Breathing Easy On and Off the Basketball Court
How NBA Standout Richard Jefferson Saved his Career With Bronchial Thermoplasty
By Gary Fitzgerald
For as long as Richard Jefferson can remember, he has had asthma. When he was a seventh-grader growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, he was hospitalized for a few days after a flare-up. When he was a standout basketball player at the University of Arizona in the late 1990s, he was once sidelined due to the condition.
Jefferson took medication, including using a nebulizer before games, to manage his asthma. It helped. He emerged as a star in the NBA and since 2001 he has played for seven teams.
“As I approached my 30s, my asthma started to become more and more severe,” Jefferson said. “It affected my performance on the basketball court, and my career.”
At one point, he considered retiring from the game.
In 2011, Jefferson learned about bronchial thermoplasty, a minimally invasive outpatient procedure. It’s for people with severe asthma and involves inserting a long, slender tube called a bronchoscope into the airways, after which heat is applied to help reduce airway muscle tissue. The procedure is designed to help reduce asthma flares by decreasing the ability of the airways to constrict, allowing more air to pass and make breathing easier.
Jefferson decided to undergo the procedure in 2012. Now 37, he is thriving on and off the basketball court. His asthma is well controlled and he’s coming off a strong 2016-17 season in which he helped the Cleveland Cavaliers reach the NBA Finals. (He’s currently with the Denver Nuggets.)
Allergy & Asthma Today recently sat down with Jefferson to talk about his asthma and the decision to undergo bronchial thermoplasty.
Q: Growing up, what triggered your asthma?
A: My asthma was triggered by exercise. For me, running has always been a big part of who I am. In college and the NBA, I was known as a player who could run fast and had a high motor. When I struggled with asthma, I really noticed the difference in my stamina.
I didn’t really let my team or teammates know. In pro sports, if teams think you have a health problem, they may not resign you to a new contract. They may think your best days are behind you and they may be less likely to take a chance on you, especially after 10 or 12 years in the league.
Q: How close were you to retiring?
A: Right around my 12th year in the NBA, I learned my asthma was considered severe. No matter how hard I trained or how hard I worked, five minutes into a game I would get very fatigued. It felt like I had played 45 minutes instead of five. People thought I was out of shape, but really it was a matter of, ‘I can’t breathe because of my asthma.’
It was a situation where I felt I needed to do something. I felt like my body was breaking down from the inside out.
That’s when I decided to research bronchial thermoplasty. I first found out about it myself, searching for it on the Internet. When I decided to do the procedure, I thought, ‘If this doesn’t work, I’ve played 12 years in the NBA and I’ve had a great career. I can move on and be happy.’
Q: Was the procedure difficult?
A: I’ve had surgeries on my wrist, foot and ankle in my career, and this was the easiest procedure. That’s why I’m adamant people with severe asthma do the research and talk with their doctor to find out if bronchial thermoplasty is right for them. There’s also BTforAsthma.com, a website where you can check if you’re someone who is a candidate for the procedure.
Q: What improvements have you seen and how do you feel now?
A: I noticed the difference in my breathing in just the first few months after the procedure. During the next few years, my asthma continued to get better. Now I’m able to play at a level that is normal for me. I probably would not be playing at the level I am if I had not undergone the procedure.
Everybody is different, though. I’m speaking from my own experience – I’m a person who needs to feel a certain way to perform at my job. For other people, asthma relief could be playing with your kids at the park. For me, it was all about regaining my stamina. It has increased significantly. It’s evident in how I play, in my athleticism and in my ability to impact a game.
My need for a quick-relief inhaler has decreased and I don’t use a nebulizer before games anymore. These are all things I was so glad to be able to put behind me and move forward from there.
Q: Bronchial thermoplasty is not always covered under health insurance policies. Do you think it should be?
A: My personal opinion is, yes, it should be. Just look at the respiratory problems people with severe asthma have to deal with and the amount of medicines they have to take. If there’s a procedure that can help them breathe tremendously better, then they should have access to it and cost should not be a barrier.
I think we need to get away from just giving people medicines long-term and start to see if there are procedures or therapies that can help them from the inside out.
Q: You co-own a yoga studio in Hermosa Beach, California. Some people say yoga can help people manage their asthma – although the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI) advises that yoga is not considered an asthma treatment. How does yoga help you?
A: It helps me better control my breathing. When you’re doing yoga and you’re stretching your body, you put yourself in a position where you have to inhale and exhale at a continual pace. It forces you to practice controlling your breathing. Yoga is something I gravitated to because of my asthma. When I started doing yoga, I immediately saw the benefits it had on my body and my breathing.
Q: What role do you see for yourself in educating people with severe asthma?
A: I want to talk to people with severe asthma, including athletes with severe asthma – maybe a college football player afraid of losing a scholarship, maybe a basketball player who doesn’t want people to think he’s showing weakness – and let them know there are answers out there.
Severe asthma caused quite a lot of stress in my life and my career. I know how it can affect you, and if I can help take that stress away from somebody with severe asthma, tell them about my experience, then I feel I’m doing the right thing.
Q: So how long do you still plan to play in the NBA?
A: Five years ago I remember feeling asthma was going to cut my basketball career short, so right now I feel like this is extra time I never counted on. I know my playing days are numbered, but if I can play two more years and enjoy it, I’m going to do it. If I can play four more years, I’m going to do it.
One thing I do know is that once I stop playing, there’s no going back. I want to get it all out, enjoy it, and then move on to the next phase of my life.
Reviewed by Bradley Chipps, MD