It takes a lot to stop a guy such as Sam Saxton on the basketball court.
Listed at 6 feet, 2 inches, the former Central York High School standout led the Panthers in scoring a year ago at 15.3 points per game as a senior.
For opponents, he was clearly a handful.
Saxton’s ability and demonstrated basketball IQ at Central earned him a spot with the Le Moyne College men’s basketball team, an NCAA Division II school located near Syracuse.
Saxton was plenty excited in the fall, when he was hoping to help the Dolphins in their efforts to capture the Northeastern 10 Conference championship.
But shortly after an exhibition contest against the University of Michigan in early November, Saxton’s season was over before it could even begin. During a conditioning workout one day, Saxton collapsed on the court. After a series of tests to determine what happened, the diagnosis came in from his cardiologist — he had develop a thick ventricle in his heart.
As a result of that prognosis, the doctor ordered Saxton to refrain from exercising, weightlifting and playing basketball for at least six months.
That news was not especially well received by Saxton, who can’t remember going more than a few days without doing something basketball-related.
The ultimate hope is that Saxton’s heart will thin out by May so that he can resume his basketball activities.
We caught up with Saxton recently to talk about his health and future in basketball, as well as some other things, for this edition of Sports Q&A.
When and how did your issue with your heart become known to you?
A: “We have our preseason conditioning workouts like all teams do. And I guess I had kind of a rough schedule. We would have practice, or more like an individual workout, sometime around (6 a.m.) in the morning. And then I would have classes from 8-12 before I had conditioning at 1. I really didn’t have a chance to sit down and have a good meal. So I usually just have a granola bar or something like that and then go to conditioning, but (that day) there was two times where I just collapsed.
What happened after that?
A: “The athletic trainer wanted me to visit the wellness center on campus. They took some blood and asked me some questions and they said that everything seems fine, but they wanted me to see a cardiologist just to make sure everything was fine. So I met with a cardiologist and had an EKG and they set up a halter monitor for like two or three days. They also took some pictures of my heart, and when they got the results of the EKG back they saw that, I believe it’s the left ventricle in my heart is abnormally thick.”
Do they know how that happened?
A: “Well the cardiologist said that it was because of one of two things. It could either be something that is called "athlete’s heart," which just happens when you train a lot and a lot of certain activities can just do this to you and your heart just gets thick. The other thing it could be is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). If it’s that one, that means that your heart is growing thicker by itself without training. If it’s thicker because of training, then you’re fine and it won’t effect you at all. But the other one is bad. There’s a few (athletes) that have had it and they’ve just dropped dead on the court."
So were they able to determine which one you have?
A: “Well, to determine that they had to shut me down for six months. I’m a little past three months right now and after six months, if my heart goes back to its original or healthy thickness, than I’m fine and it’s just "athlete’s heart." But if it doesn’t, that means I have HCM, then that means I can’t play anymore.”
Do you have any idea at this point which one it’s pointing to?
A: “I just had an MRI over Christmas break because my dad wanted me to see a second doctor to get another opinion. That MRI … I haven’t actually seen it or heard what the results were. I had them sent to the trainer and he said that from the results that my heart is still thick, but he doesn’t know how thick. It could have gone down a bit, but he hasn’t actually been able to see them. So from the report it’s still thicker than it should be. I don’t know if it’s gone down, but if it’s increased that’s really bad.”
When do you hope to know the results?
A: “May 17th is when I’m going back (to the cardiologist). When I go back they will re-evaluate me and I’ll go through the same tests and kind of see where I am.”
So how did you initially react to this news?
A: “Well, I was sitting down in the room with the cardiologist. And he said that we can do one of two things: I can either just go on and see how I feel and keep playing, or I can just sit out and rest for six months. At first, I was like ‘Well I’m just going to keep playing.' I didn’t’ know that one of the possible things that could happen is that you can just collapse and die. So I told him that and he said ‘well, one of the things that can happen’ and he just explained it to me and I was like ‘oh, never mind … I’ll just sit out.' So, yeah, that was rough.
What else do you recall from that time?
A: “I remember I called my mom first, and when I called her, I don’t know, it just hit me. I was stumbling on my words kind of. I wasn’t breaking down in tears or anything, but it was just hard to say it, that I couldn’t really play for six months. So it was rough. I don’t really remember ever not playing basketball. I mean, yeah I’ve taken breaks every now and then from playing real basketball, but I’m always out shooting or something. I’m not allowed to run, pick up weights, anything. It’s tough and it’s still hard now. But I realized that being upset about it isn’t going to change anything.”
How have you coped with all of this?
A: “Just friends and family. I mean like even my AAU coach just sent me a text the other day. He’s actually Pat McGlynn, one of his sons is Four McGlynn who is at Rhode Island now. I sent him a text to congratulate Four, who had a great game, and he texted me back and asked about me. So I told him that it gets tougher each day, but he texted me back and said something along the lines that 'no matter what happens I know you’ll have a great life.' I have good friends and family. And school has always been something that I enjoy doing. I really try to get the best grades possible. You know I didn’t just pick this school only for basketball. I picked it because it provides a great education and the people here are awesome. So even if I can play or not, I know that I’m still in a great place.”
Are you on any medications for this, or is it kind of just sit and wait?
A: “Yeah, it’s sit and wait.”
Are you able to still be involved with the team at all?
A: “At first I was traveling with them, but now I don’t go to away games. I still do go to all of the practices so I can feel like a part of the team and so I can be there and learn from coach. But I don’t go to away games, so I can just stay home and do homework and work on school things. Now all of the games are streamed (on the Internet), but it’s obviously not like being there with them. But I do watch them online.”
So I’m guessing that you’re hopeful that you'll receive some good news about this come May?
A: “Yeah, I really hope that when May comes that I’m good to go. I know that very day that they tell me I’m good that I’m going to go be on the court and be in the gym to try to get back to where I was before all of this happened. I know I have all summer to work on the things that (Coach Patrick Beiline) wants me to work on. Sitting out … well it’s bad that I can’t exercise or anything, but I feel that I’m still learning a lot, especially with a new coach, just sitting and watching. I’m learning the plays and seeing how he wants us to play and what he expects. You really do see a lot more things on the court when you’re spectating everyone instead of just your own point of view. But the goal is to get back to it as soon as possible to start working out.”
So how did it come about that you got to play at the University of Michigan?
A: “We played both Syracuse and Michigan in the preseason. Syracuse is like right next door to us and Michigan is where Coach Beiline’s dad (John Beiline) coaches. Coach doesn’t really talk about his dad much, but we got to meet (John) and he’s a real great guy. It was a really cool experience to go up to Michigan. That’s the nicest basketball facility that I’ve ever been in. And his dad is a nice guy. He got us a nice dinner that was catered for us and gave us a tour before the game. It was just amazing … a really cool experience.”
What are you studying at Le Moyne?
A: “What I really want to do is engineering. They have a program, but not especially an engineering program at Le Moyne. But they do have a program with Syracuse where I can study physics here and then I can get automatically accepted into the Syracuse master’s program for engineering. Right now I’m on the program for pre-aerospace engineering.”
That sounds exciting. Is the dream job to work for NASA?
A: (Laughs) “I guess that’s a possibility, but I'm really intrigued by planes, or stuff in the air in general. So, yeah, like NASA … Whenever I say that, everyone’s like ‘oh, NASA.’ But, yeah anything really related with planes. My uncle does something similar. He designs planes, so I’m also intrigued by that.”
Finally, do they know if this is hereditary? I know your sister (Emma) is still playing in high school at Central. Should she be concerned?
A: “Well the doctor did mention that it is mostly hereditary. (HCM) doesn’t really just pop up randomly, but it can. Now I’ve always had a thick heart as a child, but it was never really a problem until I got up here. But then with me collapsing, that kind of became a warning for the doctor. My sister actually did have an EKG on her, but I don’t remember what happened. I think she had heart murmurs and she got it checked out and they said that everything was fine. And my dad did the same thing. But we’ve all … well, my dad, my sister and me, have all been checked out, but I’m the only one that really had to sit out for it. So I’m not 100 percent sure, but she’s fine for right now.”
She could be the Player of the Year in (York-Adams) Division I this year?
A: “Yeah, I’m really proud of her. I know she’s always been a great player, but she really leads her team, from my perspective. Just energy-wise … she’s always making plays and stuff.”
Reach Ryan Vandersloot at email@example.com.