Back on the Job

Mike Abdenour is good at barking orders and establishing timelines for athletes in their recovery from physical setbacks, but he’s got some work to do at following instructions and adhering to timelines others set for his recovery.

He’s back at work this week after 32 days off – he could give you the minutes and seconds breakdown if you give him a chance to update the standings – and doesn’t plan on going away again anytime soon. He’d have been back a lot sooner, if he’d had his way. Like five days after the March 24 heart attack that sidelined him – doctor’s orders, with an assist to Joe Dumars – for the remainder of the season.

And he’s already making up for lost time, which explains why he recounted his month away while walking briskly on a treadmill inside the Pistons practice facility, attacking his job with a zeal that would bring knowing smiles to the hundreds of paths he’s crossed during his nearly four decades with the Pistons.

“Anybody who knows me knows that aside from my wife and children, my number one love in life is the Detroit Pistons and everything we stand for and believe in. So when you’re away from it for the 32 days I was away from it, you appreciate what Joe Dumars, Tom Gores, Phil Norment, Bob Wentworth, Dennis Mannion and the entire organization stand for and believe in,” he said. “If this is not the best organization in professional sports to work for, I defy anybody to tell me differently. You have an appreciation and a love for this job that much more.”

Except for a three-year stint as Philadelphia 76ers trainer in the early ’90s, Abdenour has been taping ankles and wearing a thousand hats for the Pistons since joining them out of Wayne State in 1975. To put that in perspective, he worked under six head coaches before Jack McCloskey hired Chuck Daly.

Abdenour’s life-threatening scare began the morning of March 24. The Pistons had just returned from a weekend back-to-back set at Miami and Charlotte. After Roundball One landed at Oakland-Pontiac airport past midnight, he did his usual rundown with lead flight attendant Cheryl Holbrook and then teamed with one of Arnie Kander’s strength and conditioning assistants, John Coumoundouros, in loading the van to return to The Palace.

He got home at 2:30 and crawled into bed not long afterward. When he awoke at 8 o’clock, he took a few antacid tablets, feeling a tightness in the center of his chest he brushed off as the effects of another late-night meal eaten hurriedly on the return flight. Ten minutes later he was stretching his arms out toward his feet on the bed when his wife, Janice, half awake, asked him what he was doing.

“And this was utterly sarcastic – I said, ‘Trying to stretch this heart attack out.’ At that point, I still had the indigestion feeling in the center of my chest,” he said. “I then start to sweat and it was cold outside coming home.”

He got up, giving up on sleep. It was Palm Sunday and the family was headed to church later in the morning. Abdenour decided to jump in the shower. When he got out, he was sweating profusely and the pressure in his chest had ratcheted up. Still, he assumed indigestion, feeling no numbness running the length of his left arm or pain on the left side of his neck or jaw – classic heart-attack warning signs.

His wife saw red flags in his appearance, brought him an aspirin and asked, “Do we need to go anywhere?” Abdenour resisted, but 10 minutes later, with the pressure still escalating, conceded, “Maybe we do have to go somewhere.”

They went the short distance from their home to St. John Hospital, where after a brief stopover in the emergency room, the medical team discovered a 100 percent blockage of the lower anterior descending artery, “commonly referred to as the widow-maker,” Abdenour said. By 11 a.m., three hours after waking up thinking he’d eaten a little too much a little too late, the artery had been repaired and a stent implanted.

“I consider myself lucky from a lot of standpoints,” he said. “I was smart enough to listen to my wife. I was smart enough to listen to myself. And I was smart enough to let the doctors do what they needed to do and understand this is a second chance, an opportunity that a lot of people never get.”

Abdenour’s job is relentless, especially during the season, when you can count on one hand the days from Oct. 1 until the season ends, whenever that day comes, that don’t require his presence, let alone his input. “Trainer” is a laughably inadequate job title for the man responsible for, among a laundry list of other things, making sure the Pistons traveling party and everything they require to do their many jobs get from Point A to Point B without fail or delay.

Will the health scare cause him to scale back next season?

“Nope, nuh-uh,” he said. “The doctor understands what’s going on. The folks who are monitoring me understand what’s going on.”

What he vows to do, he says, is pay more heed to eating right and maintaining his physical conditioning. But if the people around him are expecting a kinder, gentler, mellower Mike Abdenour – a guy so many have come to know for a gruff exterior but a quick mind and big heart – well, maybe not so much.

“Will I still be the ball-busting, sarcastic SOB that people assume that I am? Yes,” he smiles. “I’m looking at life right now like, ‘Hey, this is how it is, this is how we’re rolling and if you want to jump on the train and be a part of it, great. If not, I don’t have time for you any more.’ But it is so good to be back.”