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Zeke Upshaw’s death takes a toll on Long Island Nets


With the Long Island Nets down three and 50 seconds left, the focus in Grand Rapids’ DeltaPlex Arena Saturday night was the game, a win-or-go-home for the Nets and the Drive. The winner would go on to the G-League playoffs.

Then, things changed for everyone in the building, players, coaches, staff and 3,300 fans. Milton Doyle was on the court and saw it all unfold. Zeke Upshaw, the Drive’s 6’6” small forward, simply collapsed.

“It was just quiet, dead silence,” Doyle told reporters Monday at HSS Training Center.

“We really … everybody, we didn’t know what happened. And I didn’t really see the play, so I thought maybe he got hit and something happened, or something like that,” Doyle said. “We didn’t really find out until after the game what really happened.”

Upshaw, 26, had gone into cardiac arrest. He was rushed to a local hospital but never regained consciousness and died at 11:16 a.m. Monday. Doyle remembers how bad it looked from the moment he went down.

“When I looked at him his body was stiff and his eyes were open, but he wasn’t moving,” Doyle said. “So I figured maybe he broke something, or something like that. But I didn’t know it was that serious.”

In addition to Doyle, two other Nets, Isaiah Whitehead and James Webb III were on the court. After the game, which the Drive won, both tweeted their concern.

Upshaw’s death also hit a local chord. He had played at Hofstra.

The cause of Upshaw’s death, unfortunately, is not so rare. Big men are prone to sudden cardiac arrest and death. Five former Nets have died of it in recent years: Yinka Dare, Jack Haley, Armen Gilliam, Darryl Dawkins and Anthony Mason, who played with the Nets before starring with the Knicks.

Two years ago, Columbia University doctors working with the NBA conducted a study, examining the echocardiograms of 526 NBA players who played in 2013-14 and 2014-15. Here’s what they found...

Basketball players have the highest incidence of SCD (sudden cardiac death) among all competitive athletes in the United States, in part because of the intensity of their sport and also because African-Americans, who dominate the sport at its highest levels, have a genetic predisposition to certain heart defects that can lead to SCD...

[S]creening efforts have a major weakness: physicians must examine echocardiogram images of players’ hearts for structural abnormalities — such as enlarged ventricles or arteries — without knowing what the healthy heart of an unusually tall and fit person should look like.

In fact, the study found that very tall men’s hearts are different and that difference can lead to greater risk of sudden cardiac arrest.

Among the Columbia team’s preliminary findings is that the left ventricle, or chamber, of an NBA player’s heart is usually proportional to his overall body size, while the root of his aorta, which is the major artery that carries blood from the left ventricle to the vital organs, is typically smaller than might be expected, based on his height.

There no doubt will be more studies after Upshaw’s death —and more concern among NBA players, not unwarranted. In the meantime, those who were on the court and in the arena Saturday will carry a memory, not of a big win for Grand Rapids or a big loss for Long Island but of a young man gone and a legend that lingers on.

R.I.P. Zeke Upshaw.