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Celtics great JoJo White makes determined recovery from brain surgery

Marc J. Spears
Yahoo Sports

The worst of the nightmare has passed for JoJo White since he had surgery to remove a brain tumor three years ago. But that doesn't mean the former Boston Celtics star's recovery is yet complete.

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"I thank God every day for being here, but I haven't turned the corner," White told Yahoo Sports. "I'm still dealing with the circumstances of what I had to go through: Not being able to walk. Not being able to run. Remembering things. Eating."

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Kevin Garnett shakes hands with JoJo White before a Celtics game last season. (Getty Images)

White, now 66, played 10 seasons with the Celtics, won two NBA championships with them and was the 1976 Finals MVP. After his playing days ended, he became a community ambassador for the Celtics, who retired his No. 10 jersey.

In November 2009, White began to feel ill. By two months later, he had lost 30 pounds and had a hard time eating. Doctors struggled to figure out what was wrong, until the Celtics team physician suggested White have an MRI.

White's wife, Deborah, was driving when she received a call from a doctor who had the MRI results. The doctor first told her to pull over then told her White had a walnut-sized tumor on the back of the left side of his brain, an area that affects motor skills. White would need to have surgery to remove the tumor – which was benign – the following week.

"I remember putting my head on the steering wheel and calling out to God and I asked him to help me," Deborah White said.

White's surgery lasted eight hours before the surgeon came out to talk to his family.

"The doctor said, 'He pulled through. He made it,' " Deborah said. "We were like, 'He made it?' The doctor then said, 'Technically speaking, he shouldn't have made it.' "

When Deborah saw White in the recovery room, he had tubes connected to his head and a mass of wires leading to machines. She warned her three daughters about his condition.

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"I let all the girls know that no matter what they saw, keep it in a good place and don't let him know what they see or what they feel," she said. "They were better to deal with it when they went inside. He was so lethargic. …It was hard."

The Celtics were aware of White's surgery while they were in the middle of the 2010 playoffs. The White family, however, asked the team to keep news of his surgery private. White even had an alias at the hospital, which was about a five-minute walk from the arena where the Celtics played.

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JoJo White played 10 seasons for the Celtics and was named MVP of the 1976 NBA Finals. (Getty Images)

Then-Celtics coach Doc Rivers and players Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins and Tony Allen called JoJo White to check in.

"It was awful news because at the time it didn't look good," Rivers said. "JoJo is very private. His wife is fantastic and she was giving me updates. You just were concerned.

"When you saw him the first couple of times you were extremely worried. But we jokingly said that JoJo could make sick cool. He really is a cool dude and a great human being."

Celtics owners, executives and former players Dave Cowens and Cedric Maxwell came by to visit. The Celtics sent flowers, food, DVDs and a 50-inch flat screen television so White could watch the playoff games.

"It was a good feeling," White said. "The players would come by to talk or say, 'How are you doing?' " White said.

Celtics president Rich Gotham also let White know his old job would be waiting for him once he got healthy.

"…It was scary there for a while," said Danny Ainge, the Celtics' president of basketball operations.

White used to be a scratch golfer. He used to look like he could still play basketball in his early 60s. But after the surgery, he had to relearn some of the most basic of skills, including walking. He had trouble eating, experienced double vision and still has some short-term memory loss.

To help White's recovery, author and attorney Mark Bodanza visited him once a week to ask questions for an eventual book called, "Make It Count: The Life & Times of Basketball Great JoJo White."

"I had places that hurt that never hurt before," White said. "You didn't know why. You can't explain.

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"Every day was difficult. …You go from finding yourself back on your feet and being able to do certain things. Being able to walk. Being able to finish a plate of food. It all seemed new."

Every time Deborah attended a Celtics game or event without her husband, she was asked, "How's JoJo?" A little more than two years after the surgery, JoJo White walked on his own to his midcourt seat on June 1, 2012, to see the Celtics beat the Miami Heat 101-91 in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. White has been to every Celtics home game since and is back at his old job, attending community events, taking pictures, signing autographs and visiting with sponsors.

"I saw him at media day the other day and he was smiling and looking good and excited about the upcoming season," Ainge said. "It was good to see JoJo in a real positive place."

White's recovery is still ongoing, but he also knows he's fortunate his condition wasn't worse.

"I went through a tough time," he said. "I appreciate all my supporters. All my fans. My precious wife and my kids were right there for me."

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