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Coming To Grips

Kimble is trying to deal with possibility that his basketball career is over

February 17, 2003|Rob Fernas | Times Staff Writer

Will Kimble realizes he's lucky to be alive, though it was easy for the Pepperdine junior to overlook his good fortune until experiencing an epiphany last week.

Invited to attend a free medical screening in Cerritos, Kimble met and spoke with parents who have lost children to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the heart condition that probably will prevent Kimble from playing college basketball again.

A tearful woman embraced Kimble, thankful to see a survivor of the ailment that had claimed her son's life.

"She was so happy to meet me," Kimble said. "I was just thinking to myself, 'What am I complaining about?' I can't play a sport, that's my only problem."

Adjusting to life without basketball is a challenge for Kimble, who was the starting center for Pepperdine until he passed out at practice Nov. 26 and was diagnosed with a heart problem. But knowing the condition often causes sudden death has made Kimble count his blessings.

He still can attend Pepperdine games and practices, which he does regularly. He can finish his college education. He even started light exercise this week after getting medical clearance from his doctors.

"Basketball is a sport and I love playing," he said. "It could have been my career. But there's other things worth living for."

That's not to say Kimble has ruled out playing again, despite having a defibrillator surgically implanted in his chest Dec. 18. The device will shock Kimble's heart into normal rhythm if it senses the onset of ventricular fibrillation, a life-threatening disorder characterized by a rapid and irregular heartbeat.

Kimble pulled down the collar of his T-shirt to reveal a two-inch scar over his heart.

"I can't tell it's there," he said of the defibrillator, which is equipped with a computer that doctors can check for abnormal rhythms.

Doctors implanted the device because Kimble's heart failed to consistently return to normal rhythm after being stimulated during testing, said his mother, Irene Donley-Kimble, an obstetrician-gynecologist.

"The options were either to be on medication and not do too much of anything, or have this device implanted," she said.

Kimble said he has not experienced any problems since the surgery, and believes he can play basketball again.

"I definitely do," he said. "I'm starting to work out, doing the treadmill and lifting weights. I'm testing my body to see how far I can push it until I meet with the doctors and see what they have to say, or see what the school has to say.

"I want to prove to them that no matter what happens on the court, I'm going to be fine. That's the hardest part, trying to convince them that I'll be fine when I play."

Kimble was encouraged by a brief conversation he had with Jeff Eischen, a basketball player for Portland State who also has a defibrillator implanted in his chest. More than a year ago, Eischen was told that a heart arrhythmia would end his basketball career. But after having a defibrillator implanted and going a year with no recurrence of arrhythmia, doctors cleared him to play in December.

Kimble talked with Eischen when Pepperdine and Portland State were playing in the New Mexico tournament Dec. 29.

"He said it took him a while to get cleared to play," Kimble said. "If he can do it, why not me?"

However, Kimble acknowledged that the two have different heart ailments. Eischen's problem is electrical; Kimble's is physical -- thickened tissue of the heart muscle that can interfere with the movement of blood as it is pumped.

John Watson, Pepperdine athletic director, said medical evidence would have to be conclusive for the university to allow Kimble back on the court.

Basketball Coach Paul Westphal isn't counting on that to happen. "I don't expect him to play again," he said.

Donley-Kimble said her family is taking a wait-and-see approach.

"We're not absolutely sure about [basketball]," she said. "We're still hopeful, but I'm not pressing it because I want to make sure that it's safe."

In the meantime, Kimble continues to lend moral support to a team that has struggled without his low-post presence. Pepperdine, considered a co-favorite for the West Coast Conference title before the season, is in fifth place with a 5-6 record, 13-11 overall.

The 6-foot-10 Kimble is among three Wave starters sitting out the season. Junior forward Glen McGowan is sidelined after having portions of two ribs removed because of a circulation problem, and senior point guard Devin Montgomery is out because of a broken right thumb that required surgery.

"It's been tough, but I honestly am proud of my teammates," Kimble said. "They've been playing hard. If you took away any three starters from any of the teams in our conference, they'd go downhill. But we've hung in there."

Kimble was anticipating his first season as a college starter after being a key reserve for Pepperdine last season. But he was only able to play in the Waves' season-opening loss at Bradley on Nov. 22.

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