WEST LAFAYETTE – A young basketball star, in the prime of a seemingly charmed life, suddenly crumples to the court.
The harrowing final moments of Hank Gathers’ life stunned the nation in 1990.
“I watched a documentary on Hank Gathers, so I knew everything about what happened to him,” Jay Simpson told the Journal & Courier (http://on.jconline.com/1iApRKY ), referring to the Loyola Marymount standout. “I never thought it would happen to me, though.”
It didn’t, fortunately. And now the redshirt freshman is making peace with the sudden end of his Purdue University basketball career.
Simpson collapsed Feb. 23 during the Boilermakers’ game at Nebraska. Doctors eventually diagnosed him with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy – a heart condition that claimed the lives of Gathers, Boston Celtics star Reggie Lewis and several other high-profile basketball talents.
Those diagnosed before the affliction kills them are precluded from participating in athletic competition.
Speaking Tuesday for the first time about the incident and diagnosis, Simpson measured the loss of his basketball dreams against the gift of life.
“I’m pretty blessed, because usually the first symptom of this is death,” said Simpson, who played 36 games in two abbreviated seasons. “With it being just fainting for me, I consider myself blessed. I thank God every day for that.”
Because of A.J. Hammons’ early foul trouble, Simpson played nine minutes off the bench in the first half at Nebraska. The 6-foot-10, 250-pound center averaged 12 minutes per game.
Simpson replaced Hammons with 12:51 left in regulation after a timeout. A few seconds later, he called out ball screens to his teammates on defense. Soon after that, he woke up, startled and nervous, on the Pinnacle Bank Arena court.
Born an asthmatic, Simpson struggled with stamina. Earlier this season, Purdue coach Matt Painter said that would likely affect Simpson’s entire career. Health issues led the Champaign, Ill., native to seek medical redshirt status after playing 10 games in an aborted freshman season in 2012-13.
As he walked out to check on Simpson at Nebraska, Painter began to suspect a problem more serious than asthma.
“Obviously, you have things that race through your mind, but I’m not a doctor,” Painter said. “I know he had kind of a confused, scared look on his face when he looked over there, but I was away from the play.
“I was asking (referees) if he got hit on the way out, because it looked like he kind of folded on his own. They said no, he just fell on his own. That alerted me at that time that there was something there.”
Simpson saw two local cardiologists before visiting Abbott Northwestern Hospital a week ago in Minneapolis, where Dr. Barry Marron issued the HCM diagnosis to Simpson and Purdue trainer Chad Young.
Simpson, expecting to receive medication or treatment that would put him back on the court, was shocked. Disbelief soon spread. Painter went room to room at the team hotel to break the news the day before a game at Wisconsin.
“I was talking to him a couple of days before, and he really didn’t know what was going on, so that’s when I started getting nervous for him,” said sophomore guard Rapheal Davis, who played with Simpson at La Lumiere School in LaPorte. “I didn’t express it to him, but in my head I started getting worried about it. I could see the look on his face of uncertainty.
“Before coach Painter came into our room, right when he opened the door, I just felt a presence I haven’t felt in a long time. When he announced the news, it was devastating, knowing my brother’s not going to be out on the court with me no more.”
Painter distributed handouts about HCM, a genetic thickening of the heart muscle that, according to the Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Association, affects one in 500 people in the general population.
Dr. Richard Kovacs, a cardiologist with the Indiana University Health Cardiovascular Center in Indianapolis and the co-chairman of the American College of Cardiology’s Sports Cardiology section, said the death rate during competition for college athletes of all genders, sports and levels is one in 100,000.
The rate for NCAA Division I basketball players is 30 to 40 times higher, and HCM is the most common cause.
“That is a question that we’re trying to answer scientifically,” Kovacs said. “It appears to be a combination of who these people are and what they do. It’s not at all clear as to why.”
Senior Terone Johnson read the materials Painter provided and searched the Internet for more information on HCM. He and several other Boilermakers said they don’t believe they would have handled the news as well as Simpson has.
“At that age, when basketball is everything to you and everything you’ve ever done is basketball and you know that you can’t play anymore, I think that’s very sad,” Johnson said.
“He hasn’t really shown it. He’s kept his head up. We’re just trying to keep his head up and just keeping him around us and stuff to get through it. I’m just happy that he found out before it got worse.”
Simpson averaged 3.8 points and 3.3 rebounds as a Boilermaker. One highlight came on Jan. 15, when his seven points and three rebounds helped Purdue beat Illinois in Simpson’s only game against his hometown team at the State Farm Center in Champaign.
“You’re sad that his dream of being a professional basketball player, which each kid has, is over,” Painter said. “But you’re also very fortunate that you detected something that could have taken his life. That’s really what we’re trying to get him to understand at this point, because you don’t realize it when you haven’t been through it.
“He hasn’t had complications before, and now this gets detected. But the big picture of things is he gets to live a long and healthy life, so that’s a beautiful thing.”
While Simpson believes that to be true, he says it’s not easy to hear. But he’s beginning to shift his focus to returning to his honor roll academic performance, completing his degree and pursuing a career in coaching or broadcasting.
Simpson will keep his scholarship at Purdue and hopes to remain a part of the program in every capacity except on the court.
“It took a few days for me to realize that it’s actually over,” Simpson said. “It’s hard. I’m trying to stay positive, get more in touch with God and my family.
“Everyone’s telling me it’s going to be OK, but it’s hard to take when something like that is taken away from you.
“But I’ll be all right.”