Nets assistant Jim Sann lost his wife to cancer – and nearly his own life to a heart attack at practice

Brooklyn Nets assistant coach and scout Jim Sann lurched forward and collapsed to the practice court on Sunday morning. His heart stopped, his pulse faded and they were losing him.

"I was on my way out," Sann said by phone Tuesday afternoon from his bed in a Northern New Jersey hospital. "I was gone."

Nets scout Jim Sann
Nets scout Jim Sann

Sann is a fit, trim 46 years old, the father of a 9-year-old boy and 7-year-old girl who lost their mother to cancer three years ago. And of all places that Sann could've gone into cardiac arrest on Sunday, he had been blessed with good timing, good fortune and the presence of one of the best trainers in the NBA: the Nets' Tim Walsh.

Between CPR and a defibrillator, Walsh and his training staff brought Sann back to life. Sann awoke on his back unsure what had happened, only to see the trainers and coaches standing over him, and, yes, perhaps the surest sign he had returned to the living: "Kevin Garnett was yelling," Sann said.

For maybe a month, Sann had dismissed the chest pains brought on by a valve blockage as heartburn, popping Zantac and fooling himself with one of the oldest cons of middle-aged men in the morgue: "Other people have heart attacks," Sann told himself, "not me."

Sann is a workout fool. Every time he checks into the Marriott on the road, he goes directly to the exercise room and drives himself through a hard workout.

Sann hadn't been to a Nets practice in weeks, but he was eager to get on the floor with the players on Sunday morning. He had flown back from a scouting trip on the West Coast on Friday, watched the Nets-Raptors game in Brooklyn, spent Saturday with his kids and come through the Lincoln Tunnel on Sunday morning for practice in East Rutherford.

For Sann, practices still mean so much to him. He loves getting into the gym, getting on the floor with the players. As a scout, he doesn't get the chance often.

So Sunday morning, Sann felt his chest tightening again, popped another pill and thought it would just go away again. Only, it didn't this time. Only, his heart started to pound through his chest, and Sann wobbled over to the basketball stanchion in the Nets' practice facility. Now, the heart attack belonged to him. All those salads, all those workouts to that crazy Insanity DVD they sell on TV, and still Jim Sann had gone down, and gone down hard.

"I had warning signs for weeks that this was going to happen, and I was stupid about it," Sann told Yahoo Sports. "And my two kids were almost orphans because of that."

As much as anything, Sann wanted to talk on Tuesday because he wanted to get a message out there: Be smarter than him, and maybe save your own life.

Nets trainer Tim Walsh (above) helped revive Jim Sann with a defibrillator. (Getty Images)
Nets trainer Tim Walsh (above) helped revive Jim Sann with a defibrillator. (Getty Images)

As an NBA advance scout, Sann lives a grueling, thankless and lonely life. Airport to Marriott, Marriott to arena for games. Arena to Marriott to stay up most of the night filing reports on upcoming opponents for the coaching staff. Early morning flight to the next city and next team to evaluate.

For some advance scouts – Erik Spoelstra and Frank Vogel and Lawrence Frank – the job is a first step on the journey to become a head coach. Sann has been on benches in the NBA as an assistant coach, but his friends in the league will tell you he took something of a step back into the advanced scouting job with Brooklyn to make sure his two kids would continue to be raised near family in New York. After his wife passed in 2012, he left the NBA and took a job at Pace University in New York.

Sann has worked for Jeff Van Gundy and Tom Thibodeau, Lionel Hollins and Frank, been blessed with excellent teams and teachers, and never takes the pro life for granted.

"I do love this game and this is a great way to make a living," Sann said. "I love the challenge of trying to figure out what teams are doing, the challenge of watching the very best coaches and best players every night and trying to give my team some insight that will help us win."

Someday, he'll be back on the bench in the NBA. Advance scouting isn't forever. He and his children had been through hell with the loss of his wife, and his friends will tell you Sann will often fly home on an off day, if it's possible, just to spend a few extra hours with his kids. Sann checks out of the hospital in Jersey on Wednesday, leaving with a stent in his heart and time to return home to Manhattan to spend with the kids now.

Alone in his bed, Jim Sann also has had time to think about the randomness of it all, and, yes, his amazing fortune. "If this had happened in a Marriott somewhere, there would have been a much different outcome for me," Sann said. "Somebody, somewhere, thought that maybe this wasn't my time."

Jim Sann gets a second chance now, and hopes there are people who'll think of him when they get a warning of their own. He was damn lucky, the right place and right time with a hero named Tim Walsh. Sann knows this, though: He could've far easily been alone in a hotel room, in the middle seat on a plane and never lived to tell his story, never lived to raise those kids.

Before Jim Sann hung up the phone on Tuesday, he would say one final time: "Please tell people: Be smarter than I was."