Arizona State fans stormed the floor after upsetting Arizona last month (USATSI)
When Arizona State fans flooded the court at Wells Fargo Arena last month following their team's double-overtime victory over second-ranked Arizona, Tucson native Joe Kay couldn't hide his disappointment.
"I couldn't stand it," Kay said. "I actually said something to my friends I was watching with. I just couldn't understand why the fans were rushing the court."
Every time Kay watches students pour out of the stands to celebrate a big win, it makes him feel as if the life-altering injuries he suffered 10 years ago during a court storming have been forgotten.
In the euphoria after Kay's two-handed breakaway dunk helped clinch a rivalry victory for Tucson High in Feb. 2004, an avalanche of students spilled onto the floor and Kay somehow got thrown to the ground in the crush. None of the 6-foot-6 senior's peers realized he was hurt until he staggered out of the pile dazed and unable to respond to simple questions or properly move his right arm or leg.
The torn carotid artery and stroke Kay suffered that day left him paralyzed on one side and robbed him of many of the gifts that enabled him to become the valedictorian of his class, win awards for his saxophone skills and earn a volleyball scholarship to Stanford.
No longer can Kay solve complex math equations, shoot a basketball or spike a volleyball the way he once took for granted. He eventually regained the ability to talk and walk after his stroke, but even now he cannot sprint or run, he lacks the ability to use his right hand and he often struggles to formulate thoughts into words as rapidly as he did before.
"My injuries are something I'll have to deal with the rest of my life," Kay said. "If court-storming didn't exist, or if none of the people at my high school had ever really seen it on TV, it probably never would have happened. People claim it's a tradition but we shouldn't have tradition if it's unsafe. It doesn't make sense."
Whether court storming should be permissible has become a hot-button issue again recently, especially in the wake of last Thursday night's melee at Utah Valley when New Mexico State players exchanged punches with on-rushing fans just after the final buzzer. Injuries as severe as Kay's are extremely rare, but he's certainly not the only person ever hurt in a court storming.
Gerry Plunkett, wife of former NFL quarterback Jim Plunkett, was pinned face down under her chair and sustained severe bruising to her legs when Stanford fans flooded the Maples Pavilion floor in Feb. 2004 after Nick Robinson's half-court shot beat Arizona at the buzzer. Robinson himself had a harrowing experience at the bottom of the crush of humanity, later telling the Sporting News, "I put my forearm and a hand over my face to make sure I could breathe."
There have been several noteworthy recent incidents as well, from a Playboy model getting thrown down the stairs and tearing tendons in her ankle after Indiana upset Kentucky in Dec. 2011, to Colorado guard Askia Booker injuring his non-shooting shoulder in the dog pile after his team's victory over Kansas earlier this season. The scariest incident came in Jan. 2013 at NC State when forward C.J. Leslie had to lift Will Privette to safety after the senior was thrown from his wheelchair during the court storming that followed the Wolfpack's upset of Duke.
The risk of injury has led the SEC to fine schools when their fans rush the floor, with fines ranging from $5,000 for the first offense to $25,000 and $50,000 for additional violations. Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina's Roy Williams are among the coaches who have pulled their teams off the court in the final seconds of a road loss when they sense a court storming coming.
To prevent others from suffering injuries as severe as the ones he sustained, Kay would like to see schools hire more security to keep fans off the floor. He also wishes ESPN and other TV networks would stop glorifying court storming because he believes it's sending the wrong message.
It's easy to understand why Kay doesn't think enough is being done considering all he endured after his stroke. It took him a week to be able to say his own name or to be able to do simple addition. It took another six weeks before he was able to return home from the hospital. And it took nearly a year of out-patient care before Kay informed doctors he'd had enough and wanted to return to a semi-normal life.
Eight years ago, Kay and his family settled a lawsuit against the Tucson Unified School District for $3.5 million. Since then, he has earned his bachelor's degree from Stanford and is more than halfway done with a two-year graduate program for social work at Arizona State.
"I don't really like to dwell on my injury," Kay said. "The past 10 years, I've tried to move past my injury and embrace my current life. I can walk. I can slowly jog. I can move my right arm but I can't use my right hand. I have a semi-physically active life, but nothing like what I used to be able to do. I haven't played volleyball since."
One thing Kay hopes to do once he's done with graduate school is to continue to educate people about the potential danger of court storming. He's hopeful high school and college students won't be so eager to do it if they're aware of his story.
That helps explain Kay's initial reaction after a friend sent him video of Thursday night's brawl at Utah Valley. Kay said he felt a mixture of relief that nobody was seriously injured and joy that the incident had shined a spotlight on an issue he believes merits more attention.
"Now people are talking about whether court-storming should be allowed again," Kay said. "It brought up this topic of conversation again for everyone to delve into."
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