USF’s Chris Perry relishing second chance after health scare

Junior forward Chris Perry led the Bulls with 17.2 rebounds per game before a heart ailment sidelined the Bartow native for the final 13 games of last season. ORACLE PHOTO/ADAM MATHIEU

Chris Perry had been warned.

The medical experts advised him to sit out. The subtlest form of physical strain could have caused catastrophic complications within his heart.

But USF’s 6-foot-8 burly power forward couldn’t bring himself to stay away from the cavernous den of the gymnasium during his free time. Each echoing dribble, sneaker squeak atop the maple parquet and swish through the mesh netting below the orange-painted rim provided a glimmer of hope —fleeting though it may have been.

“They couldn’t keep me out of the gym,” he said. “That’s one thing you’re not going to do.”

Perry didn’t quite know what was wrong with him. 

Labored breathing during evening practice before a January road game at Connecticut led to an emergency room visit. Further tests with doctors at the USF Health Morsani Center found an issue with the left ventricle in Perry’s heart.

“One of the guys, he was like, ‘It wouldn’t be (in) your best interest that we let you play right now,’” Perry recalled. “‘We’re just going to wait until the end of the season and talk to this guy up in Boston and see what he says.’”

Awaiting that second opinion, Perry was forced to the bench for the final 13 games of his sophomore campaign. Even in workouts, Perry could do nothing more than observe.

An array of emotions and frustrations stirred inside his body.

“It was tough whenever I’d wake up and the first thought would be, ‘Man, I can’t even work out with the boys. I can’t go out there and shoot around,’” Perry said. “They wouldn’t even let me bounce the ball on the court with the guys without even (saying), ‘Go sit out until we get this second opinion out of the way.’”

The unknown course beyond the season also concerned Perry. He feared what the condition could do to his basketball career and, potentially, his life afterward.

“I can recall back to my own personal incident in high school, having been shot, and the emotions that you get,” said USF coach Orlando Antigua, who survived taking a bullet in the head in a New York drive-by shooting on Halloween night in 1988.

“You’re like, ‘I’m just starting playing, and starting to have a little bit of success.’ You just go through that whole range of emotions of sad, depressed and frustrated. Then, you have to learn patience and you have to listen to what your doctors are telling you and you’ve got to do all those things.”

In March, Perry accompanied the team back to Hartford for the conference tournament. During the trip, he traveled to Boston to meet with a specialist, who determined the ailment was a low risk.

In other words, Perry would be able to play again.

“That whole day, I just prayed to God,” Perry said. “I was like ‘Thank you for letting me get another chance.”

Shortly after the decision, Perry was right back in the gym. His second opportunity with the game changed his outlook and attitude on the court.

“He still jokes at times, but on the court, he’s a little more serious,” Antigua said. “He’s a little more appreciative of the opportunity he has in front of him.”

Perry’s first minutes on the floor came during the team’s 10-day trip to Spain. In its exhibition finale against CB Vic — a European professional team — he finished with 17 points and 14 rebounds.

When the retooled Bulls host Division II Eckerd in their exhibition opener Monday, Perry’s broader frame — up to 250 pounds from 245 last season – and No. 1 jersey will be back on the Sun Dome floor.

Don’t be surprised if that trademark smile is, too.

“I’m feeling the best I’ve ever felt,” Perry said. “ … I love the way I’m feeling right now, honestly.”