Reporting from Newcastle, Calif. — Every breath is a struggle for John Rudometkin, every spoken word a chore. The effort fatigues him.
"I could use some lungs," he says.
It wasn't always this way.
Rudometkin, 69, was a head-turning basketball star at USC in the early 1960s, a two-time All-American and seemingly inexhaustible scoring machine.
Cancer prematurely ended his NBA career, but Rudometkin survived it and was celebrated anew.
Now, however, the long-term aftereffects of the aggressive measures used to save his life, radiation and chemotherapy treatments among them, threaten to cut it short. Suffering from restrictive lung disease, he has difficulty expanding his chest wall and is increasingly susceptible to infection.
For the last year and a half, he has been tethered to a supplemental oxygen unit. A recent tracheotomy and a ventilator help him breathe through the night while sleeping.
"It gets a little frustrating," Rudometkin says in the living room of his out-of-the-way home in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the centerpiece of an idyllic 11-acre spread about 30 miles northeast of Sacramento. "You go out and try to breathe, but there's nothing there to go to — to push. You're just out of oxygen."
Gazing out a sliding glass door toward a rolling green landscape and bubbling creek below, he says, "Just give me some breaths, so I could go out and take a long walk. I love walking."
For now, though, he spends most of his days indoors.
"He's very sensitive to temperature changes," says wife Carolyn, whom he met on a blind date when he was 15 and married nearly 49 years ago, "so he hasn't been able to sit outside."
She marvels at her husband's undiminished zest for life.
"He has a great spirit," she says later, lowering her voice to a whisper, eyes reddening as she fights back tears. "Like SC says, 'Fight on!' He's always fighting on. He's a warrior. So that's encouraging to me.
"I figure that God knows the number of our days."
Nearby, reminders of Rudometkin's past and present collide. On a wall in his office, which has been converted into a makeshift hospital room, an image of the young basketball star graces the cover of Sports Illustrated from 1962, when the Santa Maria-bred son of Russian immigrants was at the peak of his powers.
Nicknamed "Rudo the Reckless Russian" by Chick Hearn, who broadcast USC games before joining the Lakers, Rudometkin graduated in 1962 as the Trojans' all-time scoring leader, establishing a record that stood for 23 years.
Still listed high among the Trojans' all-time scoring and rebounding leaders, the 6-foot-6 center averaged nearly 19 points and 10.5 rebounds during his USC career, relying on shovel shots and other unorthodox moves around the basket.
In the 1960-61 season, he led the Trojans to the Athletic Assn. of Western Universities championship, their only outright conference basketball title in more than half a century.
His coach, Forrest Twogood, compared him to a ballet dancer, noting that he had "perfect balance while off-balance."
But Rudometkin, an early second-round pick in the 1962 NBA draft, lasted only three seasons with the New York Knicks and San Francisco Warriors, his ever-decreasing stamina befuddling doctors until tests revealed the problem: non- Hodgkin's lymphoma.
In Rudometkin's case, a malignant octopus-shaped tumor had encircled his heart and lungs, literally squeezing the life out of him and compromising a vein that allows blood to flow from his brain into his heart. That led to swelling in his neck and face.
"They sent him home basically to die when he was 25," says his youngest son, Nathan, a Temecula retinal surgeon.
The side effects of his treatment included paralysis, Rudometkin at one point unable even to break a piece of bread. He lost his hair and had to learn to walk all over again.
But slowly the tumor receded from his chest.
Rudometkin, crediting his faith as well as medicine, wrote a book about his ordeal. A Seventh-day Adventist, he became a vegetarian. He traveled the country as a motivational speaker. With his wife, he brought up three sons and welcomed two grandsons.
Physically, he was never the same as he'd been before the cancer struck. But, he notes, "I used to play sloooow full-court basketball once in awhile with the guys. We'd go hiking too, and we'd hunt and fish."
In recent years, however, Rudometkin's health has worsened. High levels of carbon dioxide tend to accumulate in his lungs because he has a hard time exhaling it.
Still, he remains upbeat.
He wishes he'd enjoyed a more distinguished NBA career, he says, "but at the time I was just fighting for my life."
The battle continues.
"I've had a good life," he says, nodding toward his wife. "I've been together almost 50 years with this pretty face here. I've got three sons that are just excellent kids. . . .
"I'm still fighting. I want to get well. I've got a great family and friends, lots of support, but it's trying at times, you know?"