When Harold Ng's heart stopped beating on a San Ramon basketball court, that could have been the end for the 67-year-old engineer.
But thanks to a speedy team effort by fellow players that morning in late January, he is still alive and well, and will be able to return to the court in a year's time.
"There were a lot of heroes," said Ng, who lives in Concord.
At a board meeting on Feb. 28, the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District recognized four of the rescuers who intervened in Ng's sudden cardiac arrest, a medical emergency with a survival rate of only 10%.
"No matter how quickly your emergency first responders arrive, the need will always exist for citizen heroes," said John Duggan, a battalion chief for the fire district, in an interview.
Ng had been playing basketball every Saturday morning in San Ramon for about 20 years, since the pickup games first began. Players came and went over time, and court needs had tripled -- when they first started playing at the end of the 1990s, the crew played at the city's Central Park, but those courts soon became too small (and were eventually torn down to make way for City Hall), so the players had migrated to the more expansive court space at nearby Iron Horse Middle School.
Generally their group had anywhere between 25 and 35 people playing standard five-on-five, Ng said, between 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.
As casual games go, variables fluctuated from week to week, but that Jan. 27 morning, a series of happy coincidences converged in his favor, Ng said.
"Everything seemed aligned for people to save me," he said.
This wasn't the first time Ng had collapsed on the court. Five months earlier, he was taken to the hospital after passing out, though in that instance he came to on his own. Medical professionals checked his circulation and had him wear a monitor for about seven days, but couldn't find any problems. So on Jan. 27, Ng assumed he was back to his normal healthy state.
"That day I felt fine," Ng said.
By 11:30 a.m, the crew had trickled down to about 15 players, all on one court, when suddenly, Ng collapsed. At first, some of his teammates thought the collapse was in jest, he said.
"They thought I was pulling their leg," Ng laughed.
"He was breathing but his eyes were closed," said Rudy Torres, an Oakland resident who has been playing with the Saturday crew in San Ramon for about a year. "Then immediately he stopped breathing."
But after realizing that the emergency was real, the players sprang into action. Patrick Murphy called 9-1-1. Torres ran into the nearby middle school and grabbed one of the AEDs (automated external defibrillators) in the gym. Alex Harris performed CPR on Ng, and Mike Richard applied the AED.
Within three minutes, San Ramon Valley Fire personnel arrived on-site. They administered an electric shock to Ng using the AED that had already been set up and brought him to the San Ramon Regional Medical Center down Alcosta Boulevard.
He woke up after being shocked, but only remembers the ambulance ride, talking to technicians in the vehicle. Doctors ended up finding two artery blockages, which they opened by inserting tubes called stents, and in three days, Ng was home.
He still shoots hoops on Saturdays, where he is able to see his rescuers, though he won't be able to play in basketball games for another year he's on blood thinner right now to prevent blood clots around the stents and a minor bump or cut could lead to internal bleeding.
The experience has made him a huge advocate for AEDs in all locations.
He's working on getting them installed throughout his office and wants to get one for his car, so that he could perhaps "pay it forward" and save someone else, should the need arise.
Duggan echoed Ng's sentiments regarding the value of AEDs, adding that he believes people should be taught how to use them in CPR training, especially as speed is often of the essence in situations where defibrillators are needed.
"That dialogue should also include AED training," he said.
Ng also points to the fortuitous confluence of circumstances that day.
If the gym at Iron Horse Middle School had been locked, as it sometimes is on Saturday mornings, Torres couldn't have grabbed the AED. And the courts' proximity to Fire Station 34 and San Ramon Regional Medical Center expedited his rush to recovery.
But mostly, he said he's thankful -- thankful for the city's investment in emergency resources, thankful for the school's AEDs, and thankful to his rescuers, ball players and first responders alike.
"I'm very thankful to all the right people in the right places, who had the right equipment," Ng said.