It was a stunner when 35-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge announced his retirement in April after a 15-year career. He'd been playing great basketball and was part of a Brooklyn Nets team that was destined to make waves in the playoffs.
With all that in his favor, it wasn't a decision he reached lightly. Aldridge played his entire career with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a heart condition that can cause a rapid or irregular heartbeat. He'd had it under control for years, but as he told The Athletic's Shams Charania in his first post-retirement interview, one tough game followed by a very scary night changed his entire perspective on continuing to play.
'Scariest night ever'
Aldridge had only been with the Nets a few weeks when he had a heart incident. He had signed with them on March 28 after reaching a buyout agreement with the San Antonio Spurs, where he'd played since 2015. He'd play just five games for the Nets, and the game on April 10, which would end up being his last NBA game, is when he experienced an irregular heartbeat he just couldn't shake.
"I had irregular rhythm the whole game, and I hadn’t experienced that before," Aldridge told Charania. "Normally when I get on the court, my case study is that I would go into regular rhythm as I got my heart rate up. It had never been out of rhythm in a game and then it was out of rhythm for the Lakers game and I was just off and couldn’t get no energy. I just couldn’t get myself going. I couldn’t figure out what was going on."
Aldridge told Charania that normally, when his heart rate goes up, his heartbeat returns to normal. So he tried multiple things to get excited and hyped up about the game, including repeatedly crashing shoulder-to-shoulder with assistant coach Ime Udoka. Nothing worked, and when he got back to his hotel room, his heart rate didn't improve.
"It was still off after the game, but at like two, three in the morning, it got really, really crazy. My heart was beating really crazy, and that’s when it got really bad for me. From two to five in the morning, I was just trying to evoke some breathing and then around 5:30 or so, I texted the team doctor and I went to the hospital. It was probably the scariest night ever."
His heart had started to return to normal by the time he got to the hospital, but the experience had changed the way he felt about continuing to play. He decided that the risks were too great.
"I can be in rhythm one second and out of rhythm the next second. No one can pinpoint when it can happen. It’s very unpredictable, and I didn’t want to keep playing and feeling the way I felt that night anymore and risk … no one knows for 100 percent if you can have something bad happen. My first time in 2006, I blacked out on the bench. That’s when we first found out that I had this condition. So what if I’m on the court and a big guy is coming down the lane, my heart is beating funny, and then I black out? He runs into me, and I can hurt my head on the floor. I can be paralyzed. What if I’m going for a dunk and I black out? There’s so many things that can happen in a bad way."
Dealing with his new reality
Aldridge made the decision to retire in the span of a few days, but dealing with the aftermath of that decision has been hard. He told Charania that he's struggling to figure out who he is now that he's no longer an NBA player.
“I’ve been depressed, and I’m trying to figure out how to navigate through not competing on the floor, learning not to be depressed,” Aldridge told The Athletic. “I still love basketball. I still feel like I have a lot to give. But even now, I’m still trying to find myself. When you go from doing something you love for so long and you lose it overnight, it’s a shock. Even though I knew it was the right decision, those next couple days there was a lot of back and forth with my family, my agent, with the Nets, and they definitely supported me either way."
What made everything more difficult was how at home he felt on the Nets. Aldridge said that he embraced the team and they embraced him right back, giving him the "cohesiveness that I had wanted for a while in a group." Not being on the team and having to watch them in the playoffs has been the hardest part of retirement for Aldridge.
"That was the hardest part. Being in a position to get to the Finals and have an opportunity to be on that stage and be a part of history and make my mark. I had never been to the Finals. I’ve been to the West Conference finals, but not the actual NBA Finals. So it was a chance for me to make that next step, a chance for me to add to my legacy and see what it feels like. I’ve always prided myself on embracing moments and trying to grow and learn from every moment. I wanted to get there and see what it’s like, help those guys win and be a part of the journey. And then if we got there, hopefully we would go back two or three more times. So that was definitely the hardest part for me."