BOLINGBROOK – Mike Hart furiously tore the plastic tube from his throat. He gasped for air.
Hart wasn’t supposed to be awake during the echocardiogram that was being done to check if there was a hole in his heart. But the 6-foot-11 former center on the Northern Illinois University men’s basketball team suddenly was in disarray as he looked around the hospital room.
“I woke up with the tube in my throat and ripped it out,” Hart said. “I was freaked out about it and had to be put back under.”
What doctors discovered was that Hart had an otim primum atrial septum defect, a tiny hole on the interior of his heart that has been present since birth. It is causing blood to leak from the left side to the right. Thus, the right side of his heart has grown larger to compensate for the pressure variation from the excess blood flow.
Because of the defect’s remote location, open heart surgery is the only medical option. So, Hart, whose collegiate odyssey includes stints as a walk-on at Division III Carthage College in Wisconsin, a year idling on the sidelines during the 2006-07 season and finally the 2007-08 season as a walk-on for the Huskies, will have surgery Monday. The success rate of the surgery is 99 percent and Hart, who turns 24 next month, said it was caught just in time.
“I was shocked and in disbelief at first,” Hart said. “I thought that with all the years I’d played varsity sports that doctors would have found it. But when I hit 25 the defect would be irreversible, so I am blessed that it has been found.”
When Larry Bolles, the Director of Judicial Affairs at NIU and a fraternity brother of Hart’s father George Hart, first heard the medical diagnosis he thought about the “big gentle lion” that he has known “since he was a glimmer in his dad’s eye.”
“Going from a walk-on at a D-III school to a talk on at a D-I school to cracking the starting lineup and then graduating, Mike has been living the dream,” Bolles said. “After every game he would talk to any fan and was always appreciative of the chance he was given. Anyone would want Mike Hart as a son because he treats his fellow man so well.”
When NIU men’s basketball coach Ricardo Patton found out Hart faced surgery, his initial reaction also was complete shock. He thought about the larger-than-life, infectious smile that always seemed to beam across Hart’s face and the work ethic he brought to the court.
“Mike really is a big kid,” Patton said. “He really enjoyed what he was doing. Some guys play D-I and take it for granted, but not Mike. He relished the opportunity. His dunks were so impressive because he was so tall and could jump so high. I regret not coaching him for four years.”
Although it’s pure speculation, Patton said had Hart spent four years in a Huskies uniform he could be playing at the next level today.
“I think Mike would have had a legitimate chance at the NBA,” Patton said. “Because he is such a student of the game; his natural ability would have been propelled by his tremendous work ethic.”
After an expected six-month hiatus from contact sports to let the procedure heal properly, Hart plans to continue chasing his NBA dreams. At a National Basketball Development League camp in January, Hart was one of 200 prospective players at a tryout in Sacramento.
The NBDL measured, trained and scouted each individual to see if he had the potential required to enter the league that is a stepping stone to the NBA. Hart made it through two cuts and advanced to the final 20 players before being cut.
He’s a realist who said he needs more experience, but that he won’t give up on being a professional basketball player until he’s exhausted all avenues. He wants to head overseas to continue his basketball career once he is cleared to play by doctors.
But the NBDL opportunity gave him confidence he can compete at the next level and his hard work in the classroom allowed him another luxury, Patton said.
“Because Mike left with his degree, that gives him a chance to chase his dream a little bit longer,” Patton said. “Because of the hard work he pours into everything he does though I know that he will be successful with whatever path he takes in life.”