The news about James Lang drew scant attention nationwide, and some who did hear about it were not completely surprised. He has, after all, fought his weight nearly his entire life. But it still jolted those who came to know Lang during his far-ranging basketball travels.
A 6-foot-10, 280-pound center whose NBA career was limited to 11 games with the Washington Wizards in the 2006-07 season, Lang suffered a stroke the day after Thanksgiving at his grandmother’s home near Mobile, Ala. It came nine days after the Utah Flash of the NBA Development League released him for “medical reasons.” He is 26.
Lang is recovering at the Mobile Infirmary Medical Center and has begun therapy. It could have been much worse.
“They thought they were gonna lose him that night,” said his mother, Wanda Harris, who was told her son had blood clots throughout his body. “It was unbelievable.”
His right side was paralyzed at first, but Lang has slightly moved his right arm and leg. He sat up in bed and watched a basketball game last weekend, Harris said, but he still cannot speak.
“They hope he can regain much of his movements,” said Levan Parker, who coached Lang at Central Park Christian School in Birmingham, Ala., and is close to the family.
Parker called Lang a “gentle giant” and a “special person.” Flash owner Brandt Andersen described him as a popular player who generously gave his time to the community and loved kids. “He’s just a soft-hearted guy,” Andersen said.
If Lang had a weakness, it was food. Nicknamed “Big Baby” before the Boston Celtics’ Glen Davis acquired the moniker, Lang weighed close to 400 pounds in high school. Although he slimmed down to 325, he admitted to eating himself out of the NBA during his brief stint with the Wizards.
Lang lost more weight and was down to 280 during an unsuccessful tryout with the club this summer. He returned to the Flash but was waived Nov. 18. Andersen said Lang was constantly fatigued. Coach Brad Jones said an electrocardiogram of Lang’s heart was “abnormal” and that he had high blood pressure. Harris said her son was taking medication for that.
When asked about Lang on Wednesday, Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas told Mike Jones of The Washington Times, “From what I heard, he was taking stimulants to get down in weight, and that’s what caused [the stroke].”
Harris confirmed Lang was taking a “weight-loss product” but could not identify it. “I kept asking him what it was, but he never told me,” she said.
At one time, Harris said, her son took Super Cleanse, an over-the-counter herbal colon cleanser. “He said, ‘Momma, it helps me lose weight real quick,’ ” she said. “But he never got into detail with it.”
Andersen and Jones said they did not know Lang was taking anything to control his weight. “It was great to see him take so much weight off,” Andersen said. “I never asked him, and it never crossed my mind.”
Harris said there is no history of significant heart disease in the family. Speaking generally, Richard Pearl, a Mobile cardiologist, said it is possible a weight-control or herbal-cleansing product might counteract another medication and cause a patient’s blood pressure to rise, increasing the risk of a stroke. But he puts little credence in the suspicion.
“Any risk [of mixing medications and supplements] exists, but there is probably some underlying condition outside of all that that you’d have to look at first,” he said.
News of Lang’s stroke first surfaced on Andersen’s blog last weekend. Andersen noted that Lang not only was the Flash’s first draft pick, but he also was his son’s favorite player. He wrote that Lang is “a big, kind guy who has always been willing to take time out of his day to care about a little 8 year old boy.”
New Orleans drafted Lang in the second round out of high school in 2003, but he never played for the Hornets. He later signed 10-day contracts with Atlanta and Toronto. Again, he did not play. He spent time with the Utah Jazz during the 2005 preseason and played in Israel.
Lang’s only NBA action came during an 11-game stretch with the Wizards from November 2006 to January 2007. In a game against Chicago, he had seven points, four rebounds and three blocks in nearly 20 minutes. But overall, he averaged just one point and one rebound in 5.0 minutes a game.
The Wizards cut Lang from their summer-league team in July. Just before his release, he talked to The Washington Times about the weight issues that curtailed his stay the first time around. “It was just the weight holding me back,” he said.
Then 45 pounds lighter, he said he had altered his eating habits, avoiding fast food and cookies for the most part. He used to eat hamburgers and french fries before games. “Now if I get hungry at nighttime, I just get a big fruit bowl and eat on it with some water,” he said.
Harris enrolled her son at Central Park Christian in 2001 after two years at a public high school, mainly for the school’s academic reputation. Parker, also the school’s founder and headmaster, recalled his first meeting with Lang. “In comes this 6-10, 390-pound fella we thought we’d have to open both doors for,” he said.
“I wanted a trainer to look at him and tell me what he could do and what he couldn’t do,” said Parker, who retired last spring after a 43-year coaching career during which he won more than 90 percent of his games. “I didn’t want to kill him. I say that facetiously, but look where he is right now.”
Parker said Lang showed good basketball skills considering he could barely move.
“Most people have to worry about kids doing drugs,” he said. “I had a 17-year-old whose mother said you’ve got to watch him about eating candy. She said he’ll hide it in his shoes.”
Blessed with soft hands and a nice shooting touch, Lang got into shape. Soon he was able to run the floor in Parker’s fast-paced offense and play the back line of the press. “We had to help James with his discipline, but he would do what you demanded,” Parker said. “His teammates loved him. He was so unselfish.”
Lang quickly began attracting the big college basketball powers. Parker said Louisville coach Rick Pitino “took a real personal interest” in him, but Jerry West and other NBA types were flocking to the gym. Lang chose to forgo college and enter the NBA Draft.
Parker said he stayed out of the decision-making process and would not second-guess Lang’s choice to turn pro even though it quickly seemed like the wrong choice.
“I wouldn’t do that with any kid,” he said. Then he added, “But Rick Pitino said he needed two years of college.”