WASHINGTON (AP) — Washington Wizards center Etan Thomas underwent open heart surgery Thursday at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to repair a leak of the aortic valve, an irregularity discovered during a routine physical before start of training camp.
The Wizards were expected to make a statement later Thursday, and the doctor and team president Ernie Grunfeld were expected to comment Friday.
"Hopefully they can correct the problem," forward Antawn Jamison said following the team's practice. "We know how much he loves the game of basketball and what he means to this team, but the most important thing — you just hope that the surgery goes well."
Whether the 29-year-old Thomas will play in the NBA again is unknown, and at the very least he will need months to recuperate before rejoining his team.
NBA veteran Fred Hoiberg was forced to retire after open-heart surgery for an aneurysm on the aortic root in 2005, but Ronny Turiaf was able to begin practicing with the Los Angeles Lakers less than six months after open-heart surgery for an enlarged aortic root that same year.
"It's always a shock when you think of his age, and you think you can play another six, seven, eight years because you're in great physical shape," Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. "You just can't shake it, no matter how much you have life in perspective."
Teammates said Thomas' condition shows the necessity of having regular checkups, for professional athletes and everyone else. Guard Antonio Daniels wondered whether the Wizards' so-called "stress test" — which involves a heart check after running on a treadmill — could have saved the life of his brother, Chris, a starting center in college at Dayton who died of a heart condition in 1996 at age 21.
"That's the difference in 10, 12 years of technology," Daniels said. "He was fine, healthy, going to practice every day and so forth, and Feb. 8, that night is when it hit. There were no signs of anything before that. We didn't have a family history of that. Maybe if at that time he had gone through the stress test, they would have said, 'This is what's happening and what you need to do."'
Thomas has played six years for the Wizards and is the team's longest-tenured player. He was drafted No. 12 overall by Dallas out of Syracuse in 2000 and was traded to Washington in a multiplayer deal in February 2001.
Thomas started a career-high 32 games last season, averaging 6.1 points and 5.8 rebounds while splitting playing time with Brendan Haywood. Thomas and Haywood were expected to compete for the starting job again this season.
"I remember two days before training camp, seeing him in here, walking around, laughing," forward Caron Butler said. "We were talking about getting prepared for training camp and how the year is going to be. Next thing you know he's not here. We can't wait for him to get back, whether it's just on the bench, in the locker room, or just being around."
Thomas' absence leaves Haywood as the only true center on the roster. Jordan said that, given the current roster, he was likely to forego the usual terminology of two guards, two forwards and a center and instead refer to his lineup as "two bigs and three smalls" — with a rotation of Haywood, Andray Blatche, Oleksiy Pecherov, Darius Songaila, Antawn Jamison and possibly Tony Massenburg occupying the "big" spots.
"Our alignments now are two bigs and three smalls that can play together," Jordan said.