Vahe Gregorian

Court-storming can have devastating consequences

Joe Kay suffered a stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body after he was caught up in a dogpile of classmates after his team won a close basketball game in 2003. He’s shown here outside his home in 2004.
Joe Kay suffered a stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body after he was caught up in a dogpile of classmates after his team won a close basketball game in 2003. He’s shown here outside his home in 2004. The Associated Press

Chances are you’ve never heard of Joe Kay. But you should know his name as you consider where you stand on the issue of court-storming that’s been percolating anew since the mess Monday night at Bramlage Coliseum after Kansas State upset Kansas 70-63.

Eleven years ago, Kay was a Tucson (Ariz.) High valedictorian, saxophonist and star athlete who dunked a basketball to put the exclamation point on a high school game.

Seconds later, fans swarmed the court and in the middle of the frenzy tried to lift Kay … only to drop him to the floor and have him go under in the momentum.

“Nobody knows what happened within that few seconds,” Kay’s coach at the time, Gary Lewis, said in a phone interview Tuesday.

In those precious seconds, Kay suffered a torn carotid artery and a stroke that left his right side paralyzed.

“We were at the highest of highs and within seconds at the lowest of lows,” Lewis said. “It was quite traumatic, it was definitely a life-changing event” for anyone there.

“It’s got to be one-in-a-million, but even that, it doesn’t matter. Knowing you’re directly involved with someone who was affected by that, you know it’s always a possibility.”

Lewis had heard about but not yet seen the spectacle at Bramlage, where a fan went out of his way to ram into KU’s Jamari Traylor and Jayhawks’ basketball coach Bill Self was pinned against the scorer’s table as K-State coach Bruce Weber tried to shield him.

When Lewis does see these things, though, it usually turns his stomach.

“It’s one of the scariest things that happens,” he said.

Scarier yet, Lewis thinks, because it’s become such a part of our culture.

He doesn’t see how it can be curtailed, for one thing. And while Kay was injured among his own fans, the most problematic broader issue is that it’s impossible to sift out the few trying to make mayhem from largely innocuous revelers.

“When it’s a mob,” he said, “good luck.”

So this is no figurative issue, not a what-if something-really-bad-happens-one-day kind of thing.

We’ve seen that over and over on many different playing fields, but we keep saying “let the kids have their fun.”

But that line has been getting blurred for so long it’s now totally distorted, the same way we say it’s OK for fans to yell profanities or slurs at athletes because, after all, they paid for the ticket.

Here’s the thing: Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should.

It’s an open debate about whether any and all measures should be taken to outright ban court-storming. A case can be made that at no level is it safe, but many come off without incident.

One thing is clear, though.

Any perceived right to “fun” ends where it encroaches on the safety of anyone involved in a game — or when it incites fight-or-flight impulses in anyone being engulfed in the bedlam.

Toward that end, no one should blame Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend for yanking a taunting fan away from KU players.

He was dealing with a sudden sense of threat, especially considering a K-State fan had just gone out of his way to plow into Traylor.

“You’re asking for big problems,” Self said late Monday night. “Because somebody’s going to hit a player, and the player’s going to retaliate, and you’re going to have lawsuits and cases, and it’s just not right.”

Some are dismissing Self’s completely appropriate, rational and important points as whiny — as if he’s only saying it because Kansas lost or as if KU is just supposed to win every game so it doesn’t happen.

Some of those, naturally, are K-State fans, who surely would see it differently if their 75-year-old football coach, Bill Snyder, got jostled around by fans.

For a frame of reference, just consider the outrage when UCLA coach Jim Mora merely brushed off Snyder after the Alamo Bowl.

So does basketball need to return to the roots of James Naismith’s game when it was played in a cage … only now to protect the players from the spectators instead of the other way around?

Does it need moats and barbed wire, like they use at some South American soccer fields, or boards like hockey?

“It’s not going to happen, because, well, it’s not going to happen,” said Lewis, who said Tucson High now has a small barrier around the court just to serve as a “visual reminder.”

More feasibly, is it time the Big 12 adopts the Southeastern Conference policy that states, “For the safety of participants and spectators alike, at no time before, during or after a contest shall spectators be permitted to enter the competition area?”

That’s backed up by a $5,000 fine that can be assessed against schools for a first offense and $25,000 and $50,000 for additional incidents.

It’s been violated at times but rarely. Maybe that’s the only real answer.

But maybe there are workable in-between solutions, too — and not just hoping fans will be willing to act like they’ve been there before.

Maybe like it did with streakers or bozos who run out on the field during a game, TV coverage could stop glorifying these scenes and giving extra incentive to people seeking their 15 seconds of fame.

“ESPN and others always show it on the highlight reels,” Kay told … ESPN. “Maybe if they didn’t, fans wouldn’t have that same want and need. Perhaps it would simmer down.”

Meanwhile, now is the time for talk of this to simmer up. Maybe this is a tipping point.

Then again, this is the era of the 24-hour news cycle, and of letting fans be part of the event, and there have been infinite previous moments that could or should have been the tipping point.

Just ask Joe Kay, who went on to graduate from Stanford and by all accounts is building a good life.

And yet …

“I would venture to guess he would give everything … just to have his own life back,” Lewis said.

We couldn’t reach Kay or his family on the phone, but maybe he said it all about the phenomenon in an interview with ESPN.

“Nobody remembers me …” he said. “I have the feeling that if they did, they wouldn’t be so nonchalant about rushing the court.”

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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