Ex-NBA bigs grapple with mortality: 'You don't see many 7-footers at age 75'

Steve Mitchell / USA TODAY Sports

For all the glitz and glamour that comes with playing on basketball's biggest stage, life after the NBA can be a trying and haunting experience for many retired players. This is especially true of the league's retired big men, whose unusually large bodies tend to develop an abnormal abundance of ailments as they age.

"I tell my wife all the time, 'You don't see many 7-footers walking around at the age of 75,'" Larry Bird told ESPN's Jackie MacMullan in a feature published Thursday. Bird, the Boston Celtics legend who now serves as the Indiana Pacers' president, stands 6-foot-9, and has a history of heart problems. He is 59 years old.

"I know there are a few of us who live a long time, but most of us big guys don't seem to last too long," he said. "I'm not lying awake at night thinking about it. If it goes, it goes."

Bird is far from the only retired NBA big who's dealing with an existential crisis as his playing days recede ever further in the rear-view. The recent heart-related deaths of former players like Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins, and Anthony Mason before the age of 60 has placed the oft-precarious health of the league's retirees under the microscope.

"We athletes are our own worst enemies," said 63-year-old, 6-foot-11 former center Bill Walton, who estimates he's undergone 37 surgeries, and professes to suffering from such severe back pain that he's contemplated suicide. "We don't listen to our bodies, we don't listen to our doctors. We don't realize until later in life that health is everything. Without it, you've got nothing."

The National Basketball Players' Association reportedly decided in July to set aside an allotment of money - from both last season's revenue shortfall and the league's impending TV rights windfall - to put toward a health care plan for retired players. In December, the NBPA hosted its first round of screenings as part of a new program to monitor potential heart problems in retirees.

"We've known for a long period of time that the athletic heart is different from the nonathlete's heart," said Dr. Manuel Reyes, a member of the union's advisory board who helped administer the first series of screenings. Reyes said that in their tests the medical staff discovered "dramatically uncontrolled" hypertension, undiagnosed cases of diabetes, and players who were unknowingly suffering from some form of arrhythmia.

While the implementation of the tests appears to be a step in the right direction, Bird feels more research is needed.

"I have my own philosophies on that," he said. "Guys that played the hardest in the league - big guys who ran their asses off - they are the ones in the most danger, I feel. Moses was one of those competitors. We build our hearts up when we are playing and then we quit performing at a high level, and our hearts just sit there.

"I don't work out like I used to. I can't. I can't go out and run. I jog and have a little sauna, that's about it. My body won't let me do more than that."

Compared to what Walton has been dealing with, though, Bird's outlook seems positively rosy.

"You go through stages," Walton said of his health issues. "The first one is, 'Oh my god, I'm gonna die.' The next stage is, 'Oh my gosh, I want to die.' And the third stage is, 'Oh my gosh, I'm going to live, and this is what I'm stuck with.' That's the worst stage of all."