AMES, IOWA — Tucked away in his small office through the tunnel of Hilton Coliseum, Fred Hoiberg would sit alone before games while his team warmed up. The tiny pacemaker mechanism set the rhythm for the fifth-year coach’s heart, and he could feel each and every single tick.
“I would sit in there at times and feel every time my heart beat,” Hoiberg said. “I’m thinking, ‘God, I don’t feel great today. Is it time?’ Then I’d get out there and coach and I felt great. After the game if we won, I felt great. If we lost, I felt like crap.”
Near the end of Hoiberg’s 10th season in the NBA back in 2005, he applied for added life insurance and was rejected. Hoiberg wasn’t told why, but following the season, in which he led the NBA in 3-point percentage, Hoiberg was evaluated at the Mayo Clinic. Tests showed that Hoiberg’s aortic root had grown to 5 ½ centimeters.
Hoiberg learned during his playing days at Iowa State that he was born with a bicuspid aortic valve, meaning he has only two cusps compared to the typical three most are born with. It wasn’t an immediate cause for concern, and there were no red flags when Indiana selected him in the second round of the 1995 NBA Draft.
Now, in the summer of 2005, that had changed.
“It was on the verge of potentially, not for sure, but potentially rupturing,” Hoiberg said. “If that happens, it’s too late. Had I not gone in for that life insurance test I don’t know if I’d be here right now.”
On June 28, 2005, Hoiberg underwent open heart surgery. There was a one percent chance his heart would go out of rhythm. “I was that lucky one percent,” he said. His heart went out of rhythm and a pacemaker was inserted.
“Every time my heart beats, it’s because of this pacemaker, which is crazy that I can do what I love to do and be as active as I am with this little machine that is making my heart beat,” Hoiberg said.
There is emotion in Hoiberg’s voice now when he thinks back to his surgery nearly 10 years later. After spending 10 days in the hospital, Hoiberg returned home.
On the first day home, after going outside for fresh air, Hoiberg made his way back up the stairs at his home in Chaska, Minn.
“When I got to the top of the steps I collapsed,” Hoiberg said. “I fell and Carol came in and found me face down. I was on a blood thinner at the time and there was a pool of blood coming out and she heard the crash and came in and called 911.”
Hoiberg had fluid buildup in his pericardium, which is the sack that surrounds the heart. He would eventually recover, and has been fine in the 10 years since the surgery. In the initial surgery, though, Hoiberg’s native valve was spared. He would eventually need to get it replaced.
After about three years, the valve started to leak. After five, the regurgitation was mild. Three years ago it was deemed severe. This past offseason, in September, Hoiberg was told the valve needed to be replaced.
“I wanted to get through the season, so I pleaded with them,” Hoiberg said. “We had kind of came to the agreement that if I did not show symptoms that it was OK.”
In December, his surgeon called.
“You’ve got to do this,” he told Hoiberg.
“No, we’re having a pretty good year,” Hoiberg said. “I love what we’ve got going.”
So Hoiberg’s surgery was put off until the end of the season. Around that same time, Hoiberg began to get light-headed. He stopped wearing a tie to loosen up his neck. He sat in his office and felt each tick of his heart.
Now, it is time.
Hoiberg will undergo open heart surgery next Friday to replace his aortic valve. The operation will require a 4-6 week recovery, but with a mechanical valve, there is hope that this will be the final operation Hoiberg requires.
Not far from the little office in the bowels of Hilton Coliseum where Hoiberg felt each tick of his heart earlier this season, he sat at a table to discuss his story Friday, one week removed from entering surgery.
"It was on my mind, I did think about it a lot. After games you lay in bed and you feel every beat and you can’t sleep because of the profession," Hoiberg said. "It’s come to the reality of the situation now."