Picture the thing you love most in the world. It's something inseparable from your self, something that defines you and for which you would, and already have, sacrificed a great deal. Picture this thing, and then imagine it slipping away, imagine everything slipping away, suddenly and uncontrollably, not because of anything that you or anyone else did but because of some cruel rogue luck inside your body—a clot that escapes your leg and journeys up to your lungs. People die just like this.
Chris Bosh doesn't have to imagine. He lived it. In late February of 2015, the month before his 31st birthday, Bosh was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism, threatening not just his NBA career but his life. His season was over. Fortunately, his condition improved, and doctors later told him he'd be able to play again. The question, at that point, was what kind of player Bosh would be when he came back. Would he be the versatile All-Star so essential to the Heat's designs, or would he be a shadow? Six months away from the game is a virtual lifetime for players; a brush with death is not quite in the same universe as an ACL tear.
Bosh never had a doubt he could regain his All-Star form. He didn't even necessarily look at the clots as a setback, he told me, and thought of it instead as a chance to reset. "I felt that I got rest," Bosh says. "It was my time to get a lot of rest, get some good books in, and see the world. I just wanted to recharge my body and mind, just recuperate."
Rest is rare in the NBA, and the league's constant travel and relentless exertion conspire to make Bosh's condition more common than it should be. Even in the summer, players—well, those who aren't Andre Miller—are working out, developing their games, pushing themselves. When Bosh was released from the hospital, he found himself with a previously unthinkable amount of time on his hand. He'd return to the game soon enough. Before that, though, he wanted to spend his newfound freedom with those most important to him.
"When it happened, me and my wife, we went all over the place," Bosh says. "Spent so much time with my kids, because I knew this was never going to happen again until I retire. So let me enjoy this. Let me do as much as possible and let me just enjoy life. And then when it's time to get back to the game, I'll be ready. I'll attack it with enthusiasm."
He'd need every ounce of that enthusiasm, because getting a 31-year-old body back into peak physical shape was not easy.
"I was sore in places that I didn't even know," Bosh says. "I had never taken that long off basketball in my life. I was off for about three months and then I got back in the gym in May and, oh my God, from May to early August, every time I left the gym I was just sore."
Getting back into the gym was just the first step. From there, Bosh resumed basketball activities, slowly working his way back. Now, nearly a year after he almost lost it all, Bosh is once again his All-Star self, averaging 20 points, 8 rebounds and shooting nearly 38 percent from deep. While Hassan Whiteside makes the highlights, it's Bosh's unique defensive versatility—hedging, recovering, blocking, bodying up, all with an amazing grace that has only become more virtuosic as his career has gone on—that serves as the fulcrum of the Heat's defense. Miami's championship teams depended upon this, and this scrappier Heat team needs it just as much.
"I didn't have any doubt," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra says about Bosh. "He put in a lot of work this summer. He had great perspective about something that was taken away from him. He feels so grateful just to be out here again."
Bosh has always seemed to be the league's most casual superstar, living as if basketball did not consume him wholly the way it did, say, Kevin Garnett. He has so many different interests that have nothing to do with his sport, from reading to coding, that you almost think he'd be OK if he could never play again. No matter how much he embraced life outside of basketball, though, he never took the game for granted. When he got a second chance after his health scare, Bosh wanted to show people how much it meant to him. His time away from the NBA gave him clarity, a newfound perspective on life on and off the court.
"As many things as I like to do, I'm still a basketball player," Bosh says. "This is what I was meant to do. I had so many talks with close friends, and they all said, 'Maybe this is a second chance for you to inject passion back into the game. Reel yourself back in and show people what you're capable of. Reach out to the kids, give back to the community, and put your God-given talent on display.'"
It's not just Bosh's talent that's been on display; it's also been his love for the game. He's as intense as ever during games—still erupting in primal screams and beating his chest, just as he was a decade ago in Toronto—but the new Chris Bosh plays a game that's buttressed, perhaps even fueled, by joy. He'll chat with opponents—not necessarily talking trash, just carrying on a conversation with friends he doesn't see often enough—or make funny faces at his daughters during games. He does all this all with a giddy glee, as if to say, Can you believe this is our life?
Even when the Heat struggle, as they have the past few weeks, Bosh's enthusiasm hasn't dwindled. It can't, he says, because it's "just etched into me now." Other players on the team—and really, anywhere in the league—can't say the same, if only because they haven't been through what Bosh has. He takes it upon himself to remind them to stay positive and steady.
"In terms of leadership, he's been everything you would want for a great player to be," Spoelstra says. " I think a lot of it is that perspective of being out of the game last year. He's not letting anyone take anything for granted."
"I experienced so much pain in the hospital that this is nothing," Bosh says. "Alright, it's tough times, but I could be in a hospital right now, so it's not that bad. I come out, play basketball, give it all I got. That's perfect. That's heaven for me. Enjoy the highs, enjoy the lows, just get better from all of it."