Fallen Star

Tucson High's Joe Kay remains partially paralyzed after a terrible injury.

This is the story that does not belong in the scrapbook recording the achievements of Joe Kay, the popular Tucson High School scholar and athlete.

Until Friday, shortly after Kay's thunderous dunk helped deflate a full-force Salpointe Catholic rally in a key 5A basketball match-up, nothing littered Kay's path to a happy 18th birthday. Nothing seemed to obstruct his rare opportunity at the prestigious National Merit Scholarship, a run in the state basketball tournament, graduation with high honors, his volleyball scholarship to Stanford, regular gigs on his saxophone, bike rides with the old man, good times with loved ones and clerking at the neighborhood market.

Instead, Kay has spent the first six days of his 18th year on his back in the intensive care unit of University Medical Center. As Omar Meziab and other Badger teammates departed the monolithic hospital's fifth floor on Monday for a brief practice, Kay was circled by a team of doctors.

Last Friday, Kay led an electrifying performance by the Badgers as they swept Salpointe for the first season since Kay was in grade school. He gave fans who jammed the Badger gym, made boisterous by the band and cheerleaders, what they wanted.

By halftime, with Tucson up by nine, Kay already had 13 points, chiefly by pulling 6-foot-8 Salpointe star Damir Suljagic, bound for Texas Tech and Bobby Knight's Red Raiders, out from the lane.

With each Kay three-pointer, the crowd burst: "Joe KAY!" With each blocked shot, "Joe KAY!" With each sweet pass, "Joe KAY!" With each big rebound, "Joe KAY!"

Kay's crew built a 20-point lead in the second half. Salpointe raced back. But with a few minutes left, Kay broke free and threw down a two-handed dunk in front of the rowdy east-end student section.


"I'd never seen it like that," says Kay's father, Fred, a Tucson High alumnus. "It was rocking."

When the Badger's intense work helped produce a 62-54 victory, young fans spilled onto the court. Other stars, Jorge Leon, a quick and steady guard who poured in 19 points, and Marcharne Flannigan, Kay's co-captain who made key plays on offense and defense, were safely at the locker room entrance. There they took congratulations from strangers for the guts they showed by challenging Suljagic in the lane and being undaunted in taking outside jumpers.

Joe Kay, meanwhile, was trapped in the flood.

There was no warning. No notice by Tucson High's animated game announcer or school officials to hold back. Well-wishers chatting with Kay's mother, Suzanne Rabe (who takes her 81-year-old mother to the games in a wheelchair) and Fred Kay were not initially alarmed.

Kay's parents are a wonderful antithesis of the stereotypical sports mom and dad. They don't cling to their son. They don't rush for him. They applaud and support him from the distance of the stands. They cheerfully concede that they don't know a 2-3 zone from a 1-3-1. Suzanne reminds Fred that he didn't really know how many points were awarded for free throws. They don't know enough, or don't want to know enough, to scream about officiating. In short, they and their son are rare treasures for coach Gary Lewis, whose team led the league after Friday's win.

The parents' calm was soon destroyed. Joe Kay was buried. Some students may have tried to lift the angular 6-foot-6 Kay. He fell or, weary from playing the full 32 minutes, was knocked down. He may have struck his head. He may have been kicked.

Joe was hurt. He couldn't rise. He was on his side. Fred walked back to the point of the pile, on the far sideline of the Badger's second-half basket. Then came Joe, walking mostly under his own power. His face was terribly contorted, twisted and frozen on one side. He struggled as he made his way to the locker room. He struggled to say he didn't feel well.

Inside, he quickly lost power in the muscles that he has developed with years of basketball and volleyball, year-round workouts and a strict vegetarian diet. Joe Kay was transported to UMC, unable to talk, unable to move his right arm or right leg.

"My big worry is that he doesn't know how bad it is," Fred Kay said Monday between visits with his son and family, as he also greeted Joe's teammates, classmates, bandmates and the steady stream of other friends who came by to present their hopes and prayers and cards and gifts.

It's bad right now. In the tumble, Joe Kay "torqued his neck," his parents say, sufficiently to impair his carotid artery. That brought about a stroke that caused his current paralysis.

Fred Kay sported a gold basketball sticker on his shirt: No. 30 for Joe Kay. The longtime federal public defender for Arizona, Fred Kay is a rare soul: patient, gracious and down to earth. His wife, a professor at the UA College of Law, is the same.

As much as his son attracted attention for his multiple years on Tucson High's varsity basketball and volleyball teams, Fred Kay was just as eager to talk about his son's love of jazz and other forms of music, his talent on the alto sax, and his brilliance in math and science that pushed those portions of the SAT damn near off the chart.

And he marvels at his physical capacity. On a recent Sunday, Fred Kay coaxed his son to join him on a bike ride.

"I like to go up A Mountain. He was a like a jet. He just took off. I couldn't keep up. I lost sight of him," Fred Kay says outside the hospital room where Suzanne and Joe's grandmother have been joined by one of Joe's aunts. "And then we were sitting around the base of the A, and he just leaps up on the base and bounds up to the top of it. He's like a gazelle. It would have taken me 20 minutes."

Joe Kay was not careless. He has a growing athlete's appetite, but all the way back to age 4, he stayed away from meat.

"We were having hamburgers or something, and he asked what they came from," Fred remembers. "Suzanne told him they were beef, that they were from animal parts."

That was enough for the kid to push them away.

Joe Kay was set to enter Stanford next fall and to play volleyball for the Cardinal, a perennial volleyball powerhouse.

Now, Fred Kay says, "he'll be lucky to walk again. The right side is not moving. And he can say only a few words."

The worry is residual damage to the brain of a student who was a likely National Merit Scholarship winner.

Beyond the worry have been more pedestrian tasks for Fred Kay, like calling the Rincon Market, where his son was working part-time, to say Joe wouldn't be coming in Sunday.

Joe Kay is in good hands. His grandmother sat vigil and demanded that the boy she cheered on Friday night have his socks.

His brother Al, a star guard on Tucson High teams in the mid-'80s, earned his doctorate and is a physical therapist and educator. He flew in from Anchorage and on Monday was checking out rehab centers.

Rivals would stop by. Suljagic is a buddy. So is Mountain View's Jeff Mundell and Sahuaro's J.J. Hilling. Sahuaro volleyball star Danny Plotts battles Kay each spring but has nothing but great things to say about him. Rivals in the school season are teammates during summers.

There was great cause for optimism Tuesday. Kay sat up. He ate--like a horse--and had a session with a speech therapist. He was able to shed the catheter. In the game of a day at a time, this, too, was a slam dunk start.

"My plan," his dad says, "is to get this guy back."

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