Judging by his huge smiles, Aaron Nguyen loved playing basketball. In Facebook and Instagram photos with his youth basketball team, the 12-year-old boy grinned ear to ear while clutching a ball bigger than his head.
Friday night during practice at Joseph Kerr Middle School, the Elk Grove seventh-grader collapsed, according to the Elk Grove Unified School District. His heart stopped and he wasn’t breathing. Emergency and hospital staff were unable to revive him.
A cause of death is not yet known, according to the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office.
A student at Toby Johnson Middle School, Aaron was a member of the age 12-and-under BRANDED team of the Elk Grove-based Youth Basketball Development Academy. An Amateur Athletic Union basketball organization, BRANDED stands for “Being Renewed And Newly Developed Every Day.”
“Everybody is really broken up about this situation,” said academy President Alfred Perkins, reached by phone Saturday morning. “Out of respect for his family and Aaron, we have no other comment at this time.”
As news spread of Aaron’s death, coaches, parents and other players were shaken by the incident. BRANDED withdrew its fifth- and sixth-grade teams from a scheduled youth tournament Saturday afternoon in Rocklin, while players on other teams observed a moment of silence. The BRANDED program made a smiling photo of Aaron its Facebook profile picture Saturday.
“It’s very tragic,” said Charles Baldwin, president of Sac Area Sports, which hosts basketball tournaments for AAU teams, including Saturday’s Rocklin event. “We got a call from their coach and he was very shook up. It shook us all up. We’ve never had anything happen like this that we can remember. This sort of incident is very rare.
“We send our deepest sympathy and prayers to his family and team,” Baldwin added. “Our thoughts and prayers are definitely with them at this time.”
More than 300 youth teams play in the greater Sacramento area, Baldwin said.
“Sacramento is becoming quite the mecca for youth basketball teams,” he said, adding that 34 teams were scheduled to be part of Saturday’s tournament. “A lot of kids are playing here any given weekend.”
It shook us all up. We’ve never had anything happen like this that we can remember.
Charles Baldwin, president of Sac Area Sports
Such incidents of sudden death seem to happen more to young basketball players than in other sports, said Dr. Stuart Berger, chief of pediatric cardiology and vice chairman of pediatrics at UC Davis Children’s Hospital.
“This is something that’s not common, but it’s not incredibly rare either,” Berger said. “The majority of these kids have some underlying cardiac abnormality. It’s thought to be about 1 in 100,000 children and adolescents per year have a sudden cardiac arrest.”
Basketball, with its high aerobic demands, may pose higher risks, he said.
“The majority, but not all, episodes of sudden death occur in basketball,” Berger said. “Nobody knows why. High intensity sports – where you go full blast and then stop, full blast and then stop – may be more risky. We don’t have a specific reason why that’s the case.
Parents, teachers and coaches should look for warning signs of possible cardiac problems that can happen to young athletes at any time, while playing or away from the court, he said.
“To begin with, some kids will have some (previous or pre-existing) symptoms before this happens,” Berger said. “Some may have chest pain, fainting, palpitations. Those might be a tip-off to investigate this and make sure they don’t have an underlying abnormality.”
Through a program he helped organize in Wisconsin, Project ADAM, Berger is trying to reach into local schools and youth programs to train staff and students in CPR and the use of automated external defibrillators, or AEDs, in hopes of preventing deaths. It was not clear Saturday whether such a device was available at Kerr Middle School.
“One of the things that increases their likelihood of survival is having an AED on the premises,” Berger said. “This death is tragic and horrible, but if anything can come out of it, it’s a charge for us in the community to think about CPR/AED programs in schools.”
1 in 100,000 Children per year who suffer a sudden cardiac arrest, according to Dr. Stuart Berger at UC Davis Children’s Hospital.
Andrew Mallett, a Folsom father at the Rocklin tournament Saturday, said it would be a “total shock” if his son suffered a problem like Aaron did. His son, Austin, 10, plays on a fourth-grade basketball team and also plays football.
Mallett said that he and his wife helped get a defibrillator for his son’s football team and that some coaches and parents are trained in CPR. But he observed that “there’s less precaution around basketball because you think there’s a lower chance of injury.”
“I guess you always kind of worry,” he said. “There’s always a risk.”
Friday night’s basketball practice started normally in Kerr Middle School’s gym. Just after 7 p.m., Aaron fell to the floor with complaints of pain in his right leg, according to the Elk Grove Unified School District. When coaches responded, they discovered he was not breathing and had no pulse. The coaches immediately began CPR and called 911, the district said.
The Elk Grove Police Department, Cosumnes Community Services Fire Department and school district police responded. Paramedics also administered CPR and brought Aaron to an area hospital. Emergency workers were unable to revive the child, and he was pronounced dead at 8:07 p.m. Friday.
School district officials joined Aaron’s family at the hospital and released a statement late Friday.
“This is a very sad night for all of us and our hearts go out to the family,” said Xanthi Pinkerton, the district’s director of communications. “At this time, we would like to honor the request of the family to respect their privacy in these solemn hours.”
On Monday morning, grief counselors and additional support staff will be at Johnson Middle School, she said.