NBA Hauled to Court on Death of G-League Player

MANHATTAN (CN) — When every second mattered, a rising basketball star received no life-saving intervention after his heart suddenly stopped in the final minute of the last game of the season. Two months after Zeke Upshaw’s tragic passing, the mother of the late 26-year-old now wants a federal judge to hold the NBA liable.

Zeke played in Michigan, and his mother lives in Nevada, but Jewel Upshaw filed her suit in New York on Wednesday because the NBA has its headquarters there. Neither the NBA nor the Detroit Pistons have returned requests for comment.

Represented by the firm Hilliard Martinez, in Corpus Christie, Texas, Upshaw accuses the league of failing to address decades of documentation about the risk of young NBA stars dying suddenly from cardiac events.

“The NBA’s policy is startlingly poor, and its every day preparation and enforcement during the long basketball season, at every level of team play, for every single team and every individual player is dangerous, life-threatening, haphazard and inconsistent,” the complaint states.

Before collapsing on the court, Zeke had played two seasons with the Grand Rapids Drive, a G-league development team for the Pistons.

Upshaw says it was her son’s best season to date, and that the Pistons general manager had suggested to Zeke’s agent that they might move him up to the Pistons in the spring.

“Unfortunately, spring never came for Zeke,” the complaint states.

In painful detail, Upshaw’s 20-page complaint recounts the point guard’s final moments on March 24 at the DeltaPlex Arena:

“He laid where he fell, unmoving, face-down on the court. His arms were twisted in the awkward, unnatural position as occurs when the limbs of an unconscious person fall with the body to the ground. No movement was seen during the fall by the arms or hands to protect or break the fall – indeed, no movement can be seen from that point forward. Zeke’s heart had stopped.”

Though the Illinois State grad was dead in that moment, his mother says the immediate start of emergency lifesaving treatment could have saved him.

“Zeke Upshaw, improperly attended, was left to lie unconscious on the hardwood, in his team’s full uniform, slowly dying as his otherwise healthy heart sat, unbeating in his chest,” the complaint states. “A heart that likely only needed a compression series, or a charged delivery from a defibrillator, to begin to pound again and to pump blood and life back into Zeke Upshaw. However, according to witnesses, no one ever attempted to revive him.” (Emphasis in original.)

Jewel Upshaw (left) becomes emotional as attorney Ben Crump speaks at a news conference in front of a New York federal courthouse on May 30, 2018. Two months after her son, Zeke Upshaw died while playing basketball for a G League team in Michigan, Upshaw has brought a lawsuit accusing the NBA and the Detroit Pistons of negligence. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Upshaw notes that video of the game fully documents the league’s inaction, even capturing the fans who frantically attempted to speed up slow-moving personnel.

“For nearly four minutes, the team’s medical staff and personnel moved around and near Zeke’s body as it lay motionless on the court, during which time no sense of urgency can be observed from those kneeling around him, or from those walking towards or away from him; on the contrary, there appeared to be uncertainty, indecisiveness, and a complete and utter lack of appreciation of the severity of the moment as the basketball player’s life silently slipped away on the hard wood floor in front of them,” the complaint states. “Remarkably, for much longer than four full minutes, no cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) was initiated, no chest compressions were started, no oxygen mask was placed on his nose and mouth, no airway was cleared and secured, and no defibrillator sensors and electric delivery patches were attached and secured to Zeke’s chest. … In fact, not a single life-saving measure was administered during the entire four minutes of the tragic event’s video recording.” (Emphasis and parentheses in original)

Upshaw goes on to call it abhorrent that “Zeke’s body went without oxygen for another forty minutes after the end of the video, leaving his brain completely oxygen-deprived for a full forty-four minutes in toto.”

“At this point, there was no healthy brain left to save,” the complaint states.

Having arrived at the emergency room brain dead, Zeke was pronounced dead two days later.

“It is Ms. Upshaw’s hope that through her lawsuit, change will come to the NBA — that going forward, not one NBA son of a proud mother, will ever again suffer sudden cardiac death during a game,” the complaint states. “Instead, if that son experiences a sudden cardiac event while playing for the NBA, it will be accurately identified and confirmed immediately. That son will be treated and saved by well trained and quick response teams – response teams who are following detailed and robust, lifesaving written policies and procedures that have been practiced and memorized. The NBA’s quick and accurate recognition of a life threatening, sudden cardiac event at the moment it occurs during a game, coupled with an immediate and appropriate response, ensures the best outcome and highest likely survival rate.”

Upshaw notes that her son’s death was certainly sudden, but “it was not a situation that was surprising or unexpected.”

When faced with an unconscious athlete who has not suffered any apparent blow or injury, the complaint emphasizes, emergency medical personnel are trained to consider sudden cardiac events and cardiac arrest on the top of the triage check list.

The grave medical issue has affected the league even at its highest levels, with 27-year-old Boston Celtics player Reggie Lewis having died of cardiac arrest during an offseason practice in 1993. Lewis had shown prior symptoms of heart problems, even once collapsing during a playoff game.

Upshaw also mentions the death earlier this week of James Hampton, a “17-year-old high school phenom and AAU standout” who collapsed on May 26 in Virginia while playing for Team United of Charlotte, North Carolina. May 27 would have been the 27th birthday meanwhile of 6-foot-6 Zeke.

Back in March, a Michigan medical examiner revealed that Zeke’s autopsy showed some cardiac abnormalities, including a “slightly enlarged” heart, but that a microscopic investigation to determine the exact type of heart disease would take longer. Zeke’s enlarged heart may have been unrelated to his death, the ME said, noting that such a condition is not entirely unusual in athletes.

Other teams that Zeke played for include the Helios Suns, in Slovenia, and Basket Esch, in Luxembourg. Zeke went overseas after getting his master’s in education at Hofstra University, “where he took over as the star and captain of the team,” according to the complaint.

In addition to the NBA and the Pistons, Upshaw takes aim at the SSJ Group, a Pistons subsidiary that owns the Grand Rapids Drive, and the Deltaplex Arena. She is represented by Hilliard Martinez attorney Robert Hilliard and by the firm Ben Crump Law in Tallahassee, Florida.

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