John Shumate’s Roughest Opponent is Death, 1976

[When John Shumate played for the Phoenix Suns, fans chanted, “Shu . . . Shu . . . Shu     . . . Shu,” But the chant lasted only briefly. Shumate’s rookie season was delayed for health reasons. Then, after Shumate made an impressive comeback during the 1975-76 season, the Suns brass dealt “Shu” midway through the next season to Buffalo for forward Garfield Heard.

This article, plucked from Argosy Pro Basketball Yearbook, 1975-76, recounts Shumate’s life-threatening health scare and his determination to play basketball again. The byline belongs to Bob Rubin, a Miami Herald reporter who wrote for SPORT Magazine.]


If John Shumate of the Phoenix Suns has a good season, he will be a prime candidate for NBA Rookie of the Year. He will also be a strong sentimental choice to win Comeback of the Year. 

Impossible, you say? Perhaps. But lots of people thought it would be impossible for John Shumate ever to play basketball again. The powerful 6-foot-9, 240-pound former Notre Dame star, the fourth man chosen in the 1974 NBA draft, suffered life endangering blood clots in the summer of 1974 for the second time in his young life and had to sit out what should have been his rookie year. Now healthy and in top shape after weeks of hectic summer league play in and around New York, Shumate hopes his health woes are behind him so that he can fulfill the terms of the reported million-dollar contract he signed with the Suns. But the key word is “hope.” Clots could reappear, which Shumate knows would mean the end of his basketball career. It also could mean the end of his life. 

Shumate (center) inks his rookie contract

“A lot of people ask me if I’m afraid the clouds will come back,” says Shumate, a minister’s son from Elizabeth, N.J. “My feeling is that everyone had the day marked when he’s going to leave earth. It’s a matter of enjoying yourself while you’re here, and I enjoy myself when I play basketball. I’m not afraid to get another blood clot. I’m not afraid of anything anymore . . . He (God) does my fearing for me. I’m a very religious person. I have faith in God. Whatever’s going to happen will happen, my destiny’s all laid out. I’ll just have to accept what life has to offer.”

Life appeared to have nothing but good things to offer John Shumate until the beginning of his sophomore year at Notre Dame in the fall of 1971. That’s when Shumate noticed a persistent pain in his left calf and a strange shortness of breath. He told Irish coach Digger Phelps about it, and Phelps called an ambulance. A clot was discovered in the calf. At the same time, a virus infection was found in the sac around Shumate’s heart, which prevented doctors from using antibiotics. 

For nine days, Shumate was totally immobilized in intensive care. The clot could break loose any time and travel to the lungs . . . or make a fatal journey to the heart. 

He came out of the hospital 45 pounds lighter. Goodbye sophomore season. “I never thought about having to give up basketball,” he said. “I guess I really didn’t know how serious my condition was until it was over. But when I came out of it, there was no way I was thinking about giving up the game.

“Actually, I think that year out helped make me more mature. Because I am more mature, I can understand myself better and other people, too.”

If Shumate’s basketball performance after his first illness is any indication of things to come, the rest of the NBA better hold onto its hat this season. Other players might have been gun-shy returning to the court after being so sick. Not Shumate, who threw his 240 pounds around so enthusiastically in a 1972 meeting with UCLA that normally placid Bruin coach John Wooden was moved to threaten retaliation. Wooden stormed over to Phelps on the sideline and warned the Notre Dame coach that he (Wooden) would put in brawny Swen Nater, then All-America Bill Walton’s sub, to act as a policeman if Shumate didn’t stop the rough play. 

“But that was during the heat of the game,” explained Shumate, who was just as upset as Phelps at Wooden’s uncharacteristic loss of cool. “Coach Wooden wrote us and apologized for it. I didn’t try to be a dirty player or anything like that. I don’t want to hit someone or rough him up, and I certainly don’t want anyone to do that to me.”

The following year, Shumate was the key to the historic Notre Dame victory that snapped UCLA’s record 88-game winning streak. He matched Walton’s 24 points that day and outrebounded him, 11-9. It was Shumate who grabbed the final, winning rebound following three frantic last-ditch UCLA shots. 

Not an emotional athlete, Shumate refused to crow about his performance against his far-more highly touted opponent. “I don’t try to get myself up for any individual,” he said after the game. “I know Bill (Walton) is a super player. That’s all I thought about it. I wanted to go out and play my game, and let him play his. All I was concerned about was our team winning. I want to do my part to help us win, that’s all that matters. 

“I guess I’m concentrating on the game too much to show any emotion. It doesn’t bother me if a guy mouths off to me. If he says, ‘I’m going to eat you up’ or something like that, then I regard it as a compliment. I’m certainly not going to mouth back at him. After all, if he mouths at me, then the best way I can answer is to help beat his team. I’m not going to lie and say I’ve always been that way. When I came to Notre Dame, I made up my mind that I was going to have to be a first-class person to play for a first-class school.”

He certainly became a first -class basketball player, one the Suns had every right to hope could revitalize their frontline during the 1974-75 season. Of course, it never happened.  

Suns’ 1975-76 rookie hopefuls (l-r): Ricky Sobers, Alvan Adams, John Shumate, and Duane Read.

It was in training camp in 1974 that Shumate noticed a shortness of breath and pain in his chest. At first it was thought he might be having trouble adjusting to the hot, dry Arizona weather, then some began to suspect it was a case of another overpaid, undermotivated rookie who thought he had a job sewed up. It was neither. 

“He kept complaining he was tired,” recalled Suns’ trainer Joe Proski. 

“He talked about pains in his chest,” remembered former teammate Corky Calhoun, now with Los Angeles. “He was saying, ‘I can’t breathe.’ There were people who doubted him, who said, ‘I wonder if he’s really sick.’ I guess they expected a lot out of him. They knew what potential he had, and they weren’t seeing him do what they had seen him do before.”

“It started as an ache in my chest and got progressively worse,” recalled Shumate. “After five minutes, I was exhausted. I couldn’t shoot. I couldn’t rebound. I couldn’t do anything. My coach (John McLeod) began to question my loyalty, my sincerity. He sent me to the doctors, and they didn’t find anything. The blood clots kept disappearing.”

A lung scan done on the last Tuesday in August showed nothing. More tests on Wednesday showed nothing. Then finally a lung scan on Thursday revealed clots in Shumate’s left lung.

He was hospitalized August 29 and put on blood thinners (the same treatment given former President Nixon for his phlebitis). The clots soon dissolved, but Shumate remained bedridden because the continued use of blood thinners made him, in effect, a hemophiliac. 

After two weeks in bed, Shumate was allowed to leave the hospital. He remained on blood thinners, which were gradually reduced, and was re-examined constantly for signs of new clots. After a few months, he was able to start to run. On May 9, 1975, he was given permission by his doctors to start playing basketball again. 

How did Shumate weather his second encounter with his potentially deadly adversary? Not well at first. “Even though I sort of expected it, when the doctor told me what it was, I felt the whole world would crash down on me,” he said. “For the first time in my life, I questioned God. I wondered what I had done to deserve this twice in my lifetime.”

But, in time, Shumate regained the mature perspective that had characterized him since his first bout with the illness three years earlier at Notre Dame. 

“A friend told me, ‘You must be depressed because you can’t play,’” Shumate said in October 1974 at the start of the rookie year that never was. “But I’m not. I look at the situation other people are in. How can I lay my head down and cry? I’m getting paid. I’ve got a nice apartment, a nice car, good lawyers, nice people to work for.”

And loyal friends. Phelps called from Notre Dame to tell Shumate he always had a home in South Bend. He could coach and/or go to graduate school. Suns’ coach McLeod showed Shumate he was more than just meat on the hoof to his new club by visiting him in the hospital and phoning long distance when the team was on the road. “My concept was that life was dog-eat-dog,” said Shumate of the NBA. “Everybody told me, ‘You’ll be thrown to the wolves. Nobody cares about you . . .’ The Suns could have had the attitude, ‘Shu can’t help us anymore, forget about Shu.’ But they haven’t taken that attitude. I’m lucky I’ve always been in that situation. I’ve always been with good people. 

“They showed me I’m more than an athlete. To them, I’m a man. That means a lot to me. Everybody loves a star. But when you decline from stardom, how do people accept you then?     . . . Sugar Ray Robinson once said, ‘I start losing, and everybody leaves me. I start winning, and everybody’s back in my corner.’ The people never left my corner. Digger, John McLeod, my mother, my father, my friends . . . “

And Mickey Mantle. The former Yankees star doesn’t know it, but his courage in overcoming pain and injury during his playing days helped John Shumate in his time of trial. “He’s been my greatest inspiration,” said Shumate. “He went through so much. I’d watch him play. Sometimes he was so heavily wrapped, he could hardly walk. To see him go out there and be the awesome person he was, that was inspiring to me.”

In a July 1975 game in Harlem’s Rucker League, Shumate offered dramatic proof that he was getting the rust off by scoring 47 points and hauling down 15 rebounds against some of the game’s best-known pros. The next night, as he prepared to play another game, the fans stood and applauded him. “I heard all the clapping and hollering,” he said, “and I looked around to see who they were screaming for. Then I heard the announcer call my name. I can’t describe how good I felt. It was like I was back at Notre Dame, and nothing had ever happened.”

Hopefully, nothing more will happen to John Shumate, who has had his share of trouble—and then some. Hopefully. 

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