The basketball legend talks candidly about the long road to his atrial fibrillation diagnosis — the symptoms he dismissed and the denial that almost killed him.

“I went to a baseball game.”

That’s how NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 76, found out he had atrial fibrillation (AFib). Two years ago, he attended a Los Angeles Dodgers game, and “every time I tried to move from one place to another,” he told WebMD CEO Bob Brisco, “I’d get extra tingly fatigue and out of breath. And I didn’t understand it.”

This wasn’t the first time. Abdul-Jabbar had been dealing with similar symptoms for a while and downplayed them because they’d been subtle and came and went. But now he admits they’d been getting worse over time and the ballgame was the worst yet.

His business manager was with him and insisted Abdul-Jabbar go to the hospital. He refused, of course – this was just a passing thing, he thought. He finally relented, however, and once at the hospital he received a quick diagnosis: AFib.

“We can’t defeat something if we can’t even acknowledge that it exists,” he said. “The denial aspect of it is a killer. It’s no big deal, it’s going to go away, and then it doesn’t go away. You’re the one that might go away.”

Video Transcript

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Bob Brisco: It’s our privilege to have as our guest this morning Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. You may know him as an athlete. He’s also an author, a screenwriter and activist, and a health advocate.

Kareem, we have you with us today to talk about atrial fibrillation (AFib). Why are we talking to you about AFib?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Well, I’m someone who has had to deal with AFib. Just a couple years ago, I was dealing with it and it was not fun, especially because I didn’t know what was happening to me.

Brisco: Can you take us through that? How did you discover that you have it?

Abdul-Jabbar: I started to notice that I was having shortness of breath, and at various times, I felt lightheaded and tired though I hadn’t been doing anything. I went to a baseball game. I got to the Dodgers game. And every time I tried to do something, to move from one place to another, I got extra tingly fatigue and out of breath. I didn’t understand it. My business manager saw what I was dealing with and told me I was going to the hospital and I was like, No, I don’t want to do that.

The fact that I didn’t want to do that was a problem, because when you’re dealing with this issue, you really need help. So, finally, I went from the baseball game straight to the hospital, and I was diagnosed with AFib.

Brisco: I want to talk a little bit about the reluctance to get care and treatment. You said you were a little reluctant because you thought, oh, this can’t really be a major thing that I’m dealing with here? But then it turned out that it kind of is. Did you have thoughts about that? You’ve written for us before about how there’s reluctance in some underprivileged communities around that in particular. Do you have thoughts about leaning in and getting the care that you need?

Abdul-Jabbar: Many times, people wait until they can’t function to say, oh, there’s something wrong with me. The denial aspect of it can be a killer. You know, it can force you or incentivize you to not worry about it. It’s no big deal. It’s going to go away, and then it doesn’t go away. And you’re the one that might go away. You don’t want to be that person.

We should discuss the fact that AFib increases your probability of having a stroke by a factor of five. That’s serious. You know, most people don’t want to have strokes. I don’t know anyone who does. And there are other aspects of it. The symptoms you have — shortness of breath, fatigue, lightheadedness — it’s something that will continue and continue to get worse.

Brisco: You know, on Medscape, we have about 10 million physicians and other healthcare professionals who read our coverage every day, every week, every month worldwide. And this is a topic we talk about a lot — about unequal access and what’s going on there. I know everyone’s trying to improve it, but it’s got a long way to go still. So I think that the issues that you’re raising, we can’t be afraid to talk about. We need to do better on that access and supporting those communities.

Abdul-Jabbar: I think you’re absolutely right. We can’t defeat something if we can’t even acknowledge that it exists.

Brisco: Is your sense that the dialogue is getting better about this a little bit?

Abdul-Jabbar: I think we are getting momentum because people are starting to talk about the various factors that keep people from having the best results from their visits to the health system. If you understand what can go wrong and how you need to approach it, you’re going to get a much better result and you will find out that something that might have been a problem in 6 months, if you deal with it now, you can rest assured that in 6 months you’ll be on your way to a complete recovery. Instead of worrying about it, taking you further down a bad path.

Brisco: What I appreciate about you, and I know our readers and viewers do, is that you lean into these topics and try to put a spotlight on what we should do better as communities, and as a society. So I want to thank you in this case as well. I think raising awareness around this is very important in your willingness to share all the aspects of your journey. And like all of ours, there are ups and downs. But I think your courage in talking about it is really a benefit. Thank you so much, Kareem. 

Abdul-Jabbar: No problem. It was great talking to you.

Related Information About Atrial Fibrillation

What Are the Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation?

AFib and Diabetes: What’s the Link?

Does Marijuana Help AFib?

Things People With AFib Wish You Knew

Living With the Side Effects of AFib