Lawsuit settled over G League player’s death

The mother of a Grand Rapids G League player who collapsed on the court and died from sudden cardiac arrest last year reached a settlement in her federal lawsuit against the NBA and the Detroit Pistons Wednesday.

Zeke Upshaw, a guard/forward for the Pistons’ Grand Rapids Drive, died March 26, 2018, two days after collapsing during a game on his home court. Upshaw’s mother, Jewel, filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of his estate against the NBA and the Pistons franchise, which co-owns the Drive.

“It’s a strange feeling. It’s not going to bring him back, but it allows me to carry on his legacy,” Jewel Upshaw told ESPN’s Outside the Lines.

Terms were not disclosed. Upshaw’s attorney, Robert C. Hilliard, said he could not comment. NBA officials released a statement saying, “Jewel Upshaw, the National Basketball Association, and the Detroit Pistons announced today that they have resolved their prior dispute and the litigation claims against the National Basketball Association and the Detroit Pistons pending in federal district court have been dismissed. The NBA and Pistons express their sympathies to Jewel Upshaw and the rest of Zeke’s family on his tragic passing.”

The DeltaPlex Arena in Grand Rapids, where the Drive play their home games, and SSJ Group LLC, the company that co-owns and operates the Drive, also are cited in the lawsuit. Those cases remain active. DeltaPlex owner Joel Langlois, who recently announced that he was running for Congress, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Jewel Upshaw’s lawsuit argued that team staff were not adequately trained to recognize and respond to her son’s heart attack, and that medical staff failed to recognize that he was in cardiac arrest.

Video shows that Upshaw, 26, was not touched by another player before he collapsed face-down with 40 seconds left in the final game of the 2017-18 regular season. It took several seconds for anyone on the court to realize he had fallen.

Upshaw’s teammates said the team’s medical staff told them they believed he had suffered a head injury, and that when they asked him if he had struck his head, he “answered affirmatively,” according to the Kent County medical examiner’s report.

Several doctors who reviewed the video for Outside the Lines said Upshaw appeared to lose consciousness before he hit the floor. They also said it’s unlikely he could have responded coherently to a question, though it’s possible he made sounds that could have been interpreted as a response.

Neither team medical staff nor paramedics on the scene appeared to check Upshaw’s pulse while he lay on the court, according to available video. According to ambulance records obtained by Outside the Lines, paramedics did not attempt CPR until seven minutes after Upshaw collapsed.

Upshaw had a heart disease that apparently had not been detected in two preseason screenings with the Drive, according to Upshaw’s medical records.

Experts who reviewed Upshaw’s medical records for Outside the Lines disagreed on the underlying problem that caused his death. Four said they believed he suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a genetic thickening of the heart muscle that affects about one in 500 people. Four others said he had a rarer disease, arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy, that is known to raise the risk of sudden cardiac death.

Both diseases cause structural deformities that can go undetected, as appeared to be the case with Upshaw. But sports that require bursts of energy, like basketball, can trigger electrical malfunctions in the heart that may send the person into cardiac arrest. Experts say immediate resuscitative efforts such as CPR and the use of an electronic defibrillator, can greatly increase the chance of a full recovery — but only if attempted in the first few minutes.

Upshaw played college basketball at Illinois State and Hofstra University before two seasons playing professionally in Slovenia and Luxembourg. He entered the G League draft in 2016 and was picked in the fourth round by the Drive. He averaged 6.4 points per game in his first season, but friends and family say he went into 2017-18 with renewed purpose. Upshaw started only five games that season, but shot better than 41% from 3-point range.

Jewel Upshaw said she will continue to spread awareness about heart disease in athletes, and the need for medical personnel to recognize sudden cardiac arrest. She also wants athletes to make sure they’re getting proper screening for heart issues.

“We just trust that everything is OK when it may not be. And in Zeke’s case it wasn’t,” Jewel Upshaw said. “That’s my kid, and he just wanted to be the best he could be at whatever he was doing no matter what it was. I miss that. I miss him.”

ESPN’s William Weinbaum and Mike Farrell contributed to this report

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