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G League Death Lawsuit Basketball

Jewel Upshaw, the mother of G League basketball player Zeke Upshaw, who died in March after collapsing on a court during a game, becomes emotional as attorney Ben Crump speaks at a news conference in front of U.S. District Court in New York on May 30. Jewel Upshaw filed a lawsuit accusing the NBA and the Detroit Pistons of negligence.

It has been 11 years since the American Heart Association, the American Red Cross and the National Safety Council collaborated to convince Congress to christen June 1-7 each year as National CPR and AED Awareness Week.

In Northwest Indiana, apparently, the week was observed a month early.

On May 3, Griffith High School athletic trainer Jessica Whalley emailed two videos to fellow athletic trainers employed by Community Care Network. Both showed athletes experiencing sudden cardiac death. One of the incidents, involving a high school volleyball player, turned out well. The other, involving a professional basketball player, ended tragically.

On May 7, Lake Station athletic trainer Taylor Shoemake watched both videos, never thinking that she would be emulating the actions in one of the videos the next day. Shoemake performed CPR, sent athletic director Jason Hawkins for a nearby AED and then used the device successfully within a minute of collapse to resuscitate Raphael "Nathan" Perry, 17.

The other video didn't make a huge ripple in the immediate wake of its recording on March 24. That was when Chicago native Zeke Upshaw, 26, collapsed near the end of an NBA G League game in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

As I wrote on April 2, “A review of the video of this incident, when compared with a similar video of the volleyball player’s, raises questions more than it provides answers.

“The most striking difference between the two is the absolute urgency evident for the volleyball player and the nearly complete absence of it for Upshaw.

“At no point, while Upshaw lay on the floor, or even after he was placed on a stretcher, was any effort made in the arena to initiate CPR or to deploy the AED that had been brought to his side. This is despite the Kent County, Michigan, medical examiner announcing that Upshaw suffered “sudden cardiac death." Some time after being wheeled from the floor, he was resuscitated but, two days later, he passed away.

“Contacted through an intermediary, the orthopaedic surgeon for the Grand Rapids Drive declined to comment, so the questions remain.”

Since then, I have posed the pertinent questions to the Kent County medical examiner and the NBA because the Grand Rapids Drive, for whom Upshaw played, never responded to multiple phone messages.

Did those who rushed initially to Upshaw’s side mistake abnormal attempts at breathing and seizure-like activity, which can occur in the moments following cardiac arrest, for signs of life? Does that explain why there is no evidence on the video of anyone checking for a pulse?

Since Upshaw was face down, were his initial caregivers fearful of a head and/or neck injury, making them hesitant to roll him over until the paramedics arrived? Thus, did the sports world’s overarching concern with concussion contribute to Upshaw’s death?

The video runs four minutes. During that entire time, nobody among the sideline medical staff or ambulance crew initiated lifesaving measures. Why?

On April 5, the coroner, Dr. Stephen Cohle, told me that Upshaw was dead when he hit the floor. When asked why CPR was not initiated, he responded that he was not a resuscitation expert but that his understanding was that the sideline medical staff thought a head injury triggered Upshaw's collapse.

In subsequent weeks, I had multiple conversations with an NBA G League representative, asking the same questions posed to Cohle. Additionally, I made queries regarding the existence of an emergency action plan, how often it was practiced and the party responsible for G League medical care.

Initially, I was promised complete answers that would include reasons for the inaction so evident on the video.

Two weeks ago, though, I received a statement from an NBA G League spokesperson that delivered far less.

“The NBA G League is continuing to review Zeke Upshaw’s tragic passing,” read the release. “The league has been in contact with the Kent County Medical Examiner. Now that the Office of the Medical Examiner has released its report, the league is in the process of reviewing it, including with expert cardiologists.”

About a week ago, the reason for the sudden reticence became clear. Jewel Upshaw, Zeke’s mother, filed suit against the NBA, the SSJ Group, the arena in which the game was played and the Detroit Pistons — the Drive are the G League affiliate of the Pistons. The SSJ Group and the Pistons co-own the Drive.

In their filing, Upshaw’s lawyers highlight just how dangerous basketball can be to the heart, claim that the NBA should have known about those dangers and should have been far better prepared to respond to a cardiac event.

Those dangers are just as great at the youth level. Statistics gathered between 2014 and 2017 by the Youth Sports Safety Alliance, sponsored by National Athletic Trainers’ Association, show that 25 youths died playing basketball in that four-year span. There are many different causes of death. Basketball victims have been as young as 9 years old.

Consequently, the parent of any child playing basketball, regardless of the level of play, should ask if the team has an emergency action plan that includes an AED being courtside at practice or game. More importantly, somebody like Shoemake or Whalley — who is trained, prepared and knows what to do — needs to be there when the unthinkable happens and seconds count. And seconds do count because for every minute that passes after collapse, without defibrillation, the chances of survival drop 10 percent.

Better to ask those questions of athletic administrators and coaches before an incident, when they are far more likely to answer.

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