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Bobby Jones, his epilepsy diagnosis, and me

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Bobby Jones dunk over Bird

I went to a David Dobrik concert in downtown Chicago for my brother’s 20th birthday party. When it ended, my family — my two sisters and younger brother — were walking to the car before I collapsed. The street lights started blurring. My legs turned into noodles. Everything went pitch-black.

The next thing I knew, I was in the back of an ambulance car, surrounded by my older sister, who was crying, and a paramedic that was checking my vitals.

I was wheeled into a room in the hospital. And, after a few minutes, a doctor stopped in, followed by my mom and dad, who were grabbing each other, crying, and staring at me.

I could tell the doctor had said something to my parents that instilled fear in them and moments later, I heard a word I’ll never forget again.

“Seizure,” the doctor said. “Your son suffered a seizure.”

But she wasn’t sure why I suffered a seizure.

I returned home that night, and over the next few days, I underwent tests. To check the speed of the brain waves in my head, the doctors strapped dots on my head and asked me to try to sleep. 20 minutes later, an image of those brain waves confirmed my diagnosis: Epilepsy.

It was somewhat of a relief. “At least it wasn’t a tumor or internal bleeding,” my mom whispered to me as we sat in the waiting room. Before we were shooed away, the doctors told us to visit the local hospital so I could go through the next steps with my neurologist.

The next day, I visited the local hospital with my mom. My neurologist, an older, small, frail lady seemed kind enough, but her actions belied her looks: she was strict, old-school. What she says, she insisted, goes.

She prescribed me medicine — Keppra — that I would initially take once daily, and after a few months, barring negative side-effects, I would slowly up my dosage to twice daily, then three times daily over the course of a year.

In the meantime — as I waited for the medicine to enter my bloodstream, slow my brainwaves, and hopefully, stop my seizures — I wasn’t allowed to do certain things. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t drink. And, worse yet, I couldn’t play sports.

“The seizure could have been caused by a head injury from a sport,” the doctor told me. “If you play sports again, you are risking your life.”

I couldn’t believe it. Or, better put, I didn’t want to believe it.

Sports were part of my life — or, well, my life — for as long as I could remember. Raised on a four-acre yard in the middle of nowhere Illinois, sports — baseball, basketball, football, soccer — were my creative outlet. I played basketball in high school, played intramural sports in college, and worked out nearly every day for almost all of my life.

So, when the doctor told me to stop playing sports, I became scared. What would I do now?

***

I started researching for this piece when my senior year at university ended.

I’ll admit, I was bored. I had one month between when finals ended and my job started. I wanted to write about that meant something to me — something I hadn’t fully explored yet — and my epilepsy diagnosis had been at the forefront of my mind ever since I decided to write about it for the first time in my senior year send-off for my school’s newspaper, of which I was a sports editor this past year.

I also wanted to explore epilepsy — and more specifically, the stigma surrounding it — when reports leaked that quarterback Justin Fields suffered from epilepsy. In the aftermath, some analysts suggested it would “kill” the draft stock of the former Heisman Trophy candidate or that it was a “huge red flag.”

So, I wanted to get inside the head of other athletes who suffer from epilepsy.

Did they end up telling their teammates and opponents? Or did they keep quiet?

***

It started with a simple Google search, as many things do.

“Athletes with Epilepsy.”

I stumbled upon this Ranker piece, and scrolling through, found 23 professional athletes with epilepsy. The list shocked me. I hadn’t known any of these athletes had epilepsy. The timelines of their careers ranged from the late-1800s to the mid-2010s.

From there, I researched their biographies to essentially answer this question: How did they cope with their epilepsy diagnosis?

Grover Cleveland Alexander was a pitcher who was born in 1897 and died in 1953. As an infantryman for the United States Army stationed in France in World War I, Alexander suffered from exposure to mustard gas on the front lines. When he came home, he started suffering from seizures daily. With medicine not yet existing to prescribe for epilepsy, Alexander turned to alcohol. He died of alcoholism at the age of 43.

Tony Lazzeri was an outfielder for the New York Yankees in the mid-1950s. Before an outstanding career, though, Lazzeri was considered untouchable. Winning MVP in a semi-pro baseball league caught the eyes of multiple MLB teams. He performed spectacularly in the tryouts. But when three MLB teams caught wind of his epilepsy diagnosis, they backed off. The Yankees signed him only when they confirmed that his insurance increased and his genetics were clean. Lazzeri suffered a heart attack — which many believe to be an epileptic seizure — fell down a flight of stairs and died at age 46.

Tiki and Ronde Barber, twin all-pro NFL players from the early 2000s, have gone on the Today show to discuss their and Tiki’s son’s epilepsy diagnosis. Alan Faneca, an NFL all-pro lineman from the early 2000s, has penned op-ed’s and participated in feature stories about his and his daughter’s epilepsy diagnosis. Samari Rolle, an NFL cornerback from the early 2000s, missed five of his team’s first 10 games during the 2007 National Football League season due to epilepsy, and Rolle now appears in the National Epilepsy Foundation walk on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., each spring.

A trend started to emerge. While earlier athletes seemed to hide their diagnosis, more recent athletes seemed more open about their diagnosis. The next question, then, was simple: Who started this trend?

***

Bobby Jones called me in early May.

I had reached out to hundreds of people close to Bobby — teammates in college and the NBA, coaches, and executives — and Bobby must have caught wind of it.

I was surprised by the phone call. I was laying in bed, tired, and thinking of how to structure this piece when my phone started buzzing, and the North Carolina cell phone area popped up on my phone.

“Hey Drew, this is Bobby Jones. I heard you wanted to know about my epilepsy. What would you like to know?” Bobby said.

***

The Hall of Fame power forward who played in the NBA from 1976-85 was diagnosed with epilepsy in 1978.

Few doubted he would ever play at the same level again. But Jones exceeded expectations, making three more All-Star teams, winning the Sixth Man of the Year Award, and helping the 76ers win the 1983 Championship.

Jones remembers visiting his doctor at Duke University Medical Center in 1986, after his last season in the NBA.

“Hey, doc, you told me my performance was gonna go down,” Jones said in a phone call. “But I’ve had just as many steals, blocked shots, and made two All-Star teams. How do you explain that? And he had no answer for that. That opened my eyes to most of what happens in our lives is not predicated on what doctors say or think. It’s about how we respond and how we react to it.”

These days, Jones is 69, more than a third of a century removed from those brutal Celtics-Sixers games in the 1970s and ’80s. He lives in his hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife of 44 years, Tess, and manages his epilepsy by exercising often, taking medicine daily, and, as a devout Christian, praying every day.

“When I was playing, there were guys out there who didn’t want to use the word epilepsy,” Jones said. “Maybe they’ll use the word seizure-disorder. We all face different things in our lives. That’s part of life. You and [Justin Fields] happen to be facing what I faced.”

***

Jones’ suffered his first seizure at 4 am as a sophomore at the University of North Carolina, in the late spring of 1972.

He and a few teammates played an intramural volleyball game that night. Exhausted after the game, Jones slugged a large bottle of Mountain Dew soda in his dorm room. As he and his roommate and future hall-of-fame coach, George Karl, went to sleep, Jones started seizing uncontrollably.

“He put his fingers in my mouth and I almost bit them off,” Jones said.

Karl then dialed 911. When the ambulance came, Jones felt tired but mostly fine. Jones stayed at the local hospital for three to four days. Doctors misdiagnosed Jones with Pericarditis, an inflammation of the heart sac.

When he was in the hospital, Dean Smith walked into the waiting room and ensured he was OK. On his way out the door, he stopped.

“By the way Bobby, I’ve gotten the opportunity to coach the Olympic Trials, so I’ve got you an invitation to go try out for the Olympic team,” Jones remembers Smith telling him.

Jones accepted the invitation and a few weeks later, to his surprise, he made the team. He started every game before the United States bowed out to the Soviet Union in the controversial gold medal game.

“So the first seizure didn’t affect me that much,” Jones said in a phone call, laughing.

Jones suffered his second seizure four years later, as a rookie playing for the Denver Nuggets.

It was a night off, so Jones and his wife, Tess, went to a rodeo. That morning, again at 4 a.m., Tess awoke to her husband’s arms flailing and him screaming repeatedly, “Where am I?!”

“I’m sure it was terrifying for her,” Jones said. “The biggest thing for her was: When is it going to happen again? I’m sure that gave her a lot of sleepless nights.”

Tess started getting worried. Looking for answers, she contacted the wife of Claude Terry, who was a nurse and her best friend. At a dinner the night after Jones suffered his third seizure in 1978, the Terrys gifted Bobby a tongue depressor, which she put on the dresser next to their bed.

“The big danger in a seizure is that you’ll swallow your tongue and choke to death,” Jones said in 1985.

Jones’ condition confounded doctors. Visits to the hospital resulted in what turned out to be false diagnoses of pericarditis, a rapid heart murmur, and asthma.

“After the second seizure, the doctors just said, ‘We’ll just have to wait to see if it happens again,”’ Jones said in a phone call.

Team trainers even suspected his habit of slugging multiple Mountain Dew cans per day had something to do with it, Bill Chambers, Jones’ teammate at North Carolina from 1972 through 1974, remembers.

But even when he cut down his Mountain Dew consumption, the problem persisted.

The third seizure occurred two years later, in his fourth and what would be his final season with the Denver Nuggets.

It was Jan. 8, 1978. The Nuggets were about to play a home game against the Chicago Bulls. Jones had a splitting headache and a smothering fever. Larry Brown, the Nuggets’ head coach, sent him home.

As he opened a can of soup and turned on the radio in his Denver house that afternoon, Jones’ mind started racing. The kitchen started spinning, then his vision went pitch black. He fell. His head slammed on a butcher block. Blood started gushing out of his right eyebrow. His wife, Tess, ran into the kitchen, screamed, and dialed 911.

Five minutes later, Jones awoke with paramedics huddled around him.

“The ambulance guy asked me what day it was and I didn’t know,” Jones said. “They asked me my name and I couldn’t tell them. It was a really scary thing.”

He spent the next two days in the hospital, receiving 17 stitches. That made three seizures in six years.

After his third — and most life-threatening — seizure, Jones’ wife goaded him into seeking more help. He obliged. They flew across the country to visit doctors at Duke, UCLA, and Denver University hospitals.

“[The doctors] were even afraid to label it as epilepsy,” Jones said at the time.

So were the Nuggets. The next day, the Nuggets released a press release saying Jones had influenza, omitting the seizure altogether.

Jones kept playing. While he missed the game on Jan. 8, Jones didn’t miss another.

“Bobby was the Russell Westbrook of that time,” Claude Terry, a teammate who was also his roommate for two years when they played on the road, said in a phone call. “He went all out all the time. I’m sure it impacted him, but you wouldn’t know he had epilepsy.”

What even his closest teammates didn’t know was that Jones was afraid. Tess, for her part, begged him to retire.

“With all of the medication I had to take, I didn’t know if I’d play much longer or even for the rest of that year,” Jones said.

The tests returned mixed results. On Jan. 28, The Miami Herald reported that Jones was scheduled to undergo tests in Los Angeles starting on Jan. 30 “to determine if he was an epileptic.”

One of the doctors at the Denver University Hospital, Dr. Irwin Vinnick, concluded that Jones did not have a brain injury. But on Jan. 30, doctors at UCLA Medical Center came to a long-awaited conclusion: Jones had epilepsy.

***

The UCLA doctors prescribed a daily dosage of phenobarbital, a barbiturate that slows the activity in the brain and nervous system. Acclimating to the drug would be difficult, especially since Jones was already taking another drug, Inderal, to treat his previously diagnosed rapid heart murmur.

While phenobarbital stopped the ringing noise and the incoming seizures, Jones became, in his words, “drowsy, sleepy, unexcited.”

“Sometimes, I don’t have the intensity I need,” Jones said in 1978. “It seems like I don’t anticipate as well.”

It was also clear to onlookers — including Nuggets head coach Larry Brown — that Jones lost some of his luster.

“The important thing for us in the playoffs is how quickly Ralph Sampson can get in shape and how Bobby Jones’ epilepsy affects his play,” Brown said midway through the 1978 season. “Right now, you can see Jones’ pace has slowed.”

Looking to provide Jones more rest, the Nuggets traded for backup power forward Darnell Hillman midway through the year. But the addition did little to boost Jones’ morale.

Late in the 1978 season, Jones pleaded with Brown multiple times to give more minutes to Bo Ellis, then a rookie backup power forward for the Nuggets.

Ellis even remembers one road trip where Jones taped the curtains shut to block the sunlight from seeping into the hotel room so he could take a long nap.

“He thought it was important that I got more time because he was struggling a little bit physically and he was starting to get worn down,” Ellis said in a phone call.

After he started taking phenobarbital, Jones’ production dropped. He averaged a career-low in points per game in the regular season (13.8) and the playoffs (10.5), as the favored Nuggets fell to the Seattle Supersonics in six games in the Western Conference Finals.

“I was a zombie in the playoffs,” Jones said in 1999.

***

The first day I took the epilepsy medicine prescribed to me — Keppra — I felt extremely tired. It kept me from doing the things I normally could. Play basketball. Go on a run. Heck, even hold a conversation.

In short, it turned me into an entirely different person. I fell into a deep depression. When school started back up, I experienced violent mood swings. My social life disappeared. Unsure of myself and my career path, I decided to transfer schools.

But soon enough, I realized that it wasn’t the setting I was in that was causing me to feel the way I did. I felt comfortable enough to share with my fraternity brothers at the University of Illinois that I had epilepsy, but at my next school, Butler University, where I had new friends, I felt less comfortable.

When I did finally decide to disclose my diagnosis to one of my roommates after a month or so, he offhandedly suggested that I not take the medicine prescribed to me.

That’s all it took for me to stop taking it.

What I did was dangerous: Stopping my medication could have sent me to the hospital, or worse.

But I didn’t like who I was — who I became — on the medicine. I was just...slower. Slower on the basketball court. Slower in the classroom. Slower at social functions.

Plus, I felt like my friends — particularly my roommate — would feel like I was more normal if I didn’t take medicine that they didn’t have to.

Another downside was that I couldn’t obtain my license. When I went to get my blood drawn to see if I could obtain my license, the tests returned with an unsurprising number: Zero. That’s how much medicine was in my system.

When my neurologist called me the day after, she expressed shock.

“Why aren’t you taking your medicine?”

“Because I’m not…me,” I told her.

***

Rumors swirled in league circles before the 1979-80 season about a trade sending Jones to Philadelphia for George McGinnis, the Sixers high-scoring but rapidly aging and inefficient small forward, despite the fact that Larry Brown vetoed the same trade just a year prior.

“Maybe the Nuggets are concerned about my health,” Jones said at the time. “I feel fine. When I first began taking the drugs, it caused a drowsiness that did affect my play. I wasn’t as sharp. In practice, the coach would call a play and I’d have to think a bit, whereas my previous reaction had been spontaneous. After about a month, my system accepted the medication and I have felt normal.”

Convinced otherwise, Brown pulled the trigger on the deal just days later.

The epilepsy diagnosis hampered Jones’ reputation. While he understood that the NBA was a business, he was stung by the collective carelessness of the Nuggets front office when he went to say goodbye.

“They looked at me like I was dead,” Jones said in an interview in 1999. “It was like, ‘You are no longer a good player.’”

Even those with more trust in Jones’ future had their reservations. The 76ers ensured the trade contained a fallback plan, including a clause that stated if Jones became disabled because of epilepsy during his contract, they would receive another first-round pick.

Sixers General Manager Pat Williams said he and his staff initially harbored concerns over Jones’ future.

“Well, epilepsy was a pretty scary disease,” Williams said in a phone call. “You know when a guy collapses on the floor and starts swallowing his tongue potentially. Can he continue playing productively? We didn’t know. But we certainly consulted our medical people. And they did not seem concerned.”

Williams’ bet paid off in earnest. The Nuggets traded George McGinnis after just one year, while the 76ers won a championship in 1983 with Jones coming off the bench as the league’s sixth man of the year.

The Nuggets general manager at the time, Carl Scheer, not only admitted the trade was a mistake, but it also taught him a valuable life lesson.

“You do things in life that you never should,” Scheer said in 1985. “You could find all sorts of justifications, but there are some aspects of that trade I’ll take to my grave.”

“I’ve learned painfully that when you trade away a Bobby Jones, you trade away your heart and soul,” Scheer, who died in Dec. 2019, said in 1987.

***

After the trade, when Jones walked off his flight to Philadelphia, microphones were shoved into his face and journalists scribbled down his every word.

Jones opened up about the trade that sent him from Denver to Philadelphia.

“Maybe it was medical,” Jones told the media. “Maybe it was rebounding, I don’t know.”

What he did know was that he would now open up about his epilepsy diagnosis.

“One of the worst things about having epilepsy is that people are afraid to bring it up,” Jones said in 1999.

On the court before the first day of practice, Jones told his teammates about his epilepsy.

“I had respect from those guys as a former all-star, so that gave me gravitas — I don’t know if that’s the right word — to be sincere with them and say: ‘Look, this is what’s going on in my life,’” Jones said in a phone call. “They certainly listened to it, but they didn’t ask me much about it. Again, there was a stigma attached to it. But I told them: I’m gonna play as hard as I can, and if I have a seizure, this is what happens.”

After the first practice ended, 76ers’ trainer Al Dominico quipped about putting odds on where Jones would have the next seizure.

“I liked that,” Jones said in 1999. “It broke the ice.”

Opponents, though, danced around the “e-word.” During the 1983 All-Star game, Jones remembers, one of his teammates asked him “How are you feeling?” and awkwardly gestured at his heart.

“I could tell that he was afraid to say the word epilepsy, but I could also tell that he and other opponents still cared,” Jones said in a phone call.

Although it took a while to get used to it all — the diagnosis, the prescription, the stigmatization — Jones leaned further into his Christian faith to assuage any worry.

“No weapon formed against you shall prosper,” Jones said in a phone call, citing Isaiah 54:17. “I’ve thought about that verse when I think of my epilepsy. Epilepsy might be a weapon formed against me, but it’s not gonna prosper. It didn’t. And it hasn’t.”

***

My first and only (known) seizure happened four years ago.

A lot has changed since then.

I transferred colleges — from the University of Illinois to Butler University — to become a journalist. And soon, I’ll be moving to Arizona to pursue my dream job.

If anything hasn’t changed, though, it’s that I haven’t really come to grips with my epilepsy diagnosis. Mostly, I have ignored it. To my doctor’s chagrin, I have continued to play sports just like I have continued to drink and continued to drive. But unlike Bobby Jones, God has not guided my mission. I am simply scared of being different.

When the local gym reopened, I considered telling my teammates that I suffered from epilepsy.

But then, a wave of questions flooded my mind.

What if I suffer another seizure?

Should I tell the other guys what to do if I start convulsing?

Will they pass me the ball or freeze me out?

Staying silent, the game started.

***

Jones is proud of all of his achievements as a professional athlete, but managing epilepsy is chief among them.

That pride was most present nearing the end of what turned out to be a 13-year, Hall of Fame career. It was 1984, after his 12th season. Jones was about to accept the honor of the NBA’s most courageous athlete at the 80th annual awards dinner of Philadelphia’s writers.

As he stood atop the podium dressed in a black suit, Jones opened up about his epilepsy diagnosis.

He started with a terse description.

“It’s like having a thunderstorm inside your brain. You just short-circuit.”

Then, he recalled all three of his seizures in vivid detail.

“Epilepsy has made me more acutely aware of my humanity,” Jones said. “I am human, and I am vulnerable,” Jones said. “I may be able to do special things on a basketball court, but I am, after all, made of flesh, and it is flesh that is weak.”

Through the last two seizures, it became clear that it wasn’t him, but his wife, Tess, who was the courageous one.

“When I think of courage,” Jones said. “I think of my wife, Tess. Once I have a seizure, I am completely out, but she has to endure all the trauma. She’s the one who has to live all the knowledge, the fear that I could have another one at almost any time without any warning. She has spent many sleepless nights, but she has a great inner strength.”

“God has created or allowed things to happen and this thing is one of them,” Jones said. “Now I want to show you can still be successful and lead a fairly normal life with this illness.”

More than 40 years later, Jones has stayed true to his words, more than willing to speak out against the stigma surrounding epilepsy.

“I just really want people to know it’s not the end of the world by any means,” Jones said in a phone call. “It’s something that you and I have to deal with. For those of us who have epilepsy, we have to take medication. I’m happy with my life, I’m thankful for the Lord, and if [epilepsy] is the worst thing that’s happened to me, I’m blessed.”

***

When I first was diagnosed with epilepsy, I was afraid to tell even my closest friends.

When they asked why I seemed different — why I was slower on the basketball court, why I didn’t talk as much at social functions, why I couldn’t drive — I would think of a diversion. I had played another basketball game earlier in the day. My brother had the car. I just didn’t feel like talking.

But over time, I have recognized my diagnosis as just another part of my life, that it makes me, me.

When driving my best friend around the other day, he asked why I couldn’t drive for the last three years. Before, I would tell anyone who asked that I lost my license buying alcohol underage at a bar and never mustered up the energy to get a new one.

But this time, I opened up to my friend about my epilepsy diagnosis.

“I never knew you had epilepsy,” my friend said.

Taking that as an invitation to delve further, I told him everything. About my first and only seizure, the medicine I was taking, and what was true and what was false about epilepsy.

And, when the talk ended, I looked out the window and exhaled deeply. For the first time since I was diagnosed with epilepsy, I felt free.