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Counter Attack

Huggins to change, but not on court, after heart scare

November 14, 2002|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

Everyone else sees the sideline act, all that raving and swearing, and figures that's why Bob Huggins had a heart attack Sept. 28 -- at 49.

The sidelines were never what worried his friends.

It was the pace, the planes, all that fast food, the 2 a.m. beer, cigars and storytelling. It was that drive he had that no one was going to outwork him, out-schmooze him, outdo him for a player, or have a better time doing it.

The other weekend, not yet five weeks from the day they feared he might die, Huggins' closest friends sat around a fireplace with him in Cincinnati.

Then he did something he never used to do. He got up to leave early.

"Normally, he'd stay late," said Jim Collins, a chiropractor who has been a friend since Huggins became the University of Cincinnati's basketball coach in 1989.

"But about 10:30 he says, 'I've got to get home, get my medication and get to bed.' He didn't have any cigars. He had one glass of red wine. He is making changes."

Let it be said that Huggins, who spent 11 days in the hospital and has a defibrillator device implanted in his chest, looks terrific. There is a healthy hue to a face that used to tend toward pasty, and he has lost 23 pounds.

Speaking at a banquet in New York recently, promoting the Jimmy V Classic, he asked for a show of hands.

"Would all the people who say how much better I look raise your hand?" Huggins said.

"Like half of the room raised their hands. I said, 'I must have looked like hell before.' "

It is time for laughs now.

John Calipari, the Memphis coach who is both Huggins' friend and intense rival, watched Huggins walk into a Conference USA media session recently and readied his jab.

"He looks good," Calipari said. "That suit's five years old. Wide stripes. So I know he's lost at least 25 pounds, because that suit fits him again."

But Calipari remembers how difficult it was to see Huggins in the hospital the day after he'd suffered his heart attack at the Pittsburgh airport.

"We can be funny, but it was very serious," Calipari said. "As funny as we can make it now, it was not then.

"He looked awful. Overweight, pasty, tubes everywhere. He didn't look good. And the nut case was trying to move the bed. I was like, 'Stop!' "

Huggins tells the story of his potentially fatal heart attack his way:

"I wasn't scared. I don't know what being afraid is going to do for you. I just couldn't breathe. I was trying to breathe. Then I found out the guy in the ambulance was Calipari's cousin. Then I was afraid.... But Cal said his cousin knew not to let me die before he beat me."

Unlikely but true: The attendant in the ambulance really was Calipari's cousin.

"People don't believe it, but I'm doing OK," Huggins said.

"It was very serious. I don't mean to say it wasn't. I'm going to have to take pretty good care of myself. My heart took a pretty good shock. Right now, a pretty good portion of it is not working. It's stunned. We hope it comes back. All I can do is do the things they tell me and hope it comes back. It's not dead, it's just not working right now."

Though he insists the scare hasn't made him dwell on his mortality, he said he isn't in denial, either.

"If I was on the plane, I probably wouldn't have made it."

He did make it, and he made it to the Bearcats' first practice of the season Oct. 12, two weeks to the day after the heart attack.

"I knew as long as he could walk, he was going to come back," said senior forward Leonard Stokes, the only starter back on a Cincinnati team ranked 23rd in the preseason poll.

"He's the same as ever, except at practice now, he has sliced fruit to eat."

He was his old self at the Bearcats' first exhibition game Saturday night too, ranting at his own players and the officials and even kicking the scorer's table during a 20-point victory over Northern Kentucky.

"He was screaming and yelling that we weren't playing good," senior guard Taron Barker said. "He was just Huggs."

Here's the only difference: After the game, Huggins snacked on celery and carrots.

No one, not even his cardiologist, is telling him he has to change the way he is on the sidelines.

After all, his heart attack didn't happen at courtside. It happened amid the off-season swirl of recruiting and clinics.

"It has nothing to do with his style on court," Calipari said. "He's not going to change that. It's his lifestyle off-court."

Huggins is trying.

"I'm working out now," he said. "I eat better, sleep more. I just get tired. I didn't used to get tired. Now, 9:30 or 10 o'clock, I'm tired. But I feel stronger every day."

He's on the treadmill three days a week. Other days, it's a 45-minute walk.

"I tried to get him to work out one time before," Calipari said. "I said, 'Come on, let's go for a run.' We ran for a while and he said, 'I'm not running. Let's walk.' Then he said, 'Let's go in here and get a beer.' "

Now it's a glass of red wine a day.

"See, the French don't have heart attacks," Huggins said. "The studies say a glass of red wine a day is good for you."

He has cut back on fast food as well.

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