For most of the Phoenix Mercury, the game didn’t matter much.
It was the unofficial start to a season, a preseason matinee. A practice match, really, for the defending WNBA championship team. They lost to Seattle, but the loss didn’t mean anything. The score didn’t mean anything.
For Becca Tobin, though, the game meant everything.
Tobin had been toiling for years to get her shot at the WNBA. She worked hard on the court at Glendale Cactus High School, even when things were tough, even when she lost her father in her senior year.
She worked harder at ASU, when they went to the Elite Eight. And harder still when she went to play in the European leagues, even when it was lonely, and cold, and she couldn’t understand anyone around her.
Because basketball could take her places.
Every day she worked harder, strengthening her body, refining her skills. Working for her shot. Then, after four years of playing in Europe, she got it.
In late April, the Mercury — her hometown team — signed Tobin for training camp. If she played well in preseason, she might emerge from camp with her name on the 12-player roster.
Before the game, she felt a little weird. Just nerves, she thought.
On the court, she was fine. She put up five points and three rebounds in 15 minutes. She missed one free throw. But she was hopeful. Basketball had taken her this far.
The most decisive moment in her life would come next.
The team settled in at the food court in the Seattle-Tacoma airport that afternoon, May 26, waiting for a flight home to Phoenix. Tobin got orange chicken, walked to the tables under the airport’s huge arcing wall of glass, pulled up a wooden chair and sat down with team trainer Tamara Poole.
Then, in between bites, she stopped talking. Her arm went up. Her head went back.
Poole knew something was deadly wrong.
Adrenaline rushing, the trainer caught Tobin as the 180-pound player began to slip out of her chair. Other players rushed to help. Together, they lowered Tobin’s frozen body to the floor, resting her on the stone-hard tile.
“When I saw her arm go up and her hand curl in, I knew she was in seizure,” Poole says. “Usually a seizure takes a few minutes and they come out of it. … But she didn’t come out of it.”
Poole reached down, checked for a pulse. Tobin didn’t have one.
PROFILE: Becca Tobin through the years
Basketball had always taken Becca Tobin places.
Growing up in Glendale, she would walk with her father, Ken, to a park on 63rd Avenue. They would practice together on the basketball court. Her dad made her laugh, and helped her learn to love the game. Childhood asthma hit her hard, even put her in the hospital, but she used an inhaler, and it never held her back.
When she started playing in high school at Cactus, her dad was her biggest fan. He never missed a game, even when she played in California in the summer. Before each game, he gave her a gift — a little teddy bear, or a store-window trinket — and he gave her the same pep talk: Have a fun time, he said, and play hard.
And she did. By the end of her junior year, basketball had taken her to two Class 4A championships, and won her all-state honors.
Basketball also led her to the chance at a college scholarship. She wanted to go out of state. No, her parents urged her. Stay close to the family, and play at Arizona State. She decided they were right. In November 2006, at the beginning of her senior year of high school, she signed on to play for ASU.
On a school-day morning a few days after signing, she talked with her dad, then headed to Cactus. Two hours later, someone came to pull her out of class.
Her father had had a heart attack. At age 49, he was gone.
She could hardly do anything for days — couldn’t go to class, certainly couldn’t play basketball.
Once a month had passed, her mom, Patti, and her three older brothers told her to go back to the team. She needed to keep playing, for him.
Back at school, she told her teammates: We’re going to win the championship again this year, for my dad.
That winter, they took the court for another 4A championship game, and won. Sitting on the Gatorade container on the bench was a framed photo of Ken.
Tobin arrived the next school year at ASU, amid the rise of the Charli Turner Thorne coaching era.
“She was a coach’s dream,” Turner Thorne says. “So hard working and low maintenance. She always loved the game. She’s a very quiet person, but man did she lead by who she was and how hard she worked.”
When ASU reached the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight in 2008-09, Tobin was a top backup forward. She started as a junior and senior. She celebrated her success with her mom and brothers. Only her Dad was missing.
In Tobin’s senior year, her mom had a stroke, but survived. She was home, and the family was close together.
By the time Tobin graduated in 2011, she had won Pac-10 honorable mention twice. The credential was modest. But coach Turner Thorne believed basketball could take Tobin at least a little further.
Go overseas, Turner Thorne told her. At 6-feet-5, Tobin was big. In the European leagues they value size, Turner Thorne told her. And versatility. And most of all, production. You can make it there, she said.
So Tobin would go. But to make it there, she would have to leave home behind.
As she crouched over Tobin’s body on the square brown floor tiles in airport, Poole’s mind raced through medical questions.
Is she allergic to something I don’t know about?
Did she eat something bad?
Is she having a severe asthma attack?
Does she have an EpiPen injector in her bag?
And she realized she had another question: Was help on the way?
Help, she cried out. Help!
Two men nearby rushed up. One said he worked in a trauma center.
They each checked Tobin for a pulse. “I didn’t want to be wrong,” Poole says. There was no pulse. They all agreed what they needed to do next.
Poole, then one of the men, then the next one, took turns crouching over Tobin, hands interlocked, doing CPR. Push. Push. Push. Push.
Tobin took in some air.
“She started breathing for a second,” Poole says.
Then she stopped again.
Poole’s mind was still racing.
There in front of her, on the floor, was a 27-year-old woman in perfect condition. She had just had a team physical. They had checked her heart. They had checked her blood. She was in “A No. 1 physical condition,” Poole says. Nothing should be wrong.
But there she was, in a seizure, her breathing stopped, her heart silent.
Just then, another man slid onto his knees next to Poole. He pushed her aside, tore at Tobin’s shirt.
The man was one of two firefighters from the Port of Seattle, who had been nearby on coffee break.
“There’s a feeling when you see that EMT come up,” Poole says. “Like whew, everything is going to be OK now.”
Still, nothing was OK yet. The two firefighters were soon joined by 12 others, including Battalion Chief Doug Larson. They cut open Tobin’s shirt and started working.
“When we arrived she was unconscious and non-responsive,” Larson says.
“They listened to everything I said about her asthma,” Poole says. “They immediately put drugs in her. They intubated her.”
Still, she had no pulse. The defibrillator came out, went onto Tobin’s body, ready to push an electrical pulse through her to try to restart her heart.
They shocked her once.
Tobin had lived on the west side her whole life. Because she stayed close when she went to ASU, she never had to go out of her way to make new friends.
So when basketball took her to Europe, she felt even more alone.
In Parma, Italy, in fall 2011, Tobin was the only American on the team. Most of the other women were older. Only two of them spoke English.
At first, she found herself almost in tears every night. She called her family via Skype. “This isn’t for me,” she told them. “I need to come home.”
They told her no. She was strong enough. She could do it.
So she did. She learned to cook. She spent her spare time practicing alone and lifting weights.
Her agent, Jeanne McNulty-King, cautioned her not to sit in an apartment feeling lonely. Get out, she said. Experience life.
Tobin did that more in 2012, when she moved up to a team in Romania. The team had three other Americans and a coach who spoke English.
As she went out, teammates coached her on local customs.
It would be rude not to finish everything on her plate at a restaurant, she learned — even if she wasn’t sure exactly what she was eating.
And she came to appreciate how spoiled she had been in America, every time she hung her clothes to dry. There were no electric dryers. It made her appreciate home even more.
Wherever she played, Tobin excelled. Each team tried to sign her to a longer contract. After Romania came Hungary, where she was Defensive Player of the Year in 2013-14. The team made her an offer that included dual citizenship, which would allow her to play in international competitions for the Hungarian National team.
By then, though, there was another offer on the table, from a team in Angers, France. The French league is one of the world’s most competitive, and Tobin had a clearer vision of her worth and future.
She talked with her agent about what to do. She wanted to explore, she said, and she wanted to be a better player. France was her best opportunity.
And she marveled at how far basketball had taken her.
For Angers in 2014-15, Tobin averaged 17 points, third highest in the league, and 8.8 rebounds. She again was the only American on her team, but a French-speaking Canadian teammate translated for the coach. With each new country, Tobin learned how to make more friends outside of basketball.
McNulty-King says as a rising star, Tobin deserved a WNBA contract. And when the French season ended, she got her chance.
She was back home in Arizona when she found out the Mercury wanted her to try out at training camp.
Basketball had taken her to college, and to Europe. Now, maybe, it was bringing her home.
Lying on the airport tile, Tobin’s body jolted with the third shock from the defibrillator.
“They just kept going,” Poole says. “And then they got a pulse.”
Medical staff would later tell Tobin her heart had stopped for seven minutes. Had it happened a little earlier on the team bus, or a little later on the airplane, or even if she’d been alone in the bathroom at the airport, she probably wouldn’t have survived.
But Poole looked at her there on the airport floor, with the medical team around her, and knew that she would.
“All I kept saying is she’s a soldier, she’s a fighter, and that’s why she made it,” Poole says. “I could see they were going to save her life, and they did.”
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The medical work wasn’t done. Soon, Tobin was on her way to Highline Medical Center and later University of Washington Medical Center, a hospital known for its treatment of young athletes with heart problems.
For three days, Tobin was sedated, unaware of being packed in ice – induced hypothermia – to lower her body temperature, protecting against brain and organ damage.
Poole and Mercury assistant coach Julie Hairgrove stayed with her. Watching Tobin start to pull through, Poole had to laugh to herself. There was the Arizona girl who hated being cold. I knew I’d get you in the cold tank, Poole thought.
Tobin’s friend Ashley Sparks arrived in Seattle to see her, then her brother Kenny. Because of the stroke, her mother couldn’t fly. She had to be talked out of having someone drive her more than 1,400 miles.
When Tobin finally awoke, she couldn’t quite understand what people were telling her.
“I just felt like I was sleeping for a long time,” she said, “then I woke up kind of drowsy and drugged up.” Stunned, she asked again and again what had happened. She wondered: Was all this caused by the orange chicken?
And she had another question: “How is Mom?”
Soon, the two connected via FaceTime. For a moment, neither one could speak. They were both crying. It’s OK, Tobin told her mother finally. We’ll be home soon.
The cause of Tobin’s heart failure remains a mystery. Doctors are leaning toward long QT syndrome, which affects two of the electrical impulses to the heart known as Q and T. It can cause the heart to beat erratically leading to fainting, seizure or sudden death. Whatever the cause, no one has found that it was connected to her asthma, or to the dilated cardiomyopathy that claimed her father.
There was no debate about how to protect Tobin going forward. Doctors created three incisions to equip her with a defibrillator the size of a deck of cards. Wires are around but not touching the heart, improving their durability. “It’s up against my ribs and every time I move I can feel it,” Tobin says, still a bit self-conscious of the bulge on her left side. “I think I’ll get used to it.”
On June 3, just after Tobin’s surgery, Poole arranged something else for her. She went back to the Sea-Tac airport to visit with the firefighters who saved her.
“I wanted her to go back and show them what their diligence did,” says Poole.
At the fire station, Tobin was treated like a visiting dignitary, allowed to ride on a fire truck around the tarmac and even fire the water cannon. “They acted like I did something for them,” she says.
Tobin did exactly that, says Larson, the battalion chief. The Port of Seattle fire department leads King County in saving lives in heart-attack cases, he says, with a save rate of 66 percent over five years and 80 percent rate in 2014. “She is a living testament that our program worked,” he says. “Being able to start the system so quickly went a long ways into Becca’s quick recovery.”
“We don’t always get to complete the circle,” Larson says. In returning to say thanks, she paid them back.
Two days later, Tobin was back at the airport. This time she would board a plane bound for home.
The same night, the Mercury raised their third WNBA championship banner at their season opener. The players who had been on the 2014 team slipped on their championship rings. Others were joining the team for the first time.
Tobin arrived at the game. Two weeks earlier, she had hoped basketball would take her there in her No. 32 jersey. Instead, she watched from a suite with her family, as a team guest.
Her basketball dreams had been derailed. But her life had been saved.
The Mercury waived Tobin June 4, after ensuring her medical expenses for 10 days in the hospital and a $20,000-plus defibrillator would be covered by the WNBA player-provided insurance. “We made sure they did the right thing for her,” Mercury General Manager Jim Pitman says.
“I’m really thankful for how much they’ve done for me,” Tobin says. “Obviously I’m not going to be able to play this season for sure, but it’s really hard because of all the work I put in. I finally got to my dream then in a matter of seconds it all crashes.”
“If it was me in her shoes, I would have been depressed beyond measure,” says Tobin’s friend Sparks. “She’s handled it like a champ. It’s pretty cool to watch somebody so strong.”
Whether Tobin, cleared for full activity July 8, plays competitive basketball again is uncertain, in no small part because of liability facing any team that would sign her. She probably won’t try to play again overseas, where automated external defibrillators are less common in public places than in the United States.
Tobin’s agent is confident she would have been on a WNBA roster this year, either with the Mercury or another team. Now, she says, Tobin can walk away from playing knowing she made it to the mountaintop, however briefly. “We’ve all heard basketball is life,” McNulty-King says, “but when it comes down to it, it isn’t.”
Tobin won’t be easily deterred from trying again to make the WNBA. “Basketball will be part of my life, no matter what,” she says.
But now, rather than taking her to the WNBA, perhaps basketball has sent her down a different path.
She is considering how she might be able to use her college education in a different way. Her degree was in criminal justice, but now she’s thinking of a different path — maybe as a firefighter or paramedic.
Then she considers the health challenges her own parents have faced. She’s coming to grips with the magnitude of the second chance she’s been given. It’s a second chance her father didn’t get.
The day after Tobin’s collapse, May 27, would have been her father’s 58th birthday. Tobin, wearing a diamond heart necklace with a small keyhole in the center, reflects, “I guess he wanted to say hi to me and send me back.”