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Moses Malone and Darryl Dawkins, NBA Giants

In the past month, two former National Basketball Association giant centers died of heart attacks: Daryl Dawkins on August 27 at age 58 and Moses Malone on September 13 at age 60 . Both were 6' 10" tall, weighed more than 250 pounds, and went directly from high school into professional basketball without ever playing in college. This year three other seven-foot NBA players also died of heart attacks. Anthony Mason died last February at age 48 of a heart attack. He had gained over 100 pounds on his former 250-pound frame after retirement. Christian Welp and Jack Haley both died of heart attacks at age 51. In 1999, 7'1" tall Wilt Chamberlain, arguably the greatest athlete in any sport ever, died at age 63 due to congestive heart failure, but that is a different cause and a different story. More on him later.

Moses Malone was the NBA Most Valuable Player three times, a 12-time NBA All-Star, and was called "Chairman of the Boards" because he was probably the greatest rebounder ever. He led the NBA in rebounding six times and made more free throws than any other player in history. Darryl Dawkins was called “Chocolate Thunder” because he shattered back boards twice with slam dunks. He scored in double figures for nine years, always had an extremely high field goal percentage, and set an NBA record for 386 fouls in the 1984 season. Their life stories are remarkably similar.

Moses Malone's Story
Malone was born in 1955 in the small town of Petersburg, Virginia. He was an only child, raised alone by his mother, Mary, who had dropped out of school after finishing the fifth grade. Mary kicked her alcoholic husband out of the house when Moses was two, and they were incredibly poor throughout his childhood. He was arguably the greatest high school basketball player ever, playing at Petersburg High School on a team that went undefeated in his final two years, and won 50 games and the Virginia state championship in both years.

At the time, Malone was the best high school basketball player in America, and recruiters were trying to get him to go to their colleges. His house needed paint, had a hole in the outside wall where there once was a window, plumbing that was broken and a yard with no grass. Everyone else in the neighborhood was just as poor. His mother earned less than $100 per week on a Safeway check-out counter. Malone was a horrible student who was given C’s to allow him to play basketball. The recruiters were talking college to a kid who could barely read or write, from a family that desperately needed money. The NBA had a rule that they could not take a player unless he had been to college, so Malone decided to sign with the American Basketball Association. He played with the ABA for two years before he went to the NBA.

Daryl Dawkins' Story
Darryl Dawkins was born in Orlando in 1957. He was the second of eight children raised in a poor neighborhood mostly by his mother, but he remained close to his father, Frank Dawkins. He was a tall, gangly kid who was 6' 10 " in the ninth grade. He led Maynard Evans High School in Orlando to the Florida state championship in 1975.

Notice that he was born two years later than Moses Malone, and the NBA had changed its rules so college was no longer required. This is how Dawkins became the first high school player to be drafted into the NBA. The Philadelphia 76ers were looking for a dominant center to rebuild their team after their disastrous 1972-1973 season. Sixers' Coach Gene Shue decided that Dawkins would be that man. However, he knew that other NBA teams would be looking at him also. Shue convinced Dawkins not to play in any post-season tournaments so other NBA teams would not be aware of how good he really was. The 76ers hired Dawkins' high school coach to be their Florida scout and told him to hide Dawkins from the other scouts. Since most other teams knew little about Dawkins, the 76ers were able to make Dawkins the first high school player ever chosen in the first round of the NBA draft. They signed him to a $1.5 million, seven-year contract.

Why Do So Many Very Tall Former Great Athletes Die of Heart Attacks?
I don't know the answer to this question, but I do know that heart attacks are primarily an environmental disease and far less so, a genetic one. I also know that after an athlete stops exercising and gains weight, he or she is no less likely to suffer a heart attack than people who never exercised. Malone, Dawkins, Mason, Welp and Haley had all gained a considerable amount of weight after they stopped competing. They also continued to eat the heart-attack provoking North American diet they used while they were in training: lots of red meat, fried foods, and sugar-added foods and drinks.

The habits that star athletes acquire while they are playing become extremely harmful later in life. When players leave their professional sports, they should continue to exercise, change their diet and avoid gaining weight for the rest of their lives. I was not able to find any medical records on Darryl Dawkins, but Moses Malone suffered from high blood pressure, irregular heartbeats and atherosclerosis and probably died from the conventional blocking of arteries that leads to heart attacks in more than 40 percent of all North Americans.

The Average Tall Person is Less likely to Suffer a Heart Attack than a Short Person
I looked to see if research has shown that tall people get more heart attacks, and I found that they actually have LOWER risk than short people (New England Journal of Medicine, published online April 8, 2015). Every 2.5 inches of additional height lowers risk of a heart attack by 13.5 percent. Compared to a 5'6" person, a five-foot tall person has a 32 percent higher risk of dying from a heart attack. A review of evidence from 52 studies involving three million people found that short adults were nearly 1.5 times more likely to suffer a heart attack, or die from a heart attack than were taller people (Experimental Gerontology, June 8, 2010). Another study showed that taller doctors are less likely to suffer heart attacks than shorter ones (Circulation, 1993; 88: 1437-1443).

We used to explain the reduced risk for heart attacks in taller people by saying that they have bigger arteries that are more difficult to block. Now we know that heart attacks are caused by plaques breaking off in arteries, and doctors can see how much plaque you have in your arteries with a test called a calcium score. These tests show that taller people have 30 percent fewer plaques than shorter people (New England Journal of Medicine, April 8, 2015; Circulation and Cardiovascular Imaging, December 13, 2013).

However, none of these studies looked specifically at very tall people (over 6'6", for example). It is possible that being very tall increases risk for heart attacks, but I could not find any good data. Very tall people could have higher levels of growth hormone, and higher growth hormone increases heart attack risk.

What About Wilt Chamberlain?
The world's greatest athlete ever did not die of a heart attack. He died of heart failure from a heart muscle that was too weak to pump blood through his body. Most likely, it was damaged by exposing himself to his self-claimed 20,000 contacts with women over his lifetime. Each contact could have exposed him to any number of germs that can damage the heart muscle to have eventually killed him. Here's the whole story.

Moses Eugene Malone
March 23, 1955 - September 13, 2015

Darryl Dawkins
January 11, 1957 - August 27, 2015

September 21st, 2015
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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