Tell us about your new PSA push with the National Kidney Foundation. What are you and your wife, Tracy, trying to accomplish through the campaign?
First and foremost, we're trying to bring as much attention as possible to kidney disease; educate the general public about risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and family history; share the warning signs and the importance of regularly seeing your doctor; and highlight organ donation. So many people have kidney disease and just don't know it, which is why it's so important to create a relationship with your doctor. The National Kidney Foundation provides free kidney screenings around the country.
You had a kidney transplant in 2003. That would have been reason enough to retire, but you came back to play in the NBA 2004. Why?
I came back because I knew that I had work to do. Since I went through transplantation, I felt it was my mission to touch other people's lives through the pain that I had to go through. I have been able to use my experience to enlighten -- and provide hope and support to -- individuals who are battling all kinds of physical obstacles, such as kidney disease, cancer, and diabetes. Being back on the court has helped to lift other's lives.
How did you first discover your kidney disease (focal glomerulosclerosis)? What was the cause?
I found out about my condition through a routine, annual, preseason team physical. Once they ruled out all of the possible known causes, and made sure that I did not have diabetes, they came to conclusion that I had [focal glomerulosclerosis], which lead to kidney failure.
Did the disease (and the transplant) change the way you think about your body and your health?
Yes, very much so. I always say that people pay more attention to the type of gas they put in their car than the food they put in their mouth. When I was first diagnosed, I started making decisions about what was healthy for my body.
Did it change the way you play?
Absolutely, since the medication that I am on affects my endurance. It has limited the minutes that I can play, which has been an adjustment for me.
How did it affect your relationship with your second cousin (Jason Cooper), who donated his kidney to you?
After not seeing each other for over 25 years, it definitely drew us closer together. We have established a brotherly type of relationship.
How is your health right now?
Fantastic, and very stable. My doctors are pleased. I feel strong and healthy, and part of my success has been my ability to be open to different holistic treatments.
What is your best health habit? Your worst?
Best: I keep my body strong and continue to practice yoga. Worst: Pizza!
How have sports influenced your health (in positive and/or negative ways)?
Positive: Being involved in sports has allowed to me to heal and deal with kidney disease. One of the biggest mistakes that people make once they are diagnosed is to become inactive. It might just be walking to the mailbox or around the block, but it's very important to stay active. Doctors were amazed by what I am able to do after going through such an extreme procedure, and how well I am able to do it. The reason I am able to continue at this level of competition is because I had a good physical fitness foundation. My body was able to recover faster, is what my doctors tell me. When patients are overweight, and have high cholesterol and/or high blood pressure, it makes the healing process much longer -- and tougher.
Negative: I don't believe that sports have had a negative effect on my health at all. Regardless of how successful I am, there will be wear and tear on my body.
Do you have a personal health philosophy? What is it?
"You are what you eat." It is a statement that is often ignored, but you truly are what you eat. If you eat unhealthy things, then you're going to feel unhealthy, as you get older. If you eat good things for your body, you'll feel so much better.
What qualities do you most desire in a doctor or health care provider?
I look for a very broad way of thinking in a physician. I want a doctor who doesn't just leave it to prescription drugs to make it happen to you. I want a broad range of understanding on how to heal people. My nephrologist, Dr. Gerald Appel, MD, is respected worldwide. And my holistic doctor, Dr. Hotchner, is someone I admire.
Do you give health advice to your teammates? Do you take health advice from them?
Yes, I've given them herbal health remedies to help with cold and flu. But I do want everyone to know, especially those with transplants who are taking other medications, that before taking any herbal remedies you need to check with your MD. Do I take advice from my teammates? NO!
How has being a parent changed you?
It made me understand responsibility even more, because I have another life that relies on me to exist.
Did becoming a father affect how you take care of yourself?
Most definitely. For example, when I turned 30 I had a custom Aston Martin made for me. After only driving it only once, I gave it back. When I was driving in it I felt like I was in a cockpit -- I have two children, and I knew that this was not smart.
What single piece of health advice would you want your kids to take to heart?
Whatever you put in your bodies will have an effect on the way you feel. So put the right things into your body.
Zo's Fund for Life is your charitable organization that supports education, research, and financial relief for those suffering from kidney disease. To date, how much money has ZFFL raised, and what kind of impact has the organization had?
Zo's Fund for Life has raised more than $2 million dollars since its inception in 2001, and we continue to help with education from our expanding web site, patient assistance, and research at the Glomerular Center at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. Through the feedback we have received from the web site, it is very necessary to continue to give updated information on kidney disease and, more specifically, on FSGS (the specific kidney disease that I was diagnosed with).
There is not enough information out there about it, and it is our mission to help answer some of those questions. I also know that I was blessed to have great insurance through the NBA to help with my medications and procedures. Not everyone has that, so we are trying to help through our patient-assistance program. Giving someone a little bit of relief through a tough time means a great deal. For more information about Zo's Fund for Life, please visit our web site at www.zosfundforlife.org.
You're 37, which is considered an advanced age in the NBA. How long will you keep playing?
I will keep playing until I feel that I have given everything I have left.
How do you feel about aging?
I am looking forward to it, because I have seen 70-year-old women who practiced yoga for more than 30 years and they have aged gracefully. I am looking forward to getting to that point and feeling good. It is a challenge -- and I always welcome a challenge.
Who are your heroes (either on or off the court)?
On court: Patrick Ewing, Hakim Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, and Julius "Dr. J" Irving. Off court: Any parent who is working to take care of his or her family and children.
What do you look forward to (daily, and/or in the long term)?
Spending time with my family, and then, my grandkids.
Originally published in the September/October 2007 issue of WebMD the Magazine.