Heart ailment spelled end to playing career

Wake's O'Kelley turned to ministry

The State (Columbia, S.C.)March 14, 2010 

(Eighth in a series on what happened after college to basketball players from the eight original ACC schools.)

Robert O'Kelley admits to having sat on top of the world, living the high life. He was handsomely paid as a professional basketball player in Brazil, and as the lone U.S. player on the team, he was treated with hero status.

O'Kelley had enjoyed the same kind of success and status since leaving Wake Forest and playing in Spain, Belgium, Iceland, Hungary and finally Brazil from 2002 through 2005.

One day late in the 2005 season, O'Kelley and his Brazilian teammates on the Conti/Amea/Assis team watched television in horror as a soccer player collapsed on the field and died of heart failure. Soon after, the Brazilian government instituted mandatory heart tests for all professional athletes.

So in January 2006, O'Kelley figured to be cleared after undergoing what he believed would be a routine electrocardiogram.

The EKG ended O'Kelley's career when doctors found he suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the same heart disease that took the life of former college basketball star Hank Gathers.

"I was in shock and disbelief. I kept thinking: 'There is no way. This is wrong,' " O'Kelley says. "I've been playing basketball all my life. I never had any symptoms or anything like that."

O'Kelley returned to his hometown of Memphis to seek second and third opinions. Both Memphis physicians confirmed that the left side of O'Kelley's heart was unusually large, and extreme physical conditioning put his heart and his life at risk.

O'Kelley could not fathom the end of his career at age 27. He was a star coming out of White Station High School in Memphis, where he started over four seasons and set the school's all-time scoring record with 2,400 points.

O'Kelley took Wake Forest by storm his freshman season, averaging 16 points and earning ACC Rookie of the Year in 1998.

He was second-team All-ACC as a sophomore and led Wake Forest to the NIT championship as a junior.

O'Kelley eventually found a second calling in his life. He is the recreation sports ministry directory at Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis.

"My whole goal through sports is to try to affect kids' lives through Christ," O'Kelley says.

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