According to Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle, Tom Tolbert was watching a late night San Francisco Giants game at his home in Alameda, Calif. when suddenly his temples started throbbing.
And then his shoulder blades too. Then his chest, then his throat. Tolbert, the Charlotte Hornets’ second-round NBA draft selection in 1988 and one of the team’s original players, went to Google to see if he was having a heart attack. When the symptoms didn’t fit, he crawled upstairs to bed with his wife, Lorrie.
“I heard this faint voice,” Lorrie Tolbert said of her husband waking her up. “‘Sugar,’ ... that’s what we call each other, ‘I don’t feel very good.’ Tom has an unbelievably high threshold for pain, so I knew it was bad.
“We got down to Alameda Hospital in a hurry. They ran a series of tests, and when the doctor came in, he said, ‘It’s your aorta. You’re going to need surgery. Immediately. Tonight.’”
It turned out Tolbert had a thoracic aortic dissection, or in other words, a tear in the human body’s largest artery. But throughout the ambulance ride to the hospital, the immediate heart surgery, the clamor and chaos of it all, Tolbert remained his goofy, fun-loving self. It’s that demeanor that allowed him to transition so easily from his seven-year career in the NBA (two with the Hornets) into his second job: as an Emmy award-nominated broadcaster and radio host in the Bay Area.
“I just think there are only so many things you can control in your life,” Tolbert said. “There’s nothing I can do about surgery, so I might as well be as loose as I can, have some fun with it. I’ve always had that ability when something’s out of my hands. Here we’ve got this team of surgeons, and they’re the best.
“I just kept thinking, ‘They’re gonna get this done.’”
Charlotte to the Bay Area and back
Long before Tolbert’s operation or even his second job as a beloved media personality, he was a basketball player, a 6-foot-7, 235-pound forward.
Tolbert’s basketball career took off in 1987-1988, his lone season at the University of Arizona playing for legendary coach Lute Olson. Along with current Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and Kenny Lofton, Tolbert helped Arizona reach its first ever Final Four and validate itself as a legitimate NCAA powerhouse.
For his efforts, Tolbert was selected with the 34th overall pick in the second round of the 1988 NBA Draft by the Hornets. He would play one season for the team before leaving for Golden State (although he eventually returned for a final season in 1994-1995).
Over his seven years in the NBA, Tolbert averaged just 6.5 points and four rebounds per game.
But while his basketball career ended after his final stint in Charlotte, Tolbert’s real calling was just about to begin.
‘Just a beautiful human being’
In 1996, Tolbert was hired by a San Francisco-based talk radio station, KNBR, and from there his media career took off. He began doing television broadcasts of NBA games for NBC, for which he was nominated for an Emmy in 2002. Then from 2002 until 2007, he worked for ESPN doing the same thing. He also called the 2003 NBA Finals for ABC, along with Bill Walton and Brad Nessler.
He’s now well-known throughout the Bay Area as a media personality – but his health scare threatened all that.
“My doctor said if the dissection had gone upward, toward the heart, instead of downward, I would have died,” Tolbert said. “And he said, ‘If I didn’t already have you opened up when the dissection happened, you’re probably done.’
“There were a number of ways it could have gone worse than it did.”
But a little over a month after his inital operation, which came the night of Aug. 29, Tolbert was back in the studio. Three secondary operations were necessary, too, and the stents doctors inserted over the course of Tolbert’s treatment will likely remain until he dies. Still, he’s now able to drive himself into his studio and do the job that has brought him – and listeners – so much joy.
Kerr, Tolbert’s old teammate from Arizona and longtime friend, still remembers their first conversation after the surgery.
“He said, ‘Yeah, I was looking for ways to lose weight. I thought about diet. I thought about exercise. Then I just settled on heart surgery. It’s worked out really well.’
“Typical Tom. Incredible outlook. Most of his life is based on sports and humor and people and friends. He’s just a beautiful human being.”