Ken Gardner, an all-conference basketball player for three years at the University of Utah, died recently at the age of 74 after a series of health issues, including a heart transplant 10 years ago.

Gardner was an all-around athlete who excelled in several sports at Clearfield High before going to Utah, where he became one of the top players in program history under coach Jack Gardner from 1968-71. He averaged 16.3 points and 11.3 rebounds per game as a Ute, one of only six players in Utah history to average more than 15 points and 10 rebounds for his career.

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Following a decade of heart problems, in late 2013 Gardner received a heart transplant that he later learned came from Nick Longshore, a former BYU football player. Since then Gardner and his family developed a lifelong bond with Caroline Longshore and her family.

“He’s a hero who saved my life,” said Gardner of Longshore.

“I’m a Ute with a BYU heart,” he used to joke.

After excelling at Clearfield High in basketball, football and baseball, Gardner went to the University of Utah, where he paired with Mike Newlin to establish one of the most prolific duos in the school’s history.

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Newlin said the two nearly got in a fistfight on their first day of practice, but became best friends, talking on the phone every week and sharing laughs for the past 57 years.

“We became blood brothers from that day forward and played in 80 games together in college,” said Newlin from his home in Houston. “We became best friends from that day. I knew Ken Gardner was there for me and I was there for him.”

Newlin, an 11-year NBA veteran, called Gardner “an absolute warrior” and “the toughest guy I ever played with or against in college or the pros.”

Ken Gardner, who received a donor heart from Nick Longshore, hugs Nick's wife, Caroline Longshore, at her home in West Haven, Monday, June 9, 2014. | Ravell Call, Deseret News

After playing at Utah, Gardner enjoyed a seven-year professional career playing in France, where he was on two championship teams and was named the top foreign player in the country. He was also briefly a member of the Utah Stars of the ABA, shortly before it folded.

Besides his heart surgeries, Gardner had two hip replacements, survived colon cancer and most recently suffered from skin cancer.

“He was suffering every single day with chemo and radiation and I never heard a single negative word out of him, never a complaint, not a whine,” said Newlin.

Gardner, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is survived by his children, Nate (Michelle), Josh (Carina), Liz (Tim) Jaggi, Baily (Stratos) Sklavounos, Taylor (R.J.) Donaldson, 15 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.