TORONTO — As the players and coaches scattered around the court for the NBA Finals media session, Jim Sann accepted handshakes and congratulations from players he was working with, media members and even members of the Golden State Warriors’ front office.
If anyone was enjoying the trip to the NBA Finals more than the Raptors’ assistant coach, that person was hard to find. And there certainly is no one who treasures the opportunity more than Sann.
Four years ago, Sann was serving as an assistant coach and scout for the Brooklyn Nets. He was with the team at its East Rutherford practice site, going through a rigorous session on the court while working out players. Coated in sweat as he worked with Deron Williams, he felt a pain in his chest.
“I was having such a good workout,” Sann recalled. “I thought it was just something I ate, heartburn. So I ran back and got a Zantac. I never slowed down. I ran to the locker room, popped it and ran back. So my heart was racing and I ran back out. I never stopped.”
He didn’t stop until he got back into a defensive stance. He felt the pain again and collapsed, suffering a heart attack.
Tim Walsh, the Nets’ trainer at the time, began to perform CPR while other members of the medical staff grabbed a defibrillator. Working together, they were able to revive Sann.
In the panic around the room, Sann heard Kevin Garnett’s booming voice screaming at him that he can’t die.
His first wife, the mother of his two children — 9 and 7 years old at the time — had died after a battle with cancer, and he was raising the kids alone. Sann was 46 years old and slim, working out regularly. He had felt twinges of tightness and pain in his chest but chalked it up simply to the lifestyle of a scout — living out of hotel rooms with long hours, constant travel and little sleep.
He was accustomed to this lifestyle. He began his career in professional basketball in 1992 with the Knicks, part of the staff that went to the NBA Finals in 1994 under Pat Riley and in 1999 with Jeff Van Gundy.
He left the life of advance scouting when his wife passed away in 2012 to be home with the children before heading back out. He knew he was pushing himself to be at work and also be there for the kids. But what he didn’t realize was that he had a blockage in one artery, the one called the widow-maker.
“The warning signs for me were there, loud and clear,” Sann said. “If I knew then what I know now, I would have addressed it. I would have gone in a doctor’s office, they would have done some procedure, given me some medication, and that would have been the end of it.
“But I didn’t do that. I stayed with what I was doing and I collapsed on the court. And if it were not for the people that were working there and the doctors that were there, I would have had a much different outcome.
“I see this going around and I just think it’s important to revisit it every once in a while. Take care of this stuff before it becomes a real problem. For me, it was a real problem.
“If this heart attack had happened 30 seconds before, I would have been in the locker room by myself. I also was working out in hotel rooms by myself all the time. So just by the dumb luck that I was able to make it back to the court, back in the workout, and then I collapsed, that they were able to see me and people were able to revive me. The people there were highly trained experts and they had to do a lot of work to do that.”
Sann worked his way back into the game and has been a part of the Raptors’ staff for the last three seasons. He spent two years under Dwane Casey, and when Casey was cut loose last summer despite earning Coach of the Year honors, Sann was able to stay in place on the staff headed up by Nick Nurse.
He remarried, and his wife, Emily, is a health-care professional and yoga instructor who has gotten him to not only change his diet but realize when to slow down.
“She really helps me calm myself down,” Sann said. “She’s been a huge influence as a positive. When you’re by yourself, you think this is the end all, be all. She’s very good about saying put the computer away, you’re going to sleep.
“The bigger picture for me, especially being in the Finals right now, this is not wasted on me. I’m taking every day as it’s a lot of work and we’re really grinding it out. I’ve gotten myself in a great situation here with Masai [Ujiri, the Raptors’ general manager] and Nick. But this is not wasted on me.
“There’s so many coaches out there that do this for years and years, good coaches, and never get a chance. So I am thankful that I was able to come through that. Not just my heart attack, the family tragedy, the kids’ tragedy. Now I’m remarried and built my life with her. The kids are 13 and 11. So this is really a big thing for me. It really is.”