Rebounding After Heart Surgery

A year after his operation, Tom Palleschi, A16, is once again an all-star for Jumbo basketball

Tom Palleschi grabs a rebound

When Tufts sophomore Tom Palleschi returned to the basketball court this season, he did so at an all-star level. That wasn’t unexpected for the 2013 New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) Rookie of the Year. But for someone who’d had heart surgery just nine months earlier, it was downright remarkable.

In May 2013, Palleschi’s father nearly died of an aortic dissection, an abnormal swelling of the body’s largest blood vessel that causes the aorta to tear. Doctors thought Palleschi should be tested for the condition. The scans showed his aorta was also enlarged and abnormally shaped, and doctors recommended surgery to repair the aortic root, located near the junction of the aorta and the heart, and to patch a hole in his heart. So instead of playing hoops for the Jumbos in February 2014, Palleschi was on the operating table.

“Obviously I wanted to play basketball as much as possible, and that was still something I was thinking about,” he says. “But the main thing for me was being able to play with my dog and have a kid later on in life.”

After the surgery, Palleschi was elected by his teammates as a tri-captain, well before they knew whether he would return to play. Happily, he was cleared by his doctors to hit the court last June, just four months after his surgery. He was ready to go when Tufts opened preseason practice in November.

Wearing number 2—symbolic of his second chance—the 6-foot-8-inch Palleschi came back strong in the 2014–15 season, averaging 12 points and 6.1 rebounds per game and leading the NESCAC in blocks, with 2.4 per game. Another sign that he had returned to his old self was that he was not satisfied earning All-Conference second-team honors.

“I’m happy that I got second team,” he says. “But I hold myself to high expectations, so I wanted to be better. I wanted to be first team.”

Returning to the court after heart surgery alone was worthy of first-team honors. He scored 15 points with 10 rebounds in his first official game back, against Johnson & Wales University in Providence on Nov. 15.

“I had a lot of butterflies,” he says. “We lost, and that was tough. But just to be able to get that first game out of the way was huge.”

During the home opener on Nov. 21, he felt lightheaded and took himself out of the game. It occurred close to intermission, though, and he was fine for the second half. Palleschi went on to lead the Jumbos in minutes played during the season, with an average of 26.6 per game.

“Having been away from basketball for a full year, for him to come back to play at the college level and put up the same numbers he did before is pretty impressive,” says head coach Bob Sheldon. “He played every day and did everything he physically had to do a year removed from this surgery. It shows you the type of person that he is.”

Tufts guard Stephen Haladyna, A16, left, and forward Tom Palleschi, A16, confer after a score in the first half against Williams College at Cousens Gymnasium on Feb. 7. Photo: Kelvin MaTufts guard Stephen Haladyna, A16, left, and forward Tom Palleschi, A16, confer after a score in the first half against Williams College at Cousens Gymnasium on Feb. 7. Photo: Kelvin Ma
Against Williams College on Feb. 7, he made an incredible 11 shots in the first half and had 22 points at halftime. However, he scored only two points in the second half. The inconsistency was a source of frustration for him.

“I was happy to be playing, without a doubt, but I played a lot of games this year where I had a good half, but the next half wasn’t that good,” he says. “That’s something I have to improve on. Sometimes I felt tired, but I don’t think that’s an excuse. I still have to play 40 minutes and not just 20.”

Though Palleschi is his own toughest critic, his teammates were impressed with his comeback season.

“Tom is the best teammate you could ask for,” says junior tri-captain Stephen Haladyna. “He’s a role model, especially for the younger guys on our team, because of his work ethic and positive attitude. As a captain, he holds everyone accountable, and we all took inspiration from the way he came back so strong from his surgery with such a positive attitude.”

Paying It Forward

Before his surgery, Palleschi had the chance to talk with NBA player Jeff Green. A member of the Boston Celtics at the time, Green had also returned to the court after a heart operation. He helped ease Tom’s nerves.

Palleschi had the chance to pay that gesture forward this season, reaching out to 7-year-old Caden Daley, who is dealing with a similar heart condition. He went to one of Caden’s basketball practices. Palleschi spoke with the boy’s father, Brian, about his experience and played one-on-one with Caden. They all went to lunch afterward and made plans for Caden to attend a Tufts game.

At the Jan. 6 home game against Newbury College, Palleschi introduced Caden, his 10-year-old brother Brandon and their father to the team. The brothers were on the bench and served as water boys that night. Caden went into the locker room, shot hoops in Cousens Gym after the game and attended a post-game event with the team. The Daleys had so much fun that they returned to Tufts two nights later for the game against Rhode Island College.

“My hope was we would get to one game, speak to Tom for five minutes, and Caden could see that anything was possible with his condition,” Brian Daley says. “What Caden got was so much more. The entire experience was fantastic, for not only Caden, but our entire family. Caden told me he only wants to wear number 2 next season, the same number as his best friend and favorite basketball player.”

Palleschi, the only child of Tom Sr. and Rosie, knows fully the importance of family. In the past seven years, his mother has survived a rare form of cancer, his dad the heart dissection. Tom Jr., whose progress will continue to be monitored with annual checkups, is now writing his own successful recovery story.

“We are the luckiest unlucky group,” Palleschi says. “We’re just blessed. Clearly God is watching over us. We’ve been dealing with all this, but we’re still fine.”

Tufts Sports Information Director Paul Sweeney can be reached at

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