SEATTLE – Kayla Burt is worried about her health.
It’s after practice and she feels some pain. It hurts when she plays basketball. And practices just started days ago.
It’s her feet.
“Got stress reactions in both of ‘em,” Burt said.
The heart thing? History. Archives.
In a recent practice for the University of Washington women’s basketball team, Burt could be seen spinning around a defender for an effortless left-handed layup, nail a couple of jump shots, (the familiar ones she always shot, the ones that start on her left hip), caught an elbow to the throat and got yelled at by head coach June Daugherty, who urged her to “get tough; box out.”
In other words, Burt’s world is again, finally normal.
“I’m playing again, like I’m supposed to be,” the Husky junior guard and former Arlington High School star said. “This just feels comfortable. This is what I should be doing, playing basketball. I’m in the middle of my career here. Sitting on the sidelines isn’t something I want to do anymore.”
It’s been an eventful 22 months for the 21-year-old Burt. The world’s leading cardiologists still don’t know what triggered her near-death event that New Year’s Eve in 2002, when five of her teammates saved her life by performing CPR until paramedics arrived.
Initially diagnosed as having Long Q-T Syndrome, a condition that interferes with the heart’s electrical system, Burt and her parents sought other medical opinions. After what seemed an endless series of tests, doctors ruled out Long Q-T and found no cardiac structural abnormalities or apparent problems with her heart’s electrical systems.
They also left it up to Burt whether to play again.
They didn’t have to ask her twice. Her parents, Ken and Teri Burt, signed a release form, saying that Kayla and her family assume all risks associated with playing following cardiac arrest and that the UW is free from any responsibility associated with her comeback.
Now comes the hard part.
Although she has played pick-up games with her teammates for months, Burt has been a student-assistant coach since the event. That’s nearly two full seasons away from playing at a major-university level.
Sometimes, it shows.
“At times, she tells me, ‘I kinda feel like a freshman out here,’” Daugherty said. “My response to her is that that’s OK. You have time to learn it. Take your time. Learn it right. She’s a quick learner, though, and she’s already picking up things. There are times when she has the basketball in her hands and she’s creating something with that tremendously quick first step or finding the open player.
“I think her vision is better, if you look at when we had her last. She’s really finding her teammates.”
The hesitation shows at the defensive end, where the coaching staff constructed a new scheme while Burt was on the sidelines. Instead of the comparatively laid-back zone Burt was accustomed to, the Huskies have turned up the pressure on every area of the court in hopes of taking advantage of their startlingly increased athleticism and quickness.
They pick up full-court. They trap. They pressure the ball. They scratch for turnovers, then high-tail it on the fast break for transition points.
“I’ve picked it up pretty fast, but a lot of things are new to me, as much as they’re new to the freshmen,” Burt said. “I have a lot to learn, but I’m learning with everyone.”
Then there’s the conditioning issue. For nearly two years, Burt didn’t know what she could or couldn’t do. She wasn’t fully cleared until Aug. 17. Then the stress reactions set her back even more.
Burt is not in basketball shape. If her feet permit it, she will be.
“I think I have to work harder than my teammates, just because I feel I am a little bit behind as far as being in basketball shape,” she said. “But they know and I know and my coaches know that I’m going to get there.”
Added onto that is the scrutiny she will be under as the season nears. This week alone, The Herald, ESPN.com and a crew from the ESPN show “Dream Job” and other media pounced on her, or will. It’s nothing that resembles the months of uproar that followed her affliction, but Burt knows that the attention this time around could be a distraction.
She says she will deal with it as best she can. It isn’t new to her. She’s become adept at controlling the glare of the spotlight without it being a disruption – to both her and her teammates.
“We’re in practice now and we play a Final Four team in three weeks (Minnesota, Nov. 15 at Hec Edmundson Pavilion),” Burt said. “I’m excited for that. We’re working hard for that. I know my story is kind of rare. You don’t hear stories like that. I don’t want to downplay me coming back because I feel it is a pretty special deal, but at the same time, now that I am here and things have started, I’m really ready to focus on playing and getting better and being the best player I can be to help my team.
“So as far as people wanting to talk about my story, I guess I don’t want to push them away all the time. In a way, I’m ready to move on, but there are times when I think, ‘Well, that’ll be kind of cool to get it out.’ But for the most part, I’m ready to go. I’m ready to play.”
Then Burt excused herself.
She had to go ice her feet.