A Career Takes A Shocking Turn Johnny Moore's Rare Illness Clouds Future, Jolts Spurs

Posted: January 31, 1986

SAN ANTONIO — They are psychologically equipped to deal with wrecked knees, torn hamstrings, ruptured Achilles' tendons and broken legs. The possibility of serious injury is, after all, an occupational hazard for professional athletes.

But a debilitating form of meningitis known as "Desert Fever," which threatens the career of teammate Johnny Moore, has affected members of the San Antonio Spurs more than anyone might have imagined.

"It was a profound shock to all of us to find out how seriously ill Johnny was," said Spurs forward Marc Iavaroni, a former 76er. "When we realized this was something he was not going to recover from in a matter of weeks or even months, there was shock.

"When you're an athlete and so in tune with your body, you just never consider the possibility of being stricken with some rare form of illness.

"I guess what Johnny's situation proves," Iavaroni said, "is that something like this is not restricted to the weak."

At 6-3 and 185 pounds, Moore, 27, a six-year veteran out of Altoona and the University of Texas, was considered one of the better lead guards in the NBA. The Spurs' all-time assist leader, he was having an all-star kind of season, averaging 13 points and nine assists per game.

Then the headaches began.

"They were excruciating," said Moore, who was released last week from Humana Hospital after undergoing two brain operations. "I knew they weren't regular headaches, the way the pain was shooting back and forth in my head. It hurt so bad, I can't even begin to describe it.

"I'd take some Tylenol, and it didn't help at all. At night, I couldn't even sleep. I was just tossing and turning. I'd doze off for five minutes and wake up. It was like that all night. Every night."

The first severe headache, Moore recalled, was on Dec. 21, the morning after the Spurs had played the Clippers in Los Angeles.

"I had an early call, a 5 o'clock wake-up call to go to Denver," he said. ''When I woke up, it was like I had drank a gallon of booze or something. It was just outrageous.

"I went to the airport and I was thinking, 'This is definitely something out of the ordinary.' "

Moore finished the road trip - headache or not, he had 22 points and 11 assists in a Spurs victory at Denver - and sought treatment when the team returned to San Antonio after the game. Three days later he was hospitalized.

"When they were doing all those tests on me, I never really believed they would find anything serious," Moore said. "I thought I'd miss maybe a couple of games, they'd give me some pills or something and that would be it.

"But when I found out what I was dealing with . . . well, I would have cried if I thought it would have done any good. It's terrifying to hear words like 'life-threatening' and 'career-threatening' and know they're talking about you.

"It was like panic city when they explained how they would go into my head. I said, 'Brain surgery? You can't be serious.' But they were serious."

Moore was fortunate in that the Spurs' internist, Dr. Richard Thorner, sub- specializes in infectious diseases. Moore is his third patient suffering

from meningitis.

"It's not an easy diagnosis to make," Thorner said. "It requires extensive testing, including the growth of organisms to find the presence of the Desert Fever organism.

"The fact that we had a relatively quick diagnosis helps. Skin tests have proven positive, indicating that there is some immunity to the disease in his system. And the fact that he is in excellent physical condition helps.

"His only symptoms seem to be headaches - none of his nerves are involved."

In a prepared statement following Moore's first operation, Thorner said Moore had contracted "coccidioidmycosis (the proper medical name for Desert Fever), a fungus indigenous to the southwestern United States. It is estimated that as much as 10 percent of the area's population is exposed to this particular fungus, but only one in a thousand of that number gets meningitis. There is no reason for Johnny contracting meningitis; it is related to no other disease."

Thorner said the infectious organism is found in the soil and can be spread when soil is disturbed and dust is strewn. Many persons can inhale the organism, but they usually ward it off without becoming infected. The possibility always exists, however, that the organism can infect the lungs and then spread to the meninges (the three membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord).

Although the disease generally is mild or even unnoticed in Caucasians, it can be serious or even fatal in blacks, such as Moore, and Orientals. Most cases are never reported because the victim often thinks it is just a bad cold or a mild case of influenza.

"They get a headache, they feel malaise, they might have some night sweats, and then, after a few days, that's it," said Dr. Michael G. Rinaldi, chief of the clinical microbiology laboratories at Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital in San Antonio.

Desert Fever, also known as "San Joaquin Valley fever," killed two Texans and made 18 others sick in 1985, Rinaldi said.

During Moore's first operation, on Jan. 15, an Omaya Reservoir - a plastic disc about the size of a quarter - was placed under his skull beneath the right side of his forehead. After a small hole was drilled through the skull, a tube was inserted that runs from the disc through the skull and through the brain into the ventricle, a reservoir of spinal fluid, where the infection lays. Medicine, called Amphotericin B, is injected into the plastic disc, which swells slightly and leaks to the infected area.

The second operation, 28 hours after the first one, involved a minor adjustment on the Omaya Reservoir when doctors discovered that Moore was experiencing swelling on his brain.

Moore will receive treatment three times a week for two to three months. When he shows significant progress, Thorner said, the frequency of the treatments will be reduced.

"The side effects are not pleasant," Thorner said. "He will have headaches. That makes it unlikely he will return for this season. We hope he can return next season."

Even in those cautious words, however, Moore can find solace.

"A week or so ago I guess there was some question whether I'd even live through this," he said. "Then there was talk that I might never play again, or at least not for a couple of seasons. So to have a chance to come back next season, that's pretty good.

"Who knows? If everything goes just so, I might be ready for the playoffs this year. I'd like to think it could happen. But I'm realistic enough to know that anything being said right now is just speculation."

Monday night, in a 118-117 homecourt loss to the Detroit Pistons in Convention Center Arena, Moore made his first public appearance since leaving the hospital. Wearing a baseball cap to conceal his scar ("Without the cap I look like Mr. T," he joked), he sat on the Spurs bench and lent his teammates whatever encouragement he could.

"It felt a little strange to be here and not to be playing," Moore said. ''It's kind of a helpless feeling . . . sitting there and not being able to do anything more than watch."

What he saw probably was enough to make him even more ill. The Spurs' other lead guards, former Sixer Wes Matthews and Jon Sundvold, combined for more turnovers than points while Isiah Thomas of the Pistons was shaking loose for 30 points, most of which were scored so easily you would have thought he was going one-on-none.

The Spurs have checked around for a possible replacement, but they have only $103,000 remaining before they reach their salary cap, and their NBA brethren, though sympathetic about Moore's condition, are not rushing forth with disaster relief. The New York Knicks, for instance, have reportedly offered poor-shooting Darrell Walker, who is not a lead guard anyway, in exchange for starting power forward Steve Johnson.

"Some of the deals that have been proposed to us are almost insulting," said San Antonio general manager Bob Bass. "We're not going to sacrifice our future just to help us win an extra game or two this season."

And that might be the bottom line to the whole Johnny Moore affair. While all the Spurs, from president Angelo Drossos on down, are concerned about Moore the individual, they have a season to complete. And if Moore cannot play, concern about his physical problems, in a sense, must cease to exist.

"We all feel for Johnny, but we've still got to take care of business," Matthews said. "Life goes on."

Life continues to go on for Johnny Moore. And whether or not he ever plays basketball again, that surely must count for something.

"You hear people say that a lot, that if any guy can overcome this, this guy can," said veteran center Artis Gilmore, one of Moore's closest friends on the Spurs. "But with Johnny, it's really true. His entire time here he has been a struggler and a fighter."

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