In August 2020, Tyson Gilbert was presented with two options.
The University of Alaska Anchorage guard had collapsed during his first open gym session after joining the Seawolves.
After running several tests, doctors alerted Gilbert that he had a congenital heart defect. He could avoid surgery and live a fairly normal life if he was willing to give up strenuous activity. But, if he wanted to continue his basketball career, Gilbert would have to undergo open heart surgery and face a grueling road to recovery.
For Gilbert, the choice was obvious: He couldn’t give up the sport he loves.
“Right then in my mind, I’m like, ‘I’m not going to do that,’ because I love the game of basketball and it’s my passion,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m an active and healthy guy, so I couldn’t go through with that.”
Gilbert returned to basketball this season after a multiyear layoff that included rehabbing from the heart surgery, as well as an even lengthier recovery following an Achilles injury.
When Gilbert stepped on the court for his first game as a Seawolf on Oct. 27 in an exhibition game against Midway, it was an emotional moment for him and those who have been with him on his journey.
“I think if you didn’t have a little glisten in your eyes, those of us through it with him, you’re not human,” UAA head coach Rusty Osborne said. “I think even some of the newcomers who discovered the things that he’d gone through were emotional, too.”
Gilbert described the rush of emotions in his first game as “wild” and said there were “definitely some jitters,” but at the end of the day, he was thankful to be out there with his teammates again.
“Seeing how happy they were for me just made me feel really good, and I’m just blessed and grateful to be in this position,” he said.
Gilbert grew up in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, where he starred at Rock Canyon High School. He decided to transfer from Colorado State University at Pueblo when former Seawolves assistant coach and star player Kyle Fossman came across him while perusing the transfer portal.
“We did some research and Kyle reached out,” Osborne said. “There was mutual interest, and so Tyson ended up signing here.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic had hit that spring, all recruiting had to be done virtually, so he and his coaching staff had to set up Zoom meetings with prospective recruits. When Gilbert first arrived on campus in August later that year, classes were about to start, and his first major setback would take place shortly thereafter.
Gaining a new perspective
With the 2020 season on hold due to the pandemic, some of the local players on the UAA team were able to find places to get on the court and still train together.
Gilbert was initially unaware that he had lost consciousness during their first session.
“I felt fine and went to go set a down screen, and next thing I know, my teammates — actually, AJ (Garrity) — was standing over me, and I’m looking at him, and he’s looking at me like, ‘Are you good?’ And I was confused,” he said.
His teammates alerted their coaches, who wanted him to get checked out as a precaution.
Gilbert was referred to a cardiac specialist, and after several tests over multiple weeks, they came to a final determination.
“At first everything was looking good — they didn’t see any problems — and then at some point, one of the doctors discovered the problem and gave us the news that it would have to be taken care of,” Osborne said.
He was diagnosed with an anomalous right coronary artery.
After Osborne talked with Gilbert and then his parents, the family made arrangements to have the surgery done at Colorado Children’s Hospital.
He flew back to his home state on Oct. 20, 2020, and had the surgery two days later.
At 20 years old, he was the oldest patient there by far. Watching what kids who weren’t even a quarter of his age had to endure and overcome changed his perspective on what true adversity and bravery look like.
“Just looking at them and seeing that they didn’t do anything wrong, they’ve barely lived their lives and they’re fighting for their lives every day,” Gilbert said. “But they still had a smile on their face and were just eager to see the doctors come in and see their parents, and just play with their toys.”
After witnessing that, he felt there was no reason that he should feel sorry for himself.
“I’ve lived 20 years of my life, and they’ve lived four or five of theirs, and they don’t have any idea what they’re really going through,” Gilbert said.
The recovery lasted three months. He flew back up to Anchorage in early January 2021 and slowly ramped up his physical activity.
A second setback
From there, he was on his first road to recovery. Just when he could see the light at the end of the tunnel, he suffered yet another debilitating setback when he ruptured his Achilles tendon in April.
Osborne remembers the day it happened so clearly, because Gilbert’s parents had made arrangements to come up and meet with the cardiac surgeon who had first discovered the problem with their son’s heart.
“They wanted to thank him in person, see their son, see how their son was doing after not seeing me for a couple of months, and they were flying up,” Osborne said. “We were just doing some basic little drills, nothing intense.”
In the middle of practice, Gilbert caught the ball, turned to pass and just went down.
“It was like he had been shot,” Osborne said. “I think he knew right away something serious had happened.”
Gilbert remembers it vividly.
“It was April 8, I know these days just by heart because of everything,” he said. “Halfway through practice, I went to go catch a pass, and I planted to take off and catch the pass, something I’ve done a million times, and I tore my Achilles.”
After he let out some frustration, the trainers were called over. They conducted some initial tests and recommended that he go to the hospital.
While this was happening, across town at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, Gilbert’s parents were landing and were on their way to see their son.
“I called my dad and was like, ‘Hey,’ and he’s like, ‘Aren’t you supposed to be in practice?’ and then my trainer said, ‘Hey, Tyson hurt himself in practice, you should probably take him over to the ER,’ ” Gilbert said.
The doctors confirmed what they had all feared. His return to the court and debut as a Seawolf would be delayed yet again — but Gilbert still didn’t stay down for long.
“I would say that Tyson both times was frustrated for a day or two, but then his personality took over and he just decided to become a fighter,” Osborne said. “And just like it was his heart problem, he decided he was going to fight his Achilles problem.”
The odds of him making a speedy enough recovery to contribute during the 2021-22 season were long and bleak at best. But his coaches, parents and doctors knew that the slim hope it provided would help him work harder and push through during the rehabilitation process.
“I was frustrated just because I worked really hard to get back to the place I was, and it was just kind of another setback,” Gilbert said. “One thing I feel like about me that my parents told me from a young age was, ‘Never give up on anything.’ ”
Gilbert isn’t the first college basketball player to be diagnosed with — and overcome — his heart condition.
One high-profile student-athlete in the same sport with the same condition is the son of NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal. Shareef O’Neal made a similar discovery regarding his heart condition during his first year in college and underwent the same procedure just a couple of years before Gilbert.
“Somehow, Shareef O’Neal found out about Tyson’s incident and reached out to him. And they had some conversations, which I think was very genuine of the O’Neal family but also very helpful to Tyson, that somebody who had experienced exactly what he had and had come back from it,” Osborne said.
Shareef O’Neal “just texted me, and then he called me, and we talked,” Gilbert said. “I talked to him a bunch throughout the process because he went through the same thing, so that was really cool. Just being able to connect with somebody my age who has gone through a similar setback.”
Staying positive and being a shining light
Part of the emotion he showed when he stepped on the court this season for the Seawolves is gratitude for the people who helped him make his return.
“My driving force with the two setbacks was really just not to give up on myself and my dream and really not to give up on the people who support me and love me,” Gilbert said. “If I would’ve just thrown in the towel and quit, I would’ve felt like I was quitting on them.”
Throughout all of his adversity, he has been able to maintain an infectious positive attitude that he credits to being a “man of faith.”
“I just feel like just being a positive light in somebody else’s life is a lot more gratifying than anything else,” Gilbert said. “Just seeing other people smile just makes me happy, and I feel like just if there’s a lot more positivity in the world, I feel like everybody will be able to put differences aside.”
His advice for someone going through hardship is to stay positive and relish the small everyday victories.
“The biggest one that we have each day is being able to wake up each day,” Gilbert said. “Everybody gets an opportunity with 24 hours just to make the best of their situation. I say that like it’s easy, but as you can see with my story, times are hard, so you gotta keep pushing and persevering and everything will work out.”