My name is Raheem Watts and this is a story of a broken heart. My heart. And the magic world of college basketball, where everything is not like it looks.
I remember, it feels like yesterday when I stepped off of my first plane ride to Dallas, Texas. It was about 98 degrees and I could smell the rubber from all the car tires burning on the pavement. I’d never been that far before and to think basketball made it happen. Where I come from, traveling the country is only something you dream about. You look at pictures in magazines and watch travel shows but you only hope of actually going to those places.
Jacksonville College was my first stop as a college athlete. Just a young boy from Greenville, South Carolina. Stepping out into a world I thought I’d never know. I guess you can label my feelings as afraid, nervous, anxious, excited. Scared of everything that I didn’t know (now I am scared of something that I should know from back then, but I found it out five years later). I never knew a person could feel all of those emotions at the same time. Jacksonville is an extremely small town not too far from the boarder of Louisiana. It’s where I began to find myself. Learn who I was as a person and not just an athlete. My head coach and mentor, Jody Bailey always had these two words for me: Character Revealed. It’s the person I was when everything went against me. When everything is going wrong and you see no light at the end of the tunnel... Who are you then? I learned a lot that year about myself and it was my turning point from being a boy to being a man.
Dodge City, Kansas is where I become a man and took on the responsibility of doing something that I hadn’t done in my basketball career... WIN. I transferred to Dodge City Community College with two goals in mind... win and sign to play division 1 basketball at a high level. I wasn’t able to go home for Christmas that year and I stayed at my coaches apartment during break. It snowed extremely bad, there so I was stuck in the House most of the time. I didn’t see my family for that entire year. I wasn’t able to spend special holidays with them. It hurt me more than anyone would ever know, but I never complained because I set out to do something no one thought I’d do. That season was a success but didn’t end quite how we imagined it. Winning 20+ games and making it to the conference championship which the team hadn’t don’t in 33 years. It was an honor to be apart of something that was bigger than myself. I understood what TEAM meant after that season. I built relationships that I won’t ever forget with people that I’ll never forget, and to think that basketball did that for me. I made the presidents honor roll and got my Associates Degree.
Back to the south is where I signed with The University of Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles. It was like home when I took the trip to Southern Miss for my visit. I was sold the moment I stepped on campus. I learned quickly that being at a school that big would come with a lot of things I thought I was ready for. Good thing I never changed the person I was to adapt to my environment. I would go on to have two good years at Southern Miss and get a Bachelors Degree in Sport Management. After playing two years I was ready for what God had in store for me, and that was to play the game I love professionally.
I worked extremely hard that summer and I finally got the call that the Larissa-Faros of the Greek League wanted me to play for them. I was on a plane the next week. I had never thought I’d travel to another country but basketball did that for me. It was an experience that I’ll never forget.
It was then, when by biggest fear started to be revealed. My biggest dream, the one I chased throughout my whole life, turned into a scary movie. With me, having the main role.
The day I arrived in Thessaloniki, a city almost 100 miles away from my future host city, Larissa, and picked up by a driver it was like a whole new world I had stepped into.
Being near the mediterranean and the history that Greece has going back to the gladiator days, it was amazing to be surrounded by such beauty.
I don’t think I saw many full size vehicles that would fit me, but then again there’s not an extreme amount of people that are my size.
During the drive to Larissa I was so tired from 19 hours on planes I went to sleep. When I woke up we were pulling into the presidents restaurant to eat. I am a person who loves food so I was ready to see what greek food was like because I heard such good things and it was amazing.
I chose a burger, thinking it would be like an American burger, but it was not. It was a thick beef patty with fries on the side and I had never had it that way before. It was the best burger I’ve had.
Then again everything I ate in Greece was good. After meeting some of my new teammates I went to where I would be staying. I went to practice the next day but didn’t participate because of jet lag.
There I met the rest of the team with other Americans such as Kevin Ware, Kenny Hall, and Willie Conner. I was welcomed by all with open arms. I learned very quickly that if I wanted to play I had to learn everything very fast because they had already done a lot before I arrived. The first week was tough because of the 7 hour time difference I couldn’t sleep.
I would lay in bed all night looking at the ceiling wondering how I got there. No one in my family had ever been to college, never traveled the country or across the sea. I got to experience something no one I had ever knowν, ever lived. It was a blessing from God because that could have been anyone but he chose me. I would leave my room to walk around the town, going into different shops to see what everything was like. The people I met there were some of the nicest people I’ve ever met and they welcomed me into their town with open arms. I would talk to people when walking the streets and I had a lot of people come up to me asking questions to get to know me. Not many people get that experience and it’s something I will cherish for the rest of my life.
After playing in games and practicing we had to go to see a cardiologist to get required EKG and Echocardiograms done. A normal procedure, followed by every pro player. I could never think of what would happen after that. It supposed to be a typical medical control. The doctor said she will let me know if anything comes up because of my family history. My father died during my senior year of high school from congestive heart failure. It was one of the lowest points in my life and I never knew if I would recover. Hmm… Now i am sure: I still haven’t today.
The next day I was approached by my agent at dinner and he pulled me away from everyone.
“Raheem, I have to tell you something” were his first words. “The doctor saw something in your results that she didn’t like”.
I was told I wouldn’t be cleared to practice or do any physical activity. I was broken and didn’t know what to think. The doctor recommended that I have to return to the States, to seek treatment and to see if there was a possibility I would be able to play. And this where my new adventure started.
After a few doctors visits I was told that I have hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and that I should discuss my future in basketball with my family to see what I would do next. Everything inside of me melted hearing that. It got so quiet in my head that I saw the doctors' lips moving but I couldn’t hear anything. How do you react when something you love so much is taken from you in a blink of an eye?
It’s not something that I did because it was fun or because I was good at it. It’s something that I was using to get everything I wanted out of life. Something I was going to use to take care of my family and myself until I retired. It was more than basketball... it was my life.
At that moment everything changed.
Everything that I had worked for since the day I started playing in 8th grade was ripped away from me in the blink of an eye. I wasn’t prepared mentally, physically or emotionally to give up basketball. Everyone would tell me that “it’s just basketball” or “you still have a life to live”. Basketball was my life. Every drop of blood, sweat and tears I had were invested into the game. I had no other direction.
Upon returning to the states it was revealed that my condition was known about but withheld from me. Can you imagine? WITHHELD FROM ME? They knew, but never told me! Right now, writing this piece, I feel exactly the same frustration as i did then.
I called the trainers at the school to ask if they did an EKG and what the results were. They told me they did in 2015 and it was normal. So I asked from them to send it to me. It was my first week home. They took 4 weeks! So I told the president of the school that if they keep hiding my medical information, I will sue. The president got my medical records. The day they sent it to me I was at home. When I looked at them it was the same as now. It was an abnormal EKG that required further testing and they ignored my condition. When I saw it I was very hurt and thought to myself how could they do this to me. They lied! They were hiding the information from me for 2 years. I was upset because I thought I could trust them. But they hurt me! As a result it I would then lose my career and money for my family. Because they didn’t tell me. It could have been taken care of when they found out but they lied to me, and now my life has changed.
Now? What now? What can i do to bring me life back? To bring the sport I love back? My career.
There is nothing I can do, but I will give all my life to protect, not only myself, but everyone who could be in the same situation in the future. They hide medical records? If they did to me, they could do it to anybody. I will fight for myself and others that have been wronged the same way in a lawsuit against the school for withholding medical information from me. They used me and now everything I’ve worked for is gone. They did an EKG but the trainer never revealed the medical results to me. I was suppose to sit out my junior year at Southern Miss to get more testing done but they never made me sit out. They allowed me to play which put me at risk. They could have potentially killed me.
If you can’t see by now what basketball has done for me and what it means to me then you should read this again.
Peace, Love & Basketball
If you enjoyed reading this be on the lookout for my book by the year 2020.
Titled : Trials / By: Raheem Watts