One day last November, Robert Foster lost a friend who suffered a heart attack. A few days later, Foster, then a junior at Dunbar High School, was told he had a heart murmur.
But within a month, Foster was back on the Poets basketball team.
The condition was discovered during Foster's preseason physical at Dunbar, right after the death of longtime friend Antoine "Stevie" Green, 17, a member of Dunbar's 1992-93 junior varsity team. Green went into cardiac arrest at home and died of diabetic ketoacidosis, a disturbance affecting the metabolism of glucose in the body.
Foster, who was cleared to play after three weeks of medical tests, said Green's death has him "looking at life a lot differently."
"Stevie was my friend since I was 9. We played together with Oliver [Recreation Center]," he said. "First Stevie died, then we get a new coach [Paul Smith], and then I'm told I have heart problems. It was a pretty stressful situation to play in."
But not stressful enough to keep him off the court.
Foster's doctor, Jerald Insel of Good Samaritan Hospital, described his condition as treatable with a proper diet, exercise and regular checkups.
Foster did not play in a single game last season, but he hopes to be a major contributor at Dunbar as a senior this year. He is averaging 20 points and seven rebounds this summer on five teams, including Herring Run in the Project Survival League, and squads in the Craig Cromwell and Baltimore Neighborhood Basketball leagues.
Insel said Foster's murmur is characterized by an abnormally long growth on the tissue in his valves, which occasionally disturbs the rhythms of his heartbeat.
Insel said such a murmur occurs among tall people 10 to 15 percent of the time and causes death in "about one in 1,000" cases. Testing revealed that the 6-foot-6 Foster, whose blood was pumping normally, might occasionally exhibit dizziness and heart palpitations, though he said he's had no problems this summer.
Fatalities in one in 1,000 cases "is still a little on the high side," said Jeanny Park, a professor of cardiology with the University of California-Davis in Sacramento.
"It sounds like he's had some arrhythmia, an abnormality in the heartbeat that can be either too fast, too slow or simply irregular," said Park, a Joppatowne native who has treated children with heart disease for six years.
"But if his doctor says there's no evidence of prolapse [displacement of the organ], there's no reason he should be restricted [from playing]."
Still, Foster is aware of the heart problems of other athletes, especially two cases close to home:
* Most recently, Clemson junior forward Devin Gray, a St. Frances graduate who suffered a heart attack April 4, began rehabilitation to determine if he will be able to play again.
* Last July, a recurrent heart problem resulted in the death of ex-Dunbar star Reggie Lewis. Lewis, the 28-year-old captain of the Boston Celtics, collapsed during a routine workout.
"Those are cases that I think about sometimes, but I try to keep them out of my mind," said Foster, 18. "As long as I see my doctor once a year, he says I should be all right."
Lewis felt the same way.
After it initially was suggested by one doctor that Lewis retire, he got a favorable second opinion, decided to play again, and died before the next season.
"You're always going to have that little bit of concern in the back of your mind for your son," said Rob Foster Sr., a 1976 Dunbar graduate. He knows what his son is going through. A 6-3 former basketball player, he was similarly diagnosed with the hereditary ailment long ago.
"But the doctor has assured us that there's little chance -- like a 2 percent chance -- that he can be affected," Rob Sr. said. "I'm OK with what the doctor says."
Pete Pompey, his former coach at Dunbar, took a more cautious stance. "I found out Rob had problems this past year when he called me and told me that [the problems] were starting to surface all of a sudden," said Pompey, who used Foster sparingly on the varsity during the 1992-93 season. "I told him in very definite terms to make sure he got [his heart] thoroughly checked out.
"I told Rob that Reggie can be a great example," Pompey said. "I told him that basketball is not everything and that life is more important."
Other than staying away from coffee, caffeinated soft drinks and his favorite fried foods, Foster says not much has changed about his lifestyle.
"I take my condition seriously, but I try not to worry about it too much," he said. "And I play just as hard as I always have."