Forget New Year’s Day, Samantha MacKay has Jan. 2 circled on her calendar.
Four months after her Hungarian team’s bus accident in September left two dead and her with three cracked vertebrae (C3, C4, and C7), MacKay will be cleared to travel to rejoin her Uni Gyor squad. Currently in a hard neck brace after the accident flung her through a window into a ditch, MacKay said she’ll finish her rehab in Hungary.
She’s determined to play this season.
“I’ve always been pretty stubborn,” MacKay said in a phone interview last week from her family home in Philadelphia. “Laying in the hospital that day, I was like, no matter what, you’re going to get back’ and I’ll deal with whatever has to happen.
“But I’m getting back to playing, again. The doctor said there’s no reason I can’t. I just need to allow it to heal and give it enough time and try not to rush back.”
Of the players able, MacKay, a former Storm training camp invitee, is the last member of the Hungarian team to return. Former Gonzaga star Courtney Vandersloot (Chicago Sky) and Storm F Joslyn Tinkle are some of the replacement players filling out the roster.
The team hasn’t won a EuroLeague game but is undefeated in its domestic league. The players have been honored by opponents for their courage and there’s a moment of remembrance prior to games for general manager Peter Tapodi, who died on the scene, and coach Fuzy Akos who died at the hospital from complications suffered in the accident.
“They have responded well and are making the best of the situation,” Vandersloot wrote in an email of her new teammates. “It’s actually very cool to see and be around. These are amazing people to have gone through something like this and continue to play and have such a positive outlook on things.”
Tinkle shared Vandersloot’s observations of the organization immediately carrying on with the season, even considering travel between games remains by bus. There was trepidation at first from the Americans. This is Tinkle’s first stint playing professionally overseas, too.
The team’s first game was a hard loss in November against Storm All-Star Sue Bird‘s UMMC Ekaterinburg. The Russian squad also features WNBA MVPs Candace Parker and Diana Taurasi, the latter not playing that night.
“It was a little intimidating coming into this kind of situation,” said Tinkle via phone form Hungary. She was signed by Seattle in August and remained on the playoff roster.
“But I also thought it was kind of a good thing,” Tinkle continued. “You want to help this team, help this program, do all you can to try to be there for these girls that have been through something very traumatic…Once we (Vandersloot and Tinkle) got here, the girls were so welcoming and so nice and in great spirits. They still talk about the accident and as traumatizing as something like that is, I feel these girls are some of the toughest I’ve ever met.”
Uni Gyor was headed to play Uniqa Euroleasing Sopron (Storm F Tianna Hawkins‘ current team), in a preseason matchup when the accident occurred on Sept. 7. MacKay was wearing shorts and t-shirt on the sunny day traveling through the Hungarian countryside.
“I was asleep against the window,” MacKay said.
As MacKay slept, she was later told a car swerved in front of the bus and their driver swerved out of its way. But in moving, the car hit the rear right tire of the bus, rolling it across the two-lane highway and off the road.
Wire reports said the driver of the car was drunk and arrested at the scene.
“The car hitting the bus woke me up,” MacKay said. “The next thing you know, I was flying through the air. There was no time to react or grab on to anything or anything like that. I just remember seeing glass coming at my face, so I closed my eyes and tucked my chin to my chest to try to keep it (glass) out of my eyes. That’s when I was ejected. So, assuming the window was broke and then I went through it, it dumped me off in a little ditch.”
MacKay landed in a seated position and tried to get up but felt a vibrating feeling all the way down her back. As she scooted near teammate Evelin Tullner, who had an open fracture in her ankle, a passerby brought water and pushed MacKay to the wall of the embankment to keep her from moving until medical help arrived.
Doctors explained to MacKay that since her vertebrae fractures were “process,” she didn’t need to worry about mobility. Her mother arrived in Hungary in time for her daughter’s release and three weeks later, MacKay was able to return to the states.
MacKay was unable to attend the funerals of Tapodi and Akos, however, because she also suffered an open gash covering her back that prevented her from wearing clothes for about a week. The massive scar didn’t need stitches and didn’t contain glass or major debris from the road.
“I begged to go,” MacKay said of the funerals.
In a strange twist, MacKay comes from a family of drag racing hobbyists. Her maternal grandfather and aunts still race and MacKay has seen videotapes of her father flipping a car 12 times across a finish line, walking away from the accident.
The accident in September was MacKay’s first real experience of any kind.
“I’ve definitely seen some crazy things but never thought that it would ever happen to me,” she said. “It’s crazy. And the spirit and strength of the girls that were involved is absolutely incredible.”
MacKay starred at Dayton, leading the Flyers to a 28-3 overall record last year, including 14-0 in the Atlantic 10 for the program’s first regular season title and NCAA second-round appearance. She was the first UD player to receive a WNBA training camp invite, cut prior to Seattle’s season-opener.
Former college teammates and friends along with family are MacKay’s support system stateside. She even returned to Dayton to be honored prior to a 84-58 win against Indianapolis in November. MacKay said she’s in daily contact with her team abroad, watching games online when able or at least tracking the scores.
The organization has formed into a family despite being together a month before the accident.
According to reports, Tullner will not play this season while teammate Krisztina Kovacs retired early due to injuries from the accident. Dora Koch, Mantyra Mansare and Kinga Penzes recently returned this month, according to MacKay.
American C Daniella Diamant, a standout at Northwestern, was not in the accident because she was attending the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame festivities for her grandfather, Jerry Tarkanian. Diamant immediately returned and was with MacKay when she was released from the hospital in September.
Serbian F Natasa Kovacevic’s left leg was amputated below the knee. Yet, as MacKay stood crying by her hospital bedside, Kovacevic offered comedic comfort.
“It’s OK, I ski!” Kovacevic, 19, said of the sport she’ll switch to now that basketball is unlikely.
“All I could think about was her career and the person she is and was and I was emotional about it,” MacKay said. “She was just was like, this is the hand that we’re dealt and picked everybody up. I can’t speak enough about the strength of everybody involved.”
Tinkle said Kovacevic is still with the team and is inspiring everyone. Wins and loses are irrelevant considering the bond gained through the tragedy.
“It’s nice to see the whole basketball community over here come together,” Tinkle said.
Here’s video of an Uni Gyor loss in EuroLeague play. Vandersloot and Tinkle are shown in the white uniforms with green trim: