s not well, but he goes there for the kids, they depend on him. James is good at what he does because he genuinely cares about their well-being,” she said. “But it takes so much energy for him to go to work, sometimes he gets dizzy and hyperventilates…but we need employment and insurance to even be considered for the transplant.”

In a sincere effort to help one of our own, the NBRPA is kicking off “Ray of Light,” a campaign focused on collecting financial contributions from former and current players, as well as raising awareness of James’s situation. He is in the process of applying for aid through the Legends Foundation. However, due to the extreme urgency of this circumstance, the NBRPA is enlisting the participation of their entire Membership to help save a life of one of their own.

“We appreciate the work of the Legends so much – it’s made us hopeful and optimistic,” she said. “James didn’t spend too much time in the league, so he was so happy the group has embraced him like this.”

Aside from working full-time and taking care of all of the family’s odds and ends, P.J. continues to stick by her husband’s side, not only as wife, but caretaker too.

“You do what you have to do,” she said with an exhausted tone. “My faith has gotten me through. When I put it in God’s hands, it gives me a sense of calm.”

She has a modest way about her, but P.J. literally has been a lifesaver. Last August, when she noticed James’s fingernails turning blue, she immediately called an ambulance. There was a lack of oxygen going from his head down to his fingers and toes, putting strain on his heart and liver. And that’s not all…

“Each night I literally stay up watching him sleep. He has some kind of sleep apnea, and I have to make sure he doesn’t stop breathing in the middle of the night.”

The cause of James’s Sarcoidosis is unknown and took years to correctly diagnosis.

“The doctors thought it was asthma at first, they didn’t know for a while,” she said. “But when he’d walk a couple steps and have to sit down, we realized he couldn’t live this way and something was very wrong”…

“But when we first found out, the doctors said it wouldn’t be too serious, something many people learn to live with.”

Unfortunately, that was not the case for James. While the disease is said to be more serious and prevalent in minorities, his size did not help. James’s lungs aren’t big enough to support his body.

With one obstacle after another, the Ray’s exude a remarkable strength and hope that James will one day return to his athletic, charming self.

“I don’t have my spouse anymore,” she said. “I would do anything to see him get well.”

And with a long line of support from his NBA brothers, the NBA Family is confident “Ray of Light” will be a tremendous success.

“My husband doesn’t smile too much these days, but when I told him about the work of the Legends, there was truly a ray of light…a big smile I hadn’t seen in a while.”

To make a donation to “Ray of Light,” please CLICK HERE.

James E. Ray grew up in New Orleans and went on to play college basketball at Jacksonville University. He was drafted by the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the 1980 NBA Draft, where he spent three seasons. Following his time in the NBA, James played professionally overseas in Italy, Spain and Turkey. Since his playing days, has committed himself to youth, dedicating himself to organizations including The Boys & Girls Club, Police Athletic League, and Jacksonville Sheriff for Juvenile Offenders and Gateway Community Services.