The death of Zeke Upshaw represented a tragic loss for the NBA G League —the collective life and career of a special young man and promising talent gone much too soon. The guard’s time on earth was cut short following a cardiac arrest in the final game of the 2017-18 regular season, Upshaw’s second with the Grand Rapids Drive. Now, no one will know just how far he could have taken his talent or what he could have accomplished.
The wrongful death suit filed by Upshaw’s family asserts that the NBA, Pistons, Drive, and the DeltaPlex were all negligent and played a role in his death. RidiculousUpside.com decided to dive deeper into what the family’s legal team will need to prove, and what the future may have held for the 26 year old as his career continued.
“They have to prove that the defendants — the NBA, Pistons, Drive, and DeltaPlex -- had a duty to provide necessary medical staff that should have been on premises,” Michael D. Napolitano, a partner in the law firm of Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein in Garden City, New York, who is experienced in negligence and wrongful death lawsuits, said.
It would appear as though there’s a case, especially when considering the team doctor was not available as Upshaw suffered his cardiac arrest.
“This kid went down like a block. He didn’t move and you knew there was some sort of cardiac episode going on. He’s unconscious and hit the floor. His hands and legs are all over the place,” Napolitano said. “To me, that should draw someone’s attention that this is an emergency situation. I don’t understand how four minutes can go by and no one even touches the kid.”
He continued, “Clearly, there’s a reasonable duty for them to provide the necessary medical attention. The issue is, should they have been aware that it was a significant cardiac event occurring? Given those signs, if the doctor was there, would they have known to use the defibrillator?”
”I’ve had many cases and for athletes, there’s an assumption of risk that you may sustain foreseeable injuries. This is different. It would appear that they should have a defibrillator at every venue, at the very least. If the team doctor leaves, who is in charge? The team doctor would know exactly what to do. Without him, you’re forced to rely upon general medical staff.”
Napolitano went on to say that a medical professional would need to assert that based on Upshaw’s signs, oxygen needed to be administered or a defibrillator should have been used, to prove negligence. “In a situation like this, I don’t know if there would be any pain and suffering. You’d have to get a medical doctor say that while his heart was done, his brain was still there and he could feel something for that period of time,” the attorney further explained.
An economist could be called upon to convey Upshaw’s future earnings, based on the trajectory of his career. With that in mind, Ridiculous Upside spoke with former NBA agent Odell McCants to discuss what could have been.
”It’s such a tragedy to lose someone at any point, let alone when playing the game we all love. It is difficult to project. I’ve represented guys like Zeke in the past, who have produced in the G League and lower level European leagues,” he said. Currently running his own consulting firm, McCants added, “Being 27 years old, the best case for his career would have meant playing another 8-10 years maximum. If you average that at $50,000 per year, you’re looking at $400,00-$500,000. But more realistically, if he played another three to five years, you’re looking at between $150,000 and $250,000 of future earnings.”
Whereas that may have been the most common outcome for someone like Upshaw, there have been exceptions to the rule. “You also have the example of Andre Ingram, who gets that one shot. It took him ten years. and he’s an example of what can be accomplished,” McCants said. After a decade playing in the minor league and abroad, Ingram earned a call-up to the Lakers this past season at 32 years old.
Because Upshaw played for the Drive (owned by the Pistons) and the event took place in the DeltaPlex, it’s easier to connect the dots and convey how directly these parties were involved. But what about the NBA?
”I find it to be a further stretch to go after the NBA. That might be a protocol argument, to say the NBA should ensure that every minor league facility has necessary medical equipment. They’re asking to rewrite a law a little bit,” Napolitano pointed out. “If the kid has some sort of minor cardiac history or he’s been predisposed to something, and the NBA doesn’t provide the necessary screening, then they failed that way too.”
An autopsy report found that Upshaw had “cardiac abnormalities,” which his family had no prior knowledge of.
What happens moving forward remains to be seen, but the absence of the team doctor appears most disheartening.
“They had a duty of reasonable care. They should have had necessary medical personnel. Did they breach that duty? If the team doctor is not there and no one knows what to do, I would say yes, they breached it, at least for the Drive, Pistons, and DeltaPlex,” Napolitano said.
Having just completed his second season with Grand Rapids, Upshaw averaged 8.5 points and shot 41% from deep through 41 contests.