Logan • It was a long, high-cresting shot from nearly half court, the kind many call “a prayer.”
As it slipped through the net as the buzzer sounded, Danny Berger froze in place. He held his right arm above his head, his wrist arced just as when he had released the ball seconds earlier. Pausing made the moment linger just a bit longer.
As his Utah State teammates patted him on the back and rubbed his head, he grinned. It’s what he wanted in his return to the court — leave people talking about how he played rather than how he nearly died.
Berger collapsed Dec. 4 while USU practiced on its home court, the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum in Logan. His heart fell out of rhythm and stopped. He probably wouldn’t be here today but for the quick work of USU team trainer Mike Williams, who grabbed a defibrillator and used it to get Berger’s heart beating again.
The 6-foot-7 junior wound up spending a week in a Salt Lake City hospital and missed the rest of the season. As he sat talking to a visitor earlier this week, Berger expressed hope that the whole episode will soon be a footnote to an otherwise successful college basketball career.
In fact, he believes that process has already started.
“It’s pretty much back to normal,” Berger said. “You can’t take away what happened, the experience. No one will ever forget it. But it’s mostly normal.”
After Berger left the hospital and returned to the Spectrum last December in his varsity jacket, arm in a sling and waving to the crowd, it was a triumphant moment. He had lived.
At that time, he worried it might be the closest thing to a comeback he’d get. His teammates, who watched his collapse, were mindful of this as well.
“It was intense and really hard for us at first,” senior guard Preston Medlin said. “As we got back into it and knew Danny was going to be OK, we just wanted to play well for him. We wore [Berger’s] 12 on our jerseys and just played for him.”
Berger is the only player who wears 12 now.
Life has returned to normal in the sense that Berger is back in practice, running full speed with the rest of his teammates. He goes to class, and hangs out with his teammates and friends in his free time.
However, the scar on the upper left of his chest will never go away. The episode lives on inside his chest in the form of an internal defibrillator, a device the size of a half-dollar that makes sure his heart maintains a steady pulse.
“At first it was scary to me,” Bergersaid. “Running, getting a sweat going, getting my heart rate up.”
While Berger has been getting back to his basketball career, he has also embraced his role as a spokesman for automated external defibrillators, the device that saved his life. He has spoken before the state legislature, and in front of church and non-profit audiences. He advocates for AEDs to be ubiquitous in schools and other public locations — where they are still not always found.
As far as Berger is concerned, his life was saved because he’s a college basketball player, because he was in a gym with an AED nearby. His summer circuit consisted of speaking out on behalf of Hoops for Heart, and he and his father raised money to buy an AED for Oregon charity Kids Unlimited. He stumped for the state to pass a bill that allocates money for Utah schools to get AEDs. The bill passed.
Berger is more comfortable in a jersey than a tie, but he’ll wear it for the cause.
“I don’t really like talking about what happened, but I do it,” he said. “If it changes something, that’s what I want.”
As for his day job, Berger will play multiple roles for Utah State this year, at both the small and power forward positions.
The sports are vastly different, but the coaching staff has confidence in Berger’s shooting and rebounding ability, and think he’ll be effective playing more minutes. Time away from the court last season gave Berger more time in the weight room. He’s stronger.
So far, so good. Against Central Methodist, when he hit his halftime buzzer-beater, he scored 10 points, hitting 4 of 6 shots. In the the Aggies most recent exhibition game, against Adams State he drilled all of his 3-point shot attempts and scored 15 points.
“He’s more comfortable out there than he used to be,” Utah State coach Stew Morrill said. “Danny is so stable and solid as a person, that you always know where he’s coming from and doing what you ask. It’s great to have him back.”
Berger will have the rest of his life to be an advocate for AEDs, but he has the next two seasons to be a basketball player.
He plans on making the most of it, and remind people that Danny Berger is a basketball player, not just the guy who’s heart stopped on the practice floor.
Berger has already won over the teammates who witnessed his scary collapse. They initially found it hard to watch him run and jump. They fretted over him, worried about his fragility. The passage of time has convinced them he’s back to his old self.
“He’s doing what he needs to do to get on the floor, and he’s been great,” Medlin said. “He fights so hard. It was tragic what happened to him. But he’s better, he’s playing. We’re glad to have him back.”
Said Berger: “We’re out here every day going hard, and I don’t think they think about that much any more. Maybe a little bit, but not too much.”
Berger knows he can’t always control what his body will do, but he can choose how to approach his life, and he can choose to keep working to be the best basketball player he can be.
That’s what almost dying taught him.
“I just try to show up every day and play hard to try to reach my full potential as a player,” he said. “If I can reach other people in other ways, that’s great, too. I guess I’m more than just a basketball player. That will be over sometime in my life.”
Utah State vs. USC
Friday, 7 p.m.
TV: CBS Sports Network