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Friday, January 10
Saving a life makes this team a winner

By Jim Caple

Do you want a team you really can root for?

Do you want a team that rallies together when you need it most? Do you want a team you can depend upon in every situation? Do you want a team you can count on when everything -- absolutely everything -- is on the line?

Kayla Burt
Kayla Burt shared plenty of smiles and tears at Wednesday's news conference.

Do you want a team that exemplifies that word in every way?

Then meet the University of Washington women's basketball team.

Forget winning in overtime on the road (though, the Huskies did that at USC on Jan. 5). Forget overcoming an 11-point deficit in the second half (they did that against the Women of Troy, too). Forget qualifying for the NCAA tournament (though if there's any justice, the 11-2 Huskies will do that as well).

Forget all the stuff teams do as a matter of course throughout the season. The Husky women did something far more important, something that will endure long after they've spent their eligibility, finished their basketball careers and left the campus.

They literally saved the life of their teammate, Kayla Burt.

A sophomore guard, Burt who averaged 10 points and 3.7 rebounds while starting the Huskies first 10 games this season. On Dec. 31, she and five teammates were ringing in the new year at a Seattle home. The team had an 8:30 practice scheduled for the next day so it wasn't a wild party. Mostly just sitting around, sharing stories and laughs while watching videos.

Burt and Loree Payne were in Burt's room, watching the 11 o'clock news. While Payne wondered whether she could stay awake until midnight, Burt complained that she felt lightheaded. Moments later she rolled off the bed and fell face first to the floor, unconscious and turning blue. Her heart had stopped.

"We looked at her and it was obvious she wasn't joking around,'' junior Giuiliana Mendiola said. "We thought she might be having a seizure. We called 911. We slapped her face to wake her up. We kept saying her name to get a response. We rolled her over and she was blue and it was obvious she needed oxygen.''

The Huskies didn't know how to deliver CPR but they had watched it done enough on TV and in movies that they had a vague idea. Payne and freshman Nicole Castro cleared furniture to give the team room to work. While Giuliana pumped Burt's chest, her sister, Gio, began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, breathing life back into her teammate. Freshman Erica Schelly repeated CPR instructions from the Medic One operator on the phone.

Paramedics arrived within five minutes of the 911 call. Among them was former Husky basketball player Michelle Perkins, now a Seattle firefighter.

The paramedics rushed Burt to the hospital with her teammates close behind. The team spent the rest of the night and most of New Year's Day in the hospital, praying and waiting for word. They were scheduled to travel to Los Angeles for a game against UCLA the next day but with Burt unconscious, they didn't know whether to cancel the game or not.

Eventually, Burt's condition stabilized. She had suffered a cardiac arrest brought on by a rare, previously undiagnosed heart condition called Long Q-T Syndrome. At one point, she was clinically dead. Had it not been for her teammates, she would have stayed that way.

Burt finally regained consciousness and was able to talk to the teammates who had saved her life late the next afternoon.

"She asked if we won the game,'' Payne said. "We told her we hadn't played yet. She said, 'Why not, because of me?' We said, No, the game isn't until tomorrow. And she told us to play and win.''

It would have been nice if they had but the body can only take so much. The Huskies had slept for perhaps an hour New Year's Eve and didn't get much sleep New Year's Day, either. By the time they took the court Friday night at UCLA, they were physically and emotionally exhausted. They lost by 26 points.

Two days later, with Burt listening on the radio in her hospital room, they rallied from an 11-point deficit and beat USC in overtime.

Monday, Surgeons implanted an electronic defibrillator into Burt's chest that will help her live a normal life but she still has a 20 percent chance of a repeat episode. Her basketball career is over. "It was basically, play basketball again or live,'' she said.

Thursday night, nine days after her life almost ended, Burt returned to Hec Edmundson Pavilion for the Huskies game against Arizona State. She was introduced before the game as the sixth man in the starting lineup. The crowd of 4,000-plus stood and applauded, as did the Sun Devils. She watched the game from the bench, cheered her friends to a 69-56 victory and gained life for the second time in a week.

"It seemed like every little thing was exciting to me out there,'' Burt said. "Things that never mattered before were exciting. Like someone taking a charge. It was all awesome.

"Just to walk out there was real special. To hear that roar, it hits you -- it hits you real close.''

Burt says it really hasn't sunk in that her basketball career is over. None of it has, really. She hasn't had enough time to answer the phone calls or the e-mails or the flowers being delivered, let alone think about what she's gone through. "I haven't even had time to cry.''

She will. She knows that. She can no longer play the game she loves so much and that will not be easy to accept. She will miss playing. She will miss competing. She will even miss line drills. But she is alive and that is what is most important and so she will be on the bench with her team the rest of the season, cheering on the friends who saved her life.

"We're as close as we can ever be,'' Burt said. "They gave me CPR. I mean, how much closer can you get?''

"It will always be a part of us,'' Payne said. "Basically, I saw my best friend in a non-living condition in her house. She was blue. She was dead.

"We can play the 'What if?' game. I've done that. Believe me, I've done it a lot and made myself scared. 'What if I had gone downstairs?' 'What if I wasn't there?' But I WAS there. And there was a reason I was there.''

There was a reason they were all there, Huskies present and Huskies past. Loree, Giuliani, Gio, Erica, Nicole and Michelle - they were all there for one simple reason. Because they're a team.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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