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GR Drive player death reopens conversation about screening athletes for possible heart conditions

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Upshaw - Headshot - Grand Rapids Drive

By Matt Meyle – Collegiate Staff

On Saturday, March 24, the Grand Rapids Drive celebrated its first playoff berth in the National Basketball Association G League (Gatorade League, formerly known as the Developmental League until 2017). The Drive have called Grand Rapids home since 2014 when the team moved from Springfield, Massachusetts and partnered with the Detroit Pistons. The Grand Rapids Drive defeated the Long Island Nets, 101-99, but their victory was the last thing on the minds of the players and fans in attendance.

With under a minute left in the game, the Nets drove down the court in desperate hope of scoring a basket to narrow the lead that the Drive had possessed. The Nets’ opportunity was halted as the game was whistled to a stop.

Silence and confusion filled the arena.

One of the Drive players had collapsed on the other end of the court. Zena Ray Upshaw, who was known as Zeke by his friends and family, had suffered a massive and sudden heart attack during the final, stressful and physically taxing seconds of the game. The result of the game was irrelevant at this point.

My brother and sister-in-law were in attendance for the final game of the Drive’s regular season schedule. A night of fun and entertainment can turn into a night of sorrow and pondering. A moment of despair for those who witnessed the tragedy, was far overshadowed by the pain of those who were close to Upshaw.

“What just happened? This cannot be good,” was the first thing Sarah Meyle said to her husband, Luke, when they noticed the downed player.

Trainers and medical personnel from the sidelines rushed over to Upshaw after Drive Coach, Robert Werdann, pointed to Upshaw, who was laying flat on his stomach.

“I wondered what could have possibly have happened, as I looked at him laying unresponsive,” Sarah said. “As a nurse, I wondered why they weren’t doing CPR. Had they already checked his pulse? I knew it wasn’t just an injury. I feared it was something greater such as a stroke or heart attack.”

At six feet, six inches, the 215 pound, 26-year-old was living the dream of many of the youth in America. He was in pursuit of a career in professional sports. He was one tier away from making it to the NBA. A place where the best basketball players in the world compete. He was the picture of physical achievement.

On Monday, March 26, Upshaw died at Spectrum Hospital in Grand Rapids. The passing of Upshaw is an absolute tragedy. Upshaw played basketball for his job. His physical well being should have been the top priority for the owners and coaches of the organization. His unfortunate passing is not to be blamed on anyone. However, the fact of the matter is, there are ways to test these athletes for pre-existing conditions, but how effective are they?

The sport of football has taken tremendous heat in regards to player safety and the NFL has faced constant flak for not doing more to prevent Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Shouldn’t the health of every player in every sport be the top priority? After all, sports are only entertainment. The people participating in these games are being paid to entertain the common public with their abilities. People are wowed by their skills and “superhuman” strength and speed. Shouldn’t the health of these athletes be top priority in an industry that can make millions in revenue off of their abilities?

According to the American Heart Association, studies have been conducted to test the reliability of heart tests such as the electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG). Nearly one third of athlete ECGs could result in a false-positive, causing paranoia over a condition that may not even exist. ECGs do not detect many of the major issues that cause sudden cardiac arrest in young adults. One in 10 ECGs misses identifying hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which is the leading cause of sudden cardiac arrest in young people. More alarmingly, nine out of 10 ECGs miss identifying coronary artery anomalies, which is the second leading cause among young adults.

ECGs are affordable and easily available to set up a screening. However, many of the tests do not accurately diagnose the issue many of these young athletes may possess. It is increasingly difficult to determine if an ECG will benefit all athletes if tested or if athletes should wait until symptoms appear. There seems to be no clear cut answer. The tests can look abnormal if run on a normal heart.

When seemingly healthy athletes have medical emergencies, such as the unfortunate and unexpected passing of Upshaw, public outcries push to prevent more tragedy. However, heart conditions are extremely hard to identify and diagnose in everyone.

Kent County medical examiner, Dr. Stephen Cohle reported from the autopsy, the Tuesday following Upshaw’s death, that the player likely suffered “a sudden cardiac death” and identified that Upshaw had a “slightly enlarged” heart, but likely did not cause the cardiac arrest.

Many athletes have similar heart conditions and Cohle did not believe that his enlarged heart contributed to his passing. At this time, it is unclear what has caused his heart to fail. In the next few weeks, Cohle plans to further investigate the possible cause by looking at tissue slides to “characterize the exact type of heart disease, microscopically.”

The true cause of Upshaw’s passing remains unclear at this time. His passing has reopened the conversation of preventative testing in young athletes. Unfortunately, due to the rarity of sudden cardiac death in young adults, medical research in identifying heart disease has not surpassed the ECG. Perhaps it is time to focus on better way to identify cardiac abnormalities in people who want to pursue a sport. After all, it is only entertainment. It should never be a case of life and death.

On Thursday, March 29, the Detroit Pistons made an honorary call-up of Upshaw to pay respect for what he brought to their organization.

The Drive lost to the Raptors 905 in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal on March 30. After entering the fourth quarter with a 70-66 lead, the Drive fell behind late in the fourth quarter after the 905 went on a 6-0 run, breaking the 82-82 tie. The Drive fought hard until the final seconds, but could not overcome the deficit and lost 92-88.

Upshaw was also honored by his high school alma mater, the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools on Saturday, March 31. His legacy lives on through his former teammates and family members.