Amyloidosis: The Rare Disease That Has History in the NBA

On the court in the 1970s, there was nothing small about the presence of “Tiny” Archibald. And now, the mysterious heart condition he suddenly faces has created an immense, life-threatening dilemma, one that once again belies this NBA Hall of Famer’s well-known nickname.

Nate Archibald, a 14-year pro and member of the Boston Celtics championship team in 1981, learned that he suffers from an incurable heart disease. The condition, amyloidosis, can affect any organ or tissue, and there are many types. But when it affects the heart, it can shut it down at any moment.

“What I have is really rare,” said Archibald, speaking with ESPN, adding that he hopes to reach his 70th birthday on September 2, and many more after that. “There’s no pills, nothing they have found that works. I’m being tested all the time, just hoping, you know? … My [heart] could go any minute.”

So what is amyloidosis?

Essentially, it’s an accumulation of amyloid, an abnormal protein produced in bone marrow. It can collect in any organ, but in Archibald’s case it found its way to his heart. And the buildup limits his heart from filling with blood while preventing it from beating properly. The blockage also stiffens the heart and forces the organ to work excessively, operating faster and harder to accomplish the same tasks as a healthy heart.

The Mayo Clinic describes it as a “rare disease” which “frequently affects the heart, kidneys, liver, spleen, nervous system and digestive tract. Severe amyloidosis can lead to life-threatening organ failure.” Symptoms can include changes to the skin “such as thickening or easy bruising, and purplish patches around the eyes,” and an enlarged tongue. See more symptoms here.

Who’s susceptible to developing this condition? (Also known as AL amyloidosis, it’s pronounced “am-uh-loi-DO-sis”)

“People of African descent appear to be at higher risk of carrying a genetic mutation associated with the type of amyloidosis that can harm the heart,” according to the Clinic, and most people “diagnosed with AL amyloidosis, the most common type, are between ages 60 and 70, although earlier onset occurs.” Moreover, it predominately strikes men, who make up 70 percent of all patients, and it can be hereditary.

It was only by happenstance that Archibald learned of his condition. He went in for a free health screening in December 2016, a few months after the current NBA Players Association voted to establish a health insurance fund for retired NBA players. Archibald, who also played for the Cincinnati and Kansas City Kings, entered the league in 1970 and played 13 years in all, missing one entire season (1977-78) due to injury.

Despite his dire predicament and living day-to-day without a cure, he’s adopted the mission of alerting former players about the existence of the health fund, as well as the importance of taking advantage of the vital medical services it offers.