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West discusses heart condition

WASHINGTON -- Jerry West knew there was something amiss with his body during his playing days with the Los Angeles Lakers.

He would have to breathe into a paper bag during games to keep from hyperventilating. He couldn't sleep. His heart sometimes felt out of rhythm.

Years later, he would learn that he was suffering from atrial fibrillation, a heart rhythm disturbance.

"An athlete is well aware with what's going on in his body. I knew there was something wrong," the Hall of Fame guard told The Associated Press. "I wonder if they tested me now, would they have said I couldn't have played?"

For the first time Monday, West discussed in detail his five-decade battle with the condition that led him to retire from the Lakers' front office nine years ago. It's a disease that disproportionally affects the elderly, but the man whose silhouette graces the NBA logo said he has been dealing with it since his 20s.

"I pretty much have kept it hidden over the years," West said.

West, who turns 71 this month, told his story at the launch of AF Stat, a national initiative aimed at increasing awareness of the little-understood condition that affects an estimated 2½ million Americans.

West said sheer adrenaline helped him get through his 14-year playing career in the 1960s and '70s and that doctors originally thought he was perhaps just one of those people who had a benign extra beat in his heart from time to time.

It was when he left the game for the front office that the symptoms hit him hard.

"It got to the point where I couldn't even watch the game, if it was a significant game," said West, who spent 19 years as either the Lakers general manager or executive vice president of basketball operations. "I would go to the movie theater and tape the game. I couldn't wait to know the score. If we won, I'd watch the game.

"I would have these anxiety, panic attacks, sleepless nights, irritable -- all the things associated with this problem. It seemed to manifest itself in me," he said.

West always had a reputation for being high-strung and nervous, but he knew this was something more. He was finally diagnosed at age 42 and said he didn't start getting seriously treated until he was 50.

West said he's never talked much about the condition because there was so little information available about it, something he hopes will change with the launch of the new initiative. He was optimistic Monday after meeting two doctors who said they might be able to help him, an encouraging sign after another sleepless episode.

"I was out of rhythm last night," West said. "Some people feel it -- and I feel it -- and some people don't. I think it's best to feel it because at least you're aware of it and you have an idea that something's going on here and you can go to a doctor."

West said his condition was a "huge part" of his decision in 2000 to leave the Lakers, the only team he'd ever known.

"You go into a store and buy a quart of milk, it says you'd better drink it by this point in time or it's going to spoil," West said. "I think I was spoiled. It was to the point where I cared more about the Lakers than anything else in my life and your family gets forgotten. I was just run out. Hospitalized twice for exhaustion. The Lakers were my life."

Two years later, West was feeling better, so he came out of retirement to run the Memphis Grizzlies for five seasons. That, he said, was enough.

"I get asked all the time are you going to go back to work, and I say, 'Nope,'" West said. "I'm not going to put myself at risk, and more importantly there's some kid out there that can do a good job and should have that opportunity, and so I'm a retired person."

But West isn't the kind to sit in a rocking chair and watch the world go by, which makes his condition even more frustrating. He still keeps close tabs on the NBA and has lunch with Lakers owner Jerry Buss on occasion.

And, of course, he watched on television as the Lakers squeaked by the Houston Rockets in seven games in the Western Conference semifinals.

"I heard somebody say they were embarrassed," West said. "The reason you shouldn't be embarrassed is you're not giving credit to the other team. If that other team was healthy, that would have really have been an interesting series. ... I thought the only team that could beat the Lakers or play with them was Houston. They played well against them, but they didn't have all their pieces there."

How about the conference finals vs. the Denver Nuggets?

"It wouldn't surprise me if that would be a tough series," West said, "but I just think the Lakers are the best team."