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Purdue center’s biggest impact: Choosing life, walking away from basketball

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Jay Simpson’s basketball career at Purdue University lasted 36 games. In that time the 6-foot-10 center accounted for 138 points, 117 rebounds, 14 blocks and 15 steals.

Immovable numbers they are. Ones forever encased in having one’s athletic career abruptly cut short by a heart condition that could have tragically taken Simpson’s life.

Thank goodness it did not.

Unfortunately, the hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) Simpson was diagnosed with already has its own hoops Mount Rushmore of Hank Gathers, Reggie Lewis, Kevin Duckworth and Jason Collier.

A 6-7 Loyola Marymount University power forward, Gathers collapsed and died in a 1990 college game against the University of Portland three weeks after celebrating his 23rd birthday.

Lewis, the former Boston Celtics guard and a 1992 NBA All-Star, succumbed to HCM at a practice in 1993. He was 27.

In 2005, Atlanta Hawks center Jason Collier, a member of coach Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers from 1996-98 before transferring to Georgia Tech, died en route to the hospital at age 28.

Duckworth passed away in 2008. He was slightly more fortunate, living to 44 — a little more than a decade after completing an NBA career in which the 7-footer played for five franchises.

Simpson’s first signs of trouble came in Purdue’s 76-57 loss at Nebraska on Feb. 23. He fell to the floor in the second half and left the game under his own power. The redshirt freshman did not return to the Boilermakers’ lineup.

Nor will he ever.

To which I say purchase a cake, break out the confetti and party horns and let’s celebrate.

Jay Simpson the human being is what’s important here, not the number of victories his talents might have contributed to from now until the end of Purdue’s 2016-17 season.

I’ve never met Simpson’s parents or two brothers, but I’m guessing they would agree.

Simpson is lucky. He might not share this sentiment now or even a year from now, but he scratched the winning lottery ticket called life.

Someday when he’s using his senior discount in restaurants or reading a book to one of hopefully many grandchildren he’ll understand.

If he doesn’t already.

Simpson is 20, two years older than John Stewart was the night HCM forced the former Lawrence North center to exhale his final breaths.

This Wednesday marks the 15-year anniversary of Stewart’s passing during the third quarter of what was a Class 4A regional game between the No. 2 Wildcats and top-ranked Bloomington South.

Two of the people shoehorned into Columbus North’s 7,000-seat gym that unforgettably horrible evening were Daily Journal sports editor Rick Morwick and myself.

It happened some 10 rows of bleachers in front of us.

Every March 12, that night is where my thoughts go, and I barely knew John. Imagine the unimaginable grief those closest to Stewart, Gathers, Lewis and the others continue to experience.

Simpson could have been next. But he wasn’t.

Doctors diagnosed the problem and then broke the news to a kid who I imagine dreamed of one day playing in the NBA.

Simpson will now have readjust his thinking. His passions. His goals.

The fact he gets that opportunity makes him a success.

Mike Beas is a sports writer for the Daily Journal. Send comments to mbeas@dailyjournal.net.

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