How John Beilein helped save Pistons/Michigan State broadcaster George Blaha’s life

Detroit Free Press

Longtime Detroit Pistons play-by-play commentator George Blaha and Pistons senior adviser of player development John Beilein are, in Beilein’s words, “two old-school Catholics.”

When the Pistons are on the road during the season, they often attend Mass together on Sundays. In New York, they may go to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. In Charlotte, they attend St. Peter Catholic Church.

On March 1, the Pistons played the Washington Wizards in Washington. March 2 was Ash Wednesday, so Blaha and Beilein went to Holy Trinity Catholic Church on Georgetown’s campus to receive their ashes. But Blaha received more than he anticipated — a health scare, and a big break.

While walking roughly a mile uphill, Blaha began to feel tightness in his chest and shortness of breath. Beilein, who underwent double-bypass open heart surgery in 2018, urged Blaha to go see a doctor.

Just two weeks later, on March 15, Blaha underwent triple-bypass surgery. Tests revealed his heart had three blockages that couldn’t be repaired with stents.

Surgery caused him to miss Detroit’s final 15 games. In his previous 46 years as the Pistons’ leading voice, he had only missed three games because of illness.

Bally Sports Detroit’s Pistons color commentator Greg Kelser finished the season alongside Johnny Kane, who was promoted to the play-by-play chair.

“After all these years, I’ve finally had to go on IR,” Blaha told the Free Press during a phone interview last week. “I knew I had a job to do, and that was to get healthy. Everybody else had a job to do. I think Greg and Johnny did a nice job on the telecast and I was able to follow the team and see some of the growth from the team this year and continue to be amazed at how good Cade Cunningham is.

With a high draft choice and with some free agent money, the future looks bright here. I’m excited to come back next year for Year 47.”

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Golfing along the road to recovery

Six weeks after surgery, Blaha is nearing full health. Rehab requires him to walk at least 2,000 steps a day. Golf is one of several activities he has leaned on to reach his goal.

For now, he can only play with his putter and wedge. But by June 1, he’ll be able to use his driver again.

The last two months have been “sobering” for Blaha, who turned 77 on March 29. But he’s also grateful. He discovered his heart blockages before they led to a heart attack. And he’s excited to return to work. In addition to returning to the Pistons sideline next season, he’s also eager to resume his responsibility as the radio voice for Michigan State football.

And Blaha wants his story to be a warning for others — if you have unexpected symptoms, get them checked out. He’s happy he was with Beilein when he had his first signs, but Beilein is reluctant to take credit for helping Blaha avoid the worst.

“I might be proof positive that you can avoid a heart attack,” Blaha said. “I don’t know that I would’ve had one, but it felt like it was a real possibility. So now, no heart attack and a few weeks recovering later, I’ll be as good as new. I just want people to know that the word is that guys tend to — these symptoms go away. So when they go away, you move on with your life.

“In this case, when I was having them, John Beilein urged me to do something about it. I told him, ‘You might’ve saved me.’ He said, ‘Well if you didn’t get up and go to church, you might not have been saved, so you’ve got to thank the man upstairs, too.’”

Blaha, one of the most well-known sports broadcasters in Michigan history, describes himself as the “black sheep” of his family, which is filled with doctors and surgeons. And he has leaned on his family during the last two months.

His brother, John, is an orthopedic surgeon based in Ann Arbor. His nephew, Michael Blaha, is the director of clinical research for the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease. George’s father, Vernon, was a general surgeon. And George’s grandfather, also named George, was a country doctor.

“He made house calls, so I would ride with him and he was a great storyteller,” Blaha said of his grandfather. “I think maybe a little bit of that rubbed off on me. I hope so.”

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Help from someone who has been there before

After experiencing his symptoms, Blaha did what he usually does when he has a health issue — he called his brother. Michael and John both urged him to call Dr. Kim Eagle, the director of the University of Michigan’s cardiovascular center. His operation was performed by Michigan cardiac surgeon Dr. Francis Pagani.

Beilein, the winningest coach in Michigan men’s basketball history, also saw Eagle and had his surgery performed by Pagani during August 2018. Beilein’s heart blockages were discovered during a stress test that Eagle suggested he take since Beilein had carotid artery surgery in 2017.

Beilein, 69, had no symptoms before the blockages were discovered in his heart, but he has a family history of heart problems. Since Blaha is older than 65, he knew it was imperative for him to get checked.

The recovery process is an arduous one, Beilein said. He has been a helpful voice for Blaha during the last two months and is proud of how Blaha has handled his rehab thus far.

“There’s a lot of nerves, there’s a lot of muscles, there’s a lot of things that are tore apart and patched back together,” Beilein said. “The soreness for at least a couple months, at least for me, it was extremely uncomfortable. You start where you can’t walk but 100 steps the first couple of days, but they make you walk, and before long, you’re walking miles and you just have to do it. I just urged him to just follow the directions of Dr. Eagle and all the heart specialists that would be with him, and just push yourself to make sure you walk and walk and walk and walk until you get back right and continue to do that. Then you have to start therapy, too, which he’s doing now.”

“I was 66 at the time, so I don’t urge anybody to get back too soon. “This is one where you take too long. I never felt any more effects other than I had to take it easy and eat right. And that’s the biggest thing to prevent having any clots again, or any blockages again. Eat right, and exercise. I think he’s handled it really well. Really, extremely well. I know he’s walking, he’s doing everything he has to do. It’s just ironic he was with me when it was happening.

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‘Like reading a novel’

Blaha misses the preparation that goes into being a play-by-play broadcaster. It’s almost like homework, he said. There are 29 other NBA teams he has to be acquainted with, and it’s a fun challenge to keep up with the pace of the updates that come during games — who’s injured, who’s not, which player missed their last seven shots.

“What you really miss is once they throw it up and the game begins, because you never know how it’s going to end,” Blaha said. “It’s like reading a novel. You don’t know how it’s going to end. You don’t even really know how it’s going to begin. The game is played out differently every night. It’s just fun to be involved there, and try to stay on top of it.”

He missed the Spartans’ final practice of the spring, but he’s still in touch with head coach Mel Tucker and his staff. Blaha called Tucker, who led Michigan State to an 11-2 record last season, a “great guy,” similar to Pistons coach Dwane Casey.

Blaha is also thankful for Eagle, Pagani, his wife, Mary, and everyone who’s helped him through this process.

“I appreciate all of the health guys who were involved in this, all of the doctors,” Blaha said. “There are a number of great hospitals within driving distance for anybody that lives in Detroit. The Pistons are connected with Henry Ford and Beaumont and a bunch of others. Wherever you’re comfortable, if you have some symptoms you oughta go get it checked out.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.

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