NBA legend Don Chaney diagnosed with rare heart disease: ‘I was really shocked’

The legendary player began to experience fatigue, shortness of breath and heart palpitations a few years ago

Former NBA player and coach Don Chaney captured the world’s attention with his prowess in the league. But Chaney remains a force off the court as he raises awareness about heart disease in the Black community.

Chaney is an NBA great earning many accolades over his career – he was a two-time NBA champion with the Boston Celtics in 1969 and 1974, made the NBA All-Defensive Second Team five times, and was named Coach of the Year for his stewardship of the Houston Rockets. He also has the distinction of playing with two of the Celtics’ biggest legends – Bill Russell (1956–1969) and Larry Bird (1979–1992).

During and after his career, Chaney, 74, kept his body in prime condition. That did not prevent him from being diagnosed with hereditary transthyretin amyloid cardiomyopathy (ATTR-CM), a rare and potentially life-threatening disease, a few years ago. It can lead to heart failure and disproportionally impacts African Americans.

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Don Chaney
Former NBA Player and Coach Don Chaney (Credit: Chaney)

“As an athlete, you really took pride in keeping your body in great shape because it’s a stressful profession. And, you know, I saw my body breaking down from time to time,” he tells theGrio in an exclusive interview.

“But you associate that with the wear and tear on being on the floor, going up and down and falling and doing things like that. So naturally, I assumed that everything that was happening to me was not heart-related, but was related to the sport itself.”

Though he experienced palpitations, shortness of breath, and fatigue, it took more than 10 years for the former Celtic to receive a proper diagnosis.

Chaney didn’t immediately connect his symptoms to his family history although his mother and grandmother both died of heart disease. However, he soon grew concerned that he could potentially suffer the same fate despite the fact that his doctors previously praised how strong his heartbeat was.

“When I found out that it was a genetic type situation, I was really shocked because I knew nothing about ATTR-CM.”

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Chaney is now on medication and says the support of his wife, Jacqueline, helps him to manage his illness.

“I’m doing very, very well for somebody who has this condition. I think it shows proof that you can have this disease and still live a very productive life.”

Don Chaney
(Credit: Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images)

As a coach, he instructed a team. As a man, Chaney wants to do his part to parlay what he knows to the Black community.

“I can’t say I’m fortunate to have the disease, but I believe everything is done with a purpose. And since I have the disease, I think I have an obligation to go out and make sure of that because ATTR-CM itself is very rarely known…not many people are aware of it,” he says.

“I think someone has to be a spokesperson to bring attention to this particular disease, especially in the Black community. I just feel that I’ve been nominated to do that. My job is to make sure, now that I know I have it, that there’s an awareness out there, especially in the Black community.”

Chaney is particularly mindful that many African Americans have an aversion to the medical profession and don’t like going to doctors.

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Don Chaney
Former NBA Player and Coach Don Chaney (Credit: Chaney)

“Early detection and early diagnosis is so important in terms of being able to deal with and manage your condition. But you have to actually have a heart-to-heart talk to your doctor,” he says.

“We are reluctant to [do so]. I mean, if you look back over the years, the things that have happened in experimentation with Black folks, people have been reluctant and hesitant about believing and trusting doctors. So, we have to somehow rebuild that trust. Early detection is the key. We have to get in and get examined and make sure that we’re not passing this on.”

The NBA tipped off its 75th season on Tuesday, branching out of the ‘bubble’ over the summer designed to keep players safe from COVID-19. The teams will now be traveling to play a truncated 72-game season that will go until May 16.

Chaney already has a favorite player and team: NBA All-Star Lebron James and the reigning champions, the Los Angeles Lakers.

“LeBron is just playing at a level that you just don’t see every day. So I would place the Lakers right in the Finals again this year. If LeBron stays healthy, he’s a phenomenal player. I’ve never seen anything like it before. He does whatever he wants on the court,” Chaney says.

“He’s a guy that presents problems for the opposing coaches,” he continues. “I think it’s going to be a wonderful season. I’m a little off-base now because the coronavirus throws things off a little bit, but I think it should be a great year for a lot of teams. This is an exciting season for the NBA.”

For more information about Chaney’s efforts, visit here.

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