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Amid incredible joy, unspeakable tragedy

Dannielle Lois Diamant, Jerry Tarkanian’s 6-foot-5-inch granddaughter, was caught in a whirlwind Saturday. She was scurrying from one function to the next in Springfield, Mass., to celebrate her grandpa’s long-awaited induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame when her cellphone lit up.

It was Joe McKeown, Dannielle’s coach when she starred at Northwestern in the Big Ten.

The timing of the call seemed odd. Maybe her former coach just wanted to congratulate Dannielle on grandpa Jerry’s big day, like so many others.

The first thing McKeown wanted to know was if Dannielle was OK.

OK? Sure she was OK. She was in Springfield, Mass., on Hall of Fame Saturday. There were parties to go to. With her grandpa and her grandma Lois, and her parents, Zafi and Jodie, and all the other Tarkanians, and a lot of Pitinos, and Gary Payton.

Reggie Theus had come in, looking as handsome as ever. Larry Johnson was driving up from New York. Dave Rice, the current UNLV coach, the smart guy who used to sit at the end of grandpa’s bench, raising the Rebels’ GPA, had flown in, too.

She didn’t know about the awful thing that had happened in Hungary.

Who?

What?

Omigod!

“He said, ‘I’ve got bad news, terrible news,’ ” said Jodie Diamant, Dannielle’s mother, Tark’s daughter.

“It took him awhile to get it out.”

It took McKeown some time to tell his former center that the bus carrying Uni Gyor, the women’s pro basketball team from Hungary for which Dannielle had recently signed and become starting center, had crashed in the Hungarian countryside on Saturday afternoon.

Uni Gyor, one of the top teams in Hungary, which has sent several players to the WNBA, was on the way to a preseason game in Sopron, a city in the shadow of the Alps on the Austrian border.

Within hours, Fuzy Akos, Dannielle’s coach — the one who had given permission for Dannielle to go to Massachusetts — would be dead.

The general manager was dead.

Most of her teammates were injured.

Samantha MacKay, the former University of Dayton standout and the only other American playing for Uni Gyor, suffered two cracked neck vertebra.

The left leg of Natasa Kovacevic of Serbia was amputated below the knee.

Milica Ivanovic, also of Serbia, was only bruised. She was the one who pulled battered teammates out of the wreckage.

These were the players other than Dannielle who spoke English.

“That’s where Dannielle would have been sitting (on the bus),” her mother said. “Those were her buddies.”

Broken glass everywhere. Blood everywhere. Open fractures. Equipment bags scattered all over the highway. A career ended on the spot — a life ended on the spot. And then another, in the helicopter, on the way to a hospital in Sopron.

The 70-year-old driver whose car had swerved into the path of the bus would be arrested. The bus lay on its side. The little orange car was down the highway, crumpled, like an empty can of Dreher Classic.

You can plan for the way an opponent attacks the basket, or protects it. There isn’t much you can do when a speeding car swerves into your path on the highway. That’s when the game plan flies out the window, right along with the equipment bags.

“It was horrible. Omigod! What if …” Jodie Diamant was talking about the things that go through a mother’s mind at a time like this. “You look at those pictures, it’s something you see on TV …”

Something you see on TV. Something that happens all too often, but something that happens to somebody else.

Her mother said Dannielle Diamant was stunned.

She did not stay in Springfield to see her grandpa go into the Hall on Sunday. She had her father drive her to Boston. She caught the next flight to Budapest.

She wanted to be with her teammates, just like she would have wanted to be with her former Bishop Gorman teammates, or her Northwestern teammates, had something that tragic befallen them.

She could not speak their language, but she could be there for them. She could provide a shoulder to lean on. Isn’t that what teammates do?

Zafi and Jodie Diamant were supposed to go to Hungary in November. They would watch Dannielle hoop it up against those big Hungarian girls. They would float down the Danube, see the castles, take lots of pictures of the architecture and of the monuments in the Baroque city center. And the beautiful Hungarian countryside, once a battleground for Napoleon’s army and Hungarian rebels.

Now they don’t know if there even will be a basketball season in Gyor after the tears go away.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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