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Mobley deal ended his career, may have saved his life

TARRYTOWN, N.Y. - As it turned out, the trade that brought Cuttino Mobley to the New York Knicks three weeks ago created the ultimate win-lose situation.

Cuttino Mobley, who played high school ball at Cardinal Dougherty, retires after 11 seasons in the NBA.
Cuttino Mobley, who played high school ball at Cardinal Dougherty, retires after 11 seasons in the NBA.Read more

TARRYTOWN, N.Y. - As it turned out, the trade that brought Cuttino Mobley to the New York Knicks three weeks ago created the ultimate win-lose situation.

Not only did it quite possibly save the life of the Philadelphia-born basketball star, it also ended his career.

Mobley, 33, seeming simultaneously relieved and saddened, announced his retirement yesterday during a news conference at the Knicks' practice center here, convinced by several doctors that a continuation of his 11-year NBA career would jeopardize his life.

"The specialists I've seen made it clear that my heart condition has gotten worse, and I couldn't continue to play professional basketball without putting my health and my life in serious danger," Mobley said. "I want to keep playing, [but] I have no choice but to step away."

The 6-foot-4 guard, who averaged 16 points a game over his career, saw doctors in Boston, Los Angeles, New York and Minnesota after tests that followed his trade from the Clippers determined his condition was worse than imagined.

"I'm in love with basketball," he said, "but sometimes you just have to get a divorce."

In 1999, during his second season with the Houston Rockets, Mobley learned that he had an irregular heartbeat. Subsequent EKGs during annual team physicals with the Rockets and later the Kings, Magic and Clippers confirmed that.

But it wasn't until Lisa Callahan, the Knicks' team physician, ordered an MRI on his heart that the extent of his disorder became clear.

"Getting the MRI basically saved my life," he said. "Because the older you get, anybody, if you play sports, you're heart is going to be working harder. It would be a tough day if you had [GM Donnie Walsh or coach Mike D'Antoni] sitting here after something happened and saying, 'Wow, we didn't know.' "

Mobley, wearing a green corduroy suit and a brightly checked shirt, said he never experienced a symptom of what doctors diagnosed as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a dangerous thickening of the heart muscle.

"I'd never even heard the words before," he said. "So after the doctors told me, I went home and Googled it. It said Hank Gathers, Reggie Lewis and I was like: 'Wow what's up with that?' No symptoms, don't take medicine. Forty minutes a game. Don't take days off."

That's the disease that killed two other Philadelphia basketball stars, Gathers in 1990 and Danny Rumph in 2005, as well as NBA players Reggie Lewis and Jason Collier - though Mobley's doctors told him his condition was slightly different from theirs.

Rumph died while playing pickup basketball at the Mallory Rec Center in the city, just a few blocks from his house. The center now bears his name, and his foundation provides defibrillators to schools and rec centers, including one named in Gathers' honor.

Mobley was a teenage player at Cardinal Dougherty High School when Gathers, a star at Loyola Marymount, collapsed and died during a game. The fear that his 8-year-old son or his mother and father, all of whom still live in Philadelphia, might envision a similar scene each time he fell on the court made his retirement a little easier to accept, he said.

"I remember seeing that," he said of Gathers' televised death. "It was scary. The worry of people watching you, if you were to fall, if it's just an elbow or just an ankle, that's scary."

In a curious way, Mobley was thankful the disorder had not been been diagnosed earlier, say, when he was in high school. He got to go to college (Rhode Island); got to play 10-plus years in the NBA; and, with earning power that won him a $9.1 million salary this season, got to help out friends and family members financially.

"It's been a blessing in its own way," he said.

The decision to retire, according to Mobley, was not entirely his. The cardiologists took that potential dilemma out of his hands by refusing to clear him to play.

"It was something that got worse, and the doctors said not to chance it," he said. "I figured that having an 8-year-old son and a long life ahead of me, it was the smart thing to do."

Knicks GM Donnie Walsh said the team would not seek to void the Nov. 21 trade, which also brought Tim Thomas to New York in exchange for Zach Randolph and Mardy Collins.

"None of this is near as important as somebody's life," Walsh said. "None of it. I'm glad that we had a doctor that put him through tests that showed it, because the risk was there."

Walsh said he was working on filling Mobley's roster spot.

Mobley, meanwhile, will return to his L.A. home, then travel to Philadelphia to visit his son, Cuttino Jr., and parents. He has always been an NBA fan, and he won't stop now. He'll work out moderately, perhaps play some low-intensity tennis and shoot some hoops.

"It's a tough thing to swallow," he said. "It's tough. You have to give it up someday. It was just earlier than what I expected. It's not my time. But my time might be tomorrow. You never know."

Tragic Endings

Here are other famous basketball players who suffered fatally from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

Former Philadelphia high school star Hank Gathers died on the court while playing for Loyola-Marymount in 1990.

Boston Celtics star Reggie Lewis died in 1993.

Atlanta Hawks player Jason Collier died in 2005.