MANCHESTER, N.H. - A near-death experience has a way of putting a professional basketball career in perspective. Just ask new Celtics forward Tom Gugliotta. As an admittedly naive 29-year-old playing for Phoenix, he took a supplement recommended by a friend to aid muscle recovery. But when ingested on an empty stomach with soda, the supplement left Gugliotta in a seizure on the team bus after a game against Portland. He stopped breathing on the way to the hospital but sustained a pulse.
"I came close [to dying]," said Gugliotta. "I was like Code 4."
Almost dying sheds a different light on his current comeback from a series of knee injuries. Gugliotta ruptured three ligaments in his left knee March 10, 2000 and returned too quickly from the injury, sidetracking a once promising career that included an All-Star appearance in 1997. He signed a one-year deal with the Celtics worth $2.6 million in mid-August, believing a stop in Boston might get his career back on track. While Gugliotta may earn significant playing time only in the event of injury or foul trouble, he already sees signs of the form that allowed him to average double figures in scoring and create a presence on the glass.
"I don't know if I have to prove something to people," said Gugliotta. "I'm sure there's doubters. I still feel that when I'm healthy I'm a heck of a player. I'm great for a team. I can pass, shoot. I'm unselfish. I guess when you love something, you want to go out and do it. I've been denied that the past three or four years and it's been a miserable experience, especially when you know the skill level is there and it's just that your body is banged up and hurt, and not allowing you to go do it.
"Just getting back as close I can to where I was before the injury [is my goal].
I'm starting to see positive things. I can see myself playing well in a game. I can see myself running well. I'm just picturing things, whereas when I was hurt, I'd try to imagine that and think, 'Wow, how am I going to do that?' You end up short-cutting and it doesn't work like that. But once you can picture it, then the confidence comes, and you know you're on the same level playing field as everybody else as far as your body. The past few years I felt like I had a 30-pound weight I was lugging around on my leg. And that's hard to do in the NBA."
Although it was only the Celtics' first exhibition game, Gugliotta didn't get exactly what he wanted last night in a 104-74 rout of the Bulls at the Verizon Wireless Arena. With the game relatively close, coach Doc Rivers took a good, but brief, look at Gugliotta, who finished with 4 points and an assist in 8 minutes. So far, Rivers has been pleasantly surprised by what he has seen from Gugliotta, namely in practice. The coach also appreciates Gugliotta's 12 years of NBA experience, including four years in the playoffs.
"Googs has been impressive with his movement," said Rivers. "When [executive director of basketball operations] Danny [Ainge] came to me about Googs, I told him, 'I love Googs as a player.' I just didn't know what he had left. After two or three days, I could tell it was a great move for us. The guy can play a lot of minutes, if we need him."
The Celtics didn't exactly need Gugliotta last night, considering how easily they scored with their up-tempo offense. Boston shot 50 percent and placed five players in double figures, including Paul Pierce (18 points), Ricky Davis (15), Raef LaFrentz (13), Gary Payton (10 points, 6 assists), and Marcus Banks (10 points). For most of the game Boston kept its turnovers down, while forcing Chicago to commit 27.
Gugliotta believes the new Celtics system suits his game, dictating he catch the ball in the high post and work from there. The power forward knows there are a lot of things he can do well from that position, from making shots to getting teammates open.
"Obviously, I want to play," said Gugliotta, who has competed in only 126 games over the past three seasons. "The way the offense is set up we're all involved. The important part is getting in the game. You don't have to ask, 'Can you run a play for me?' The play goes for anybody. You just have to use your judgment of who's open, are you taking good shots, are you getting your teammates open? I'm just going to do what I can do. I know rebounding is something I'll have to do, especially defensive rebounding. So rebounding is going to be important and making shots, and hopefully, show some type of leadership."
Gugliotta hopes to be an addition that helps revive the Celtics. After all, he knows a little bit about things coming back to life.