WALTHAM, Mass. — When Jeff Green entered the NBA as a fresh-faced 21-year-old forward out of Georgetown, Chris Wilcox was assigned to teach the rookie the ins and outs of being a professional basketball player.
As Wilcox's "rook," Green would have learned where and when to attend practice with the Seattle SuperSonics but also might have gotten a phone call at 2 a.m. to pick up some tasty In & Out Burger for Wilcox, who was then a five-year veteran. Being a first-year player in the NBA is a dream come true, but is can be a royal pain if a rookie is assigned to a ruthless vet.
Wilcox must not have been too rough on the rook, though, because five years later the roles are reversed. Wilcox is following in Green's footsteps, two months behind his Celtics teammate in their recoveries from aortic abnormalities that required both to undergo heart surgery.
"I definitely feel a bond with Jeff Green for the rest of my life," Wilcox said Friday at the Celtics' practice facility. "When he first came into the league, he was my rook. We grew a bond right then, and for us to be on the same team going through the same thing, he's been like my mentor going through this thing. I've been looking up to him, saying, 'OK, what's next?'"
Green's season was wiped out before it started when he was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm early in last year's abbreviated training camp and underwent surgery in January. He initially feared he would never play basketball again, a worry that Wilcox was spared from three months later when the 10th-year veteran was diagnosed with an enlarged aorta. Both were sidelined for the Celtics' surprisingly deep playoff run, which was agonizing for them to watch.
Green, now 26, is as close to 100 percent as he can be following his procedure. He has offered Wilcox advice about what to expect with his treatment and has served as Wilcox's "motivation" to progress ahead of schedule. But Green was reluctant to claim the title of the 30-year-old Wilcox's "mentor," since he is merely passing on the guidance he received from other NBA players with similar experiences. Green prefers the
nickname "scar buddy."
"I'm not happy that he went through it, but for him to be back playing again, I'm happy," Green said. "For him to say I'm his mentor? Nah. I just try to help out, just like Etan Thomas, Ronny Turiaf, Fred Hoiberg helped me out. It's not something you wish on anybody. For us to be together with the experience we've gone through, it's a blessing to say we're back with the Celtics and playing again."
Green and Wilcox's prognoses appear to be so positive, the main question facing either player this season is not health-related. Some observers criticized the four-year, $36.2 million contract the Celtics gave to Green this summer after Green's 35-game stint with Boston in 2010-11, which preceded last season's absence, was uninspiring.
Yet Green seemed unconcerned about being able to click with Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and others this season. He estimated it will take a day or two once he gets a full feel for the system. After heart surgery, knowing when to rotate on defense or where to be on a pick-and-roll seems much less challenging.
Most of Green's teammates will not understand that feeling, but one does.
"It's great because he understands everything I've been through," Green said. "He understands everything we still need to do to get back to the form we were at before the surgery. I could sit here and tell you about everything, but you won't fully understand. For me to be able to go to Chris and say, 'When you were at this stage, how was this for you?' It helps a lot."
In a way, Green is simply paying Wilcox back. Wilcox once showed Green the ropes of being an NBA player for the first time. Now Green is showing him how to do it a second time around.