Before last month, basketball was a vital part of Julius Coleman's life.
If he plays again, though, some worry it could cause his death.
Coleman, a promising guard for Palos Verdes High and one of two sophomores named to the All-Bay League team last season, has been advised by doctors not to engage in any physical activity after he passed out at a school dance Sept. 7.
Dr. Steve Liu, a cardiologist on staff at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Torrance, said based on his observations, Coleman's fainting episode is a classic symptom of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy--a thickening of the heart wall that could cause sudden death in a person participating in vigorous exercise.
Loyola Marymount basketball standout Hank Gathers suffered from the same heart defect when he collapsed in a game and died March 4.
"It appears (Coleman's) basketball career is over," Palos Verdes Principal Kelly Johnson said. "The school's position is he will not be allowed to play."
But Coleman's father, also named Julius, said the school might be jumping to an unfounded conclusion. He pointed out that neither Liu nor Dr. T. K. Lin, another cardiologist who treated Coleman, conducted a thorough series of tests on his son's heart, a fact supported by the doctors.
The elder Coleman, a practicing chiropractor in Los Angeles, said he is arranging an examination for his son with a cardiologist who specializes in treating athletes. At the father's request, Coleman was not interviewed for this story.
"I want to have someone who deals with athletes check him out," Coleman said. "If they say he shouldn't be involved in sports, then naturally he won't. But if they say he'll be OK, we have to make a decision if we want him to go back to sports."
For the time being, Coleman said he is going under the assumption that his son will never play basketball again.
"We've talked about it," he said. "Naturally he wants to play, and I want to see him play. He's taking it better than I thought he would. I think it will be worse when basketball season starts. That's when he'll probably be depressed. But I've told him he still has his studies and his friends. He had two years of basketball, and he did great. I was proud of him. I had no idea he was as good an athlete as he is."
John Mihaljevich, entering his 24th season as Palos Verdes' basketball coach, was extolling the talents of Coleman before the 5-foot-10 junior ever played a varsity game for the Sea Kings.
"By the time he graduates," Mihaljevich said before the 1989-90 season, "he will be among the top guards we've ever had."
Coleman lived up to the lofty expectations, earning a spot in the starting lineup and averaging 12 points a game as a sophomore. Mihaljevich considers him the school's most talented guard since Jim Spillane, who played for UCLA from 1975 to 1977.
"He kind of reminds me of an artist on a basketball court," Mihaljevich said. "He flows and is just free and easy. He makes difficult things look easy. He had a great summer for us. Over the next two years, we were looking for great things from him."
And, Mihaljevich said, Coleman had great stamina.
"He was our most tireless kid," he said. "I could never tell if he was tired. It's weird. Maybe it was almost a warning."
Mihaljevich said his biggest concern is for Coleman's health and welfare.
"Basketball is of little importance for anybody who might have a potential heart problem," he said. "You can tell I'm very sad. He's really a great young man. He personifies all the things a coach wants in a player. It's sad to think that his whole life might have changed so drastically in one day."
That day was Sept. 7, the first day of school. Coleman was attending a Friday night school dance when he suddenly lost consciousness. Johnson, the principal, was immediately called to the scene.
"Some kids had taken him outside and put him in a chair," Johnson said. "But he continued to pass out. We were concerned and called paramedics."
Records show Coleman was admitted to the emergency room at Little Company of Mary Hospital at 10:19 p.m. on Sept. 7. He was treated that weekend by Lin and released from the hospital Sept. 9.
Lin said he referred Coleman to Liu, who saw the 16-year-old twice. The only tests conducted on Coleman were an electrocardiogram, which showed an irregular heartbeat, and a treadmill test, which showed no irregularity. Also, the vessels leading to Coleman's heart appeared to be thicker than normal.
Liu said he wanted to conduct more tests, but Coleman's father, upset with what he believed were hasty conclusions reached by Liu, decided his son could receive better care elsewhere.
"We wanted to do a lot of tests, but the father refused," Liu said. "(Coleman's) fainting spell may be related to cardiomyopathy, but the tests we administered were too simple. He needs a complete cardiac examination."
Why then was Coleman deemed unfit for physical activity?