Monday, March 17, 2008 | 2 a.m.
My introduction to UNLV basketball came in 1977. A buddy and I borrowed a friend’s car and drove to Tucson, where they were playing the NCAA West Regional.
The thing I remember most about those Runnin’ Rebels that we had only heard about, because there wasn’t much college basketball on TV those days, was the Afros. Even the white guys had Afros. Glen Gondrezick, No. 25, had an Afro. And these long socks that stretched to his knees, like the ones Curtis Terry wears.
I also remember Gondrezick stealing the ball and steaming toward the basket like a runaway freight train, only to be derailed by one of the San Francisco Dons, who was kicked out of the game for a flagrant foul. I remember the hush that fell over the crowd, Gondrezick finally getting up and then, remarkably, reentering the game a few minutes later to partake in the whale of a beating the Rebels were now giving the Dons, the No. 1 team in the land, because the guys with the big ’fros were going to make them pay for messing with him like that.
Those Runnin’ Rebels we had heard so much about went on to win 121-95. I remember the drive home and marveling about the final score, and the circumference of Reggie Theus’ Afro, and that Gondrezick guy, for the way he got up after taking a hit like that.
You could tell he had heart, as coaches like to say.
Now, in the cruelest of ironies, Glen Gondrezick needs a heart. A new heart. Someone else’s heart.
Or — no other way to put this — he will die.
On Tuesday “Gondo,” which is the only name Rebels fans call the UNLV legend whose jersey hangs from the rafters at the Thomas & Mack Center, will check into UCLA Medical Center to begin the heart transplant procedure. It’s the same day the Rebels will leave for the NCAA Tournament.
Any other year Gondrezick would be leaving with them. He has been the UNLV radio analyst for the past 16 years. You’d have to shoot him with a rhinoceros gun to keep him away from the NCAA Tournament when the Rebels are playing.
Not this year, his doctors told him. You absolutely cannot put this off until after the tournament. You have used all of your timeouts. We need to see you — now.
His broadcast partner, Jon Sandler, will miss him at the tournament.
“I’m going to miss him as a friend,” said Sandler, speaking for so many others in the Rebels’ extended family. “I’m going to miss him as an analyst. I’m gonna miss his insight. Most off all, I’m gonna miss his passion for UNLV basketball.”
Gondrezick, 52, remembers the day eight years ago when he was playing volleyball and began to feel sick. He had eaten some unwashed grapes and thought he might have food poisoning.
It turned out to be a little more serious. It turned out to be congenital heart disease.
Congenital heart disease is like Tyler Hansbrough. You may hold it off for a while. But eventually, it will kill you. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Every day 1,200 Americans die from it. One every 34 seconds. That’s the grim reality that Gondrezick has been dealing with for eight years.
Emotionally, it has been tough. Physically, it has never been worse than it is now.
Gondrezick can’t sleep at night. He doesn’t want to, fearing he might not wake up. He takes 15 pills a day to ward off the killer. Twelve in the morning, three at night. But the pills don’t work anymore.
Three weeks ago, after returning from a UNLV road trip, he collapsed at home and sliced open his head on the corner of a dresser. When he woke up, he was bleeding. His legs were numb. And they were twitching, like a boxer’s after a vicious knockout. He didn’t recall any of it. He had been having episodes for eight years, but never one like this.
He had gone into cardiac arrest. He would have died right then and there if the tiny defibrillator in his chest hadn’t kept going off. It shocked him four times. That’s why he doesn’t remember much about that night.
The next day the doctors told him they needed to see him in Los Angeles. On March 18. They arranged a Flight for Life for him, just in case.
There are three categories of heart transplant candidates. Gondrezick, whose heart is pumping at only 9 percent capacity, making even simple tasks such as walking up stairs difficult, is in the worst category. He’s at the top of the list of those awaiting a donor heart.
So let’s get on with it, he says. Open me up, doc. I’m ready.
If only it were that easy. With a heart transplant, it’s never easy. There may be 100 patients who receive hearts before Gondrezick gets his. Because he’s 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, it won’t be easy to find a match. As always, Gondo’s a tough matchup. Only this time, it’s working against him. It could be three days, the doctors say. Or three weeks. Or three months.
Does he even have three months? That’s for somebody else, a higher power, to decide. As much as he’s going to hate being in the hospital with nothing to do — he’s trying to rig his laptop so he can listen to the Rebels’ game — he does take comfort in knowing that should something happen, he’ll be where he needs to be, near those machines, near those doctors whose vast knowledge and skilled hands hopefully will be able keep him alive until a donor can be found.
That’s only the beginning. Heart transplantation surgery is delicate, complicated stuff. Even in a best-case scenario, recipients of new hearts must ward off infection, followed by months of rehabilitation. But the statistics are encouraging. Today, 86 percent of new heart recipients live for a year, 78 percent live for three years and 71 percent live for five years. Some live even longer; one man has even lived 29 years.
“There are no guarantees on anything,” said Gondrezick, who is counting on his determination and his sense of humor to see him through. He said he’s fortunate to have a cardiologist like Dr. Carlos Fonte and a friend like Troy Mitchem, his supervisor at Wynn Las Vegas, and a tight inner circle of friends to look after him and his affairs.
“If God were to take me today, I have no regrets,” he said. “I’ve had a great life.”
Then he corrected himself. It would be regrettable, Gondo said, not to be able to spend more time with his 11-year-old son, Travis, to watch him grow up and play ball some day and maybe even steam toward the basket like a runaway freight train himself.
“I guess the hardest thing to deal with is I used to be Superman,” he said about his failing health. “Then I was Lois Lane. Now I’m Jimmy Olsen.”
So on Tuesday he will check into the hospital and wait for someone to die, so he can live. It’s the harsh reality of the addition by subtraction theory and there’s no life experience that can prepare one for that.
“Physically, I’m ready to do this,” Gondo said. “Mentally, I’m not so sure.
“But really, what choice do I have?”