It begins just below his windpipe and travels south in a thin, straight line down his sternum, stopping mid-rib cage. It's about nine inches long and has the thickness of a basketball shoelace. When he goes shirtless, the scar freaks some people out, until they learn the reason for it, and then they say, "oh," look away and pretend they hadn't noticed. That happens quite often.
When he awakened from surgery, it was the first thing his doctor wanted him to see, to get over the shock, to better understand the new addition to his body, a part that won't eventually go away, like a pimple.
Go look in the mirror, said Dr. Lars Svensson, and get used to it.
When he soaps his chest in the shower every night and rubs his fingers across the scar, it's the only time he's ever reminded of the ordeal, of being told his life was in danger, of wondering whether he'd play basketball again, of being put to sleep in an operating room. Well, not quite. There are other times when Jeff Green, the leading scorer and current face of the Celtics, realizes that he survived open-heart surgery.
"I've talked to so many others who've gone through the same thing since then," said Green, "and when I do, it hits so close to home."
The youngest heart patient to bond with Green was 2 years old, a little girl, who had just learned to talk before she received her scar. Dozens of other times, Green has connected with 10-year-olds, pre-teens, teenagers, fathers, mothers, grandparents, all wearing the shoelace scar. He sees them in hospitals on visits sometimes arranged by the Celtics, many other times unannounced. As in:
"Hi, I'm Jeff Green, and I …"
"We know who you are. And why you're here."
Others with the scar will seek him out, and he will make time for them, each and every one. These impromptu therapy sessions never let him forget who he is, the surgery he endured and how he's managed to continue his NBA career.
"You know what's funny? A lot of these people are interested in the road I've traveled, because they admire that," said Green. "But it goes both ways. I want to hear their side. I want to hear from people who went through open-heart surgery or had a heart transplant and understand their story and how they managed to come back from that. It doesn't matter if you're a basketball player or not. A survivor is a survivor. We're all in this together."
With the unforgiving rash of serious injuries lately in professional sports, most involving the knee or ankle or hamstring, it's easy to forget that an NBA player once had his chest split open and his heart repaired. In one crazy, fateful night last week in the NBA, Derrick Rose, Andre Iguodala and Marc Gasol suffered injuries that will require them to miss a chunk of the season or the entire season.
Green, two years after returning to action, hasn't missed a game because of his operation. Not only is Green playing, he's doing so at a high level and what is more heartwarming (sorry) than that?
"To see what I've gone through, I guess it is pretty phenomenal," he said. "I don't want that to come across the wrong way. I don't want it to seem like I'm some sort of special case. But when you think about it, I once had a vial in my body that connected to my heart. And when I woke up after surgery, I couldn't talk, couldn't move. The only thing I could move was my toes and my head. That's it. To see me running, jumping, shooting and playing 35 or 40 minutes a game now, I guess that's pretty amazing, when you think about it."
He owns the most improbable basket of the young NBA season, a catch-and-swish three-pointer at the buzzer to stun the Heat three weeks ago. Overall, he's off to an inconsistent start. At times, Green has looked like a star in the absence of Rajon Rondo, other times just ordinary, as when he shot 5-for-16 in a win over Charlotte. But last year was his first full season with the Celtics following heart surgery, and his 20.3 points and 5.3 rebounds in the playoffs was one of the factors that swayed Boston to begin rebuilding and ship Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn.
He came to the Celtics in 2011 from Oklahoma City, where he wasn't getting much playing time behind Kevin Durant, in a swap for Kendrick Perkins. The Celtics saw Green as the eventual replacement for Pierce, but a week after signing a one-year, $9 million contract, Green was red-flagged in a team physical which he says "probably saved my life." He had shown no signs of any problems prior.
He was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm and surgery had to be performed near a critical section of the heart where the four main valves unite. Green was 25. Obviously, this was a sensitive subject for the Celtics, who saw Reggie Lewis die from a different heart issue. The previous six years had also seen Hawks center Jason Collier and former NBA player Robert Traylor die from heart problems.
To perform the surgery, doctors needed to stop his heart for just more than an hour. His breastbone would require stainless steel wires to close. When told the news, Green said nothing for 90 minutes. At the moment he was diagnosed and agreed to surgery, basketball was the second thing on Green's mind.
And then, just before surgery, it became the first.
"Once I was pretty much assured that I would survive the procedure, I wanted to know if I could play again," he said. "Basketball was that important, and I hadn't really gotten that far in my career at that point. I had to have something to give me hope. I had to have a positive outlook, had to get stronger mentally. The whole process can really get you into depression mode. I had great friends and family who stuck by my side; I wasn't just by myself. But still, I had to know."
He missed the 2011-12 season and retreated to his home in the Washington, D.C., area and wondered.
"I had no appetite for the first four or five days," he said. "Ate nothing. Meanwhile, everything went through my head: my future, basketball, the Celtics, whether I could still be a decent player, whether I could play again at all. I tried not to feel sorry for myself, but there are times when you get down. It's hard not to."
Four months after surgery Green went back to his high school and asked his old coach for the keys to the gym. He did wind sprints, went through a few drills and eventually mustered the will and the nerve to play. "It hurt to run up and down the floor," he said, but pain never felt so pleasurable.
"To have something taken from you so quickly and then to go back out there, with the game you love, well, it's really something you can't describe," he said.
He is only 27 but feels he's lived a lifetime. In the end, it all worked out. His original contract with the Celtics was voided, but soon replaced with a four-year, $36 million deal. The Celtics have remained patient, living through his maddening performance swings and waiting for him to put it all together. Maybe that happens this season, especially with Green (averaging a respectable 15.1 points and 4.3 rebounds) getting increased playing time and accepting a leading role. It's a process that often frustrates Celtics fans and even Green, who's 6-9 with athletic gifts and capable of playing two or even three positions. But believe him when he says he's been through a lot worse.
"I've been the third option for a long time and now my role has increased," he said. "It really hasn't been this way for me since college. I've got to adjust and I will."
The requests for some of his time away from the court are increasing. Basketball season makes him more visible and the holiday season is upon us. Letters arrive, addressed to him, calls from worried parents come in and emails from hospitals inquire whether Green can stop by and say a few words to some patients. Those with heart issues aren't strangers to Green. There's a kinship, and he says it comes across when they speak.
Just a week ago, when the Celtics were in Minnesota, Green spent 10 minutes talking to a 15-year-old who had a heart transplant. Green said: "I think it meant more to me than it meant to him."
The pair of autographed shoes and the kid's reaction said otherwise.