In early October, Reggie King should have been with his Winthrop mens basketball teammates, wind-sprinting through the first weeks of his senior season. Instead, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound point guard was on an operating table, tubes snaking in and out of his body.
A heart arrhythmia had handcuffed his ability to hustle on the court and to jump-start his team by being an example in practice Kings defining attributes on the hardwood. Because of the condition, teammates could place their hands on his chest and feel his heart pounding, churning like it was about to burst through the skin.
At the Cleveland Clinic operating room in October, doctors worked to correct the arrhythmia. It was just the latest in a life full of ordeals for King, who will suit up Saturday for his last home game at Winthrop.
But this ordeal was abnormal. His heart had never been called into question.
What makes him who he is, said former Winthrop coach Randy Peele, is his heart.
A new family
Alex Demetrious family lived in the affluent northwestern suburbs of Chicago, and he and his older brother, Steven Jr., constantly hosted friends for sleepovers. One of those friends was his then-11-year-old AAU basketball teammate King. After leaving a tournament one Saturday, King returned to the Demetriou home. He spent much of the next month at their house, the first steps toward a life change that took him from the troubled streets of Chicago to one of the citys more affluent suburbs.
Eventually, the two close friends earnestly approached Alexs mother, Michele Swicegood, saying they needed to have a meeting. They wanted the family to adopt Reggie. Swicegood never thought twice.
I can do that, she recalled saying immediately.
It took several years, but King, who is African-American, eventually joined his new family through a private legal guardianship he wasnt actually adopted which allowed Swicegood and her family to avoid some of the bureaucracy. The process was completed on Aug. 23, 2004.
King left Evanston behind for Glencoe, Ill., and its median household income of $200,000, according to the 2010 census. Looking back, its hardly surprising he fit in seamlessly with the Demetrious, who are white, and their golf course community.
Never did we think about it, or (did) he show anything different as far as entering our family, said Steve Demetriou, a businessman who owns the Erie Bayhawks NBA Developmental League franchise.
King is still close with his biological family, most of whom still live in Chicago.
The Demetrious later moved to the Cleveland, Ohio, area, where King averaged more than 20 points per game his junior year at West Geauga High School. Later, King left the comfort of his new home and transferred to Asheville, N.C.s prestigious Christ School. King says basketball has consistently been a refuge from personal turmoil; for two blissful years he repeated his junior year Christ School was his mountain oasis.
It was a dream playing on a team loaded with future Division I players, most notably the Plumlee brothers Mason, Miles and Marshall and Lakeem Jackson. The Plumlees played at Duke, while Jackson went to South Carolina.
The Greenies went 70-4 during Kings time there and won state championships both seasons. He never averaged double figures in scoring as Christ Schools starting point guard, but that wasnt his role on coach David Gaines squad.
Reggies an intangibles guy, Gaines said last week. Hes a great communicator; he does it in a way that challenges but doesnt offend guys. Hes also a guy that knows his limitations. Reggie for us knew, my jobs not to score, its to get others involved.
Peele saw those qualities when he recruited King. Four years later, Kings career numbers are anything but eye-catching. Hes only scored 57 points in 65 career games. He has only two career blocks, one career 3-pointer, and hed never started until this year.
But King contributes so much that doesnt show up statistically. The box score doesnt record dives to the hardwood or floor-burned elbows. Statisticians certainly dont track lighthearted one-liners or lead-by-example moments that pump up midweek practices. King daily posts double-doubles in those subtleties.
Peele always liked to have three point guards on his teams just in case. He recruited King with that role in mind. It takes a special personality to accept a diminished role, but Kings chance to lead from the front surfaced in the 2010 Big South Conference championship game against Coastal Carolina.
Winthrops standout starting point guard, Reggie Middleton, was hampered by foul trouble, and a thigh bruise benched backup point guard Justin Burton with eight minutes remaining.
That left King, a freshman previously limited to cheerleading and mop-up duties, to save the game. He didnt score, and he only grabbed one rebound. But he also didnt turn the ball over, and the Eagles 40-37 lead grew to 11 points (55-44) during his five minutes on the court.
He played with great poise, said Peele. He ran our team. It was huge. Reggie King was, in a lot of ways, the MVP of the 2010 conference championship game.
The heartbeat of every team hed ever suited up for, Kings own heart became an issue in 2011. Warning signs appeared during skill development workouts.
He was really fatigued, really fatigued, Peele explained. He was sweating, like, profusely. So youre concerned about it.
King visited a doctor, who decided to closely monitor his heart. Then, during the summer and fall leading into his junior season, King started having heart palpitations. When the palpitations became more frequent and severe in 2012, doctors decided he needed an operation.
PVCs premature ventricular contractions were the source of Kings arrhythmia; a persons heartbeat is controlled by electric pulses, and PVCs cause the normal rhythm to pump a beat too soon.
Through an incision in Kings groin, a group of doctors ran a catheter toward his heart and began to carefully burn select tissue to incite the PVCs so they could be corrected.
King was entirely conscious during the operation; not only could he watch the torturous work on a little screen to his left, he felt every burning poke and smoldering prod. When his heart rate dropped, doctors gave him caffeine intravenously. In 60 seconds, his rate shot from 40 beats per minute up to 180. King was trapped in physical agony for nine hours.
It felt like someone was punching me in my chest, he recalled. I was screaming out so loud.
The operation was deemed successful early on, but it still wasnt certain that King would be able to play again. Hed taken basketball for granted his entire life.
That was the lowest point Id ever seen Reggie, said Demetriou.
Finally, Kings heart relaxed, and he was released to play in December. In the first game back against Brevard College, King played 10 out-of-shape minutes, but was able to break away for a layup. The otherwise routine bucket drew a roar from the crowd and a bear hug from teammate Derrick Henry, who ignored his defensive duties for a brief emotion-filled moment.
It just felt good, said King. Kind of a weight off my shoulders; that I get to play again, that I still got it a little bit.
Doctors say King shouldnt have any problems in day-to-day life, though any exercise and significant heart rate increases will likely have to be monitored for the rest of his life.
A bright future
When University of Notre Dame basketball coach Mike Brey visited Christ School for a recruiting trip in 2008, the first person he encountered in the parking lot was King. Typically, the high-schooler struck up a conversation with Brey, a complete stranger. Later, the Fighting Irish coach told Gaines about Kings chatty greeting.
Not sure how good a player he is, Brey said, but I do believe I just met a future governor of North Carolina.
King spent much of his first 11 years battling life in some of the troubled neighborhoods of Chicago. Now, he makes a constant effort to be involved and included, to the point that he gives Miss Fran, a cafeteria worker at Winthrops DiGiorgio Student Center, a hug every day.
Hes gonna experience great success as he continues to grow in life, said Peele. Hes a wonderful human being and one of the best leaders Ive ever been around.
Because of those traits, Breys kind of optimism surrounds King now.
He is a survivor, said Swicegood. He knew that he couldnt do it on his own when he called me in June of 2004 and said If I stay here, nothing good will happen. He knew who to call to get him out of that situation.
Saturdays contest against UNC Asheville will be Kings last game in the Winthrop Coliseum, the final time hell lead the Eagles out of the tunnel. Only his impending graduation will produce more tears for the woman he still calls mommy.
It is filled with emotion, said Swicegood, and probably is the last time hell play organized basketball...
But more importantly than anything, its the fact that its just the beginning.
Bret McCormick 803-329-4032 Twitter: @BretJust1T