A sobering rushing the court story

Editor's note: This story first appeared in March 2013. An updated ending has been added following the court storming at Kansas State Monday night after the Wildcats defeated Kansas.

No one can claim more firsthand knowledge of the danger of fans storming the court than 27-year-old Arizonan Joe Kay.

"I know it's a one-in-a-million thing that somebody would be seriously injured or die," says Kay.

"Granted, I was small potatoes, a high school player in Tucson, but it seems nothing was learned."

A 6-foot-6 high school valedictorian, Kay was a basketball and volleyball star headed to Stanford, with expectations he'd continue to enjoy what came naturally.

Mastering math calculations.

Playing the saxophone.

Sustaining long conversations.

Using his right hand with dexterity.

Nine years ago, Kay's breakaway dunk climaxed a big rivalry win for Tucson High, the night before his 18th birthday.

In the ensuing euphoria, Feb. 6, 2004, his school's fans stormed the court and the talents Kay had taken for granted were gone in an instant. Kay was thrown to the floor and suffered a torn carotid artery and a stroke, leaving him paralyzed on the right side.

"It seems like over the last five years it happens a lot more often," Kay says now of the oft-televised scenes of fans storming the court, adding, "Nobody remembers me."

The memorable high school career that came crashing down that night in '04 included Kay's being named the state's student of the year and athlete of the year as well as the region's top saxophone player, and he earned three perfect SAT scores in math.

Three years later, when Kay agreed to Outside the Lines' request for his first national TV interview about the ordeal, he was a Stanford sophomore, who got around the vast Palo Alto campus in a motorized cart. He'd undergone eight months of rehab, transforming himself from a righty into a lefty and relearning how to walk, talk and think, while coping with aphasia.

Stanford honored Kay's volleyball scholarship and he graduated in 2009. Kay also founded a disabled students advocacy group and wrote an ESPN.com column on the obstacles he and others faced.

Now in the first half of a two-year graduate program in social work at Arizona State, Kay doesn't say court-storming should be abolished, but that "it should not be so commonplace -- it used to be very seldom, only for a huge win, we need to backtrack and make it that way again.

"ESPN and others always show it on the highlight reels -- maybe if they didn't, fans wouldn't have that same want and need, perhaps it would simmer down.

"I understand why people rush the court, they want to feel like they're part of the game," Kay says. "Everything is controlled when fans enter (an arena or gym), but when fans rush the court, it's all chaos.

"It's perfectly fine to celebrate," says Kay, but "maybe they need to rein it in and give it more structure and take into account the safety of everyone."

Kay says he doesn't have specific safety proposals, but when he saw video of last week's court-storming at Virginia after the Cavaliers beat Duke, he was amazed no one got hurt and "several times a year, I'm amazed."

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has a point about the risks for visiting teams when fans rush the court, Kay says, but he cautions against thinking it's safe at home.

"The losing team is usually on the sidelines and fades away, while the winning team is in the center, which is potentially very dangerous," he said. "We should not just be focused on the losing team, but also on the winning team and especially the fans."

Less than 24 hours after Kay's 2004 injury in Arizona, Gerry Plunkett was a fan attending a Stanford home basketball game against the University of Arizona.

She was in the second row, behind one legendary Cardinal athlete and next to another. In front of her at courtside was Tiger Woods. And Plunkett's husband Jim, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback of 1970, was beside her.

When Stanford guard Nick Robinson hit a game-winning three-pointer over the Wildcats' Andre Iguodola at the buzzer, fans stormed the court. Robinson later recounted being flat on his back, with a teammate on top of him and a couple of other people on top of him "in places that were rather uncomfortable."

And Gerry Plunkett was knocked to the floor, pinned face down under her chair. She says her husband wasn't able to help her as he had been shoved into an adjacent table and the couple was separated by a stream of people.

"I'm fortunate my injuries were severe bruises to my leg," Plunkett said Monday. "But I consider myself one of the victims and feel that court-storming shouldn't be allowed.

"I don't understand why anybody thinks it's OK and I can't relate to broadcasters who say it is."

Plunkett, who met Kay at Stanford in 2007 when she, too, was interviewed by Outside the Lines, says she still attends most home games, but before they conclude, she's gone from her seat.

"I can honestly say I cringe when I see fans rushing the court -- what more has to happen for people to see how dangerous it is?," Plunkett said. "Joe's injury was tragic and I haven't forgotten him at all."

Seven years ago, Kay and his family settled a lawsuit against the Tucson Unified School District for $3.5 million. He says until recently, he hadn't spent much time in Tucson since leaving for college, but that about a month ago he attended a basketball game at his alma mater and saw railings around the court, separating the floor from the fans, making it more difficult for court-storming.

Kay, who has made significant progress with his mobility and speech, has traveled around the country and to several continents. "I'm still not at the point I was before my accident, it's probably a lifelong journey for me."

And he says he doesn't have a plan for after grad school, but knows he wants to "help people."

Kay's also pursuing help for himself to resume a passion he was resigned to having lost.

A little over a year ago, he says, he read about a University of Nebraska-Kearney music professor who'd had a stroke and was able to return to playing the saxophone with a specially made one-handed model. So Kay went to the source in Nebraska and was fitted for one, and now awaits arrival of his own.

Meanwhile, court storming continues, occasionally debated but virtually unabated, except in the Southeastern Conference, which for years has been alone in fining schools for permitting it.

Kay says he approves of the SEC's approach, but he isn't actively seeking a bully pulpit on the issue.

"Even if a major player on a major team got injured, it's become such a part of the culture that it's hard to change," Kay says.

"Every time I watch it, it seems ridiculous," he adds.

"I expect them to know about me, but they don't -- I have the feeling that if they did, they wouldn't be so nonchalant about rushing the court."

Epilogue: Joe Kay, now 29, has completed his graduate work and said Tuesday he has been playing a custom-made saxophone for 1-1/2 years and is scheduled to perform in July at the World Saxophone Congress and Festival in France. Contacted by ESPN after Monday night's court-storming episode in Manhattan, Kan., Kay said he believes the biggest contributor to fans rushing courts and fields has been the media, as many outlets "romanticize and glorify" it and students, encouraged by the media's reporting, feel that it's a "rite of passage."

The answer is not a 10-foot fence, but teaching discipline, according to Gerry Plunkett, who told ESPN Tuesday that she believes safety precautions need to be implemented by universities and that Stanford has done "a fantastic job" enforcing policies to control crowds and avoid stormings. "No one wants to take the hype away from a fantastic win," said Plunkett, "but the safety of the players and fans comes first."

Kay said professional sports leagues' handling of the phenomenon has been effective and that if the NCAA were to invest in proper security, "we would see a steep drop off" over the next few years.

While Kay acknowledges that his case was exceptional, he said smaller injuries do happen when courts are stormed and "it is just a matter of time until an incident similar to mine occurs."

William Weinbaum is a producer for Outside The Lines. Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.