GREENSBORO - As the ambulance carrying their son raced from a high school basketball game to a nearby emergency room in Winston-Salem, Joseph and Sonia Level, miles away in Guilford County, asked the coach riding along in the emergency vehicle to put a cellphone on speaker.
Joshua Level, who played for New Garden Friends School, had collapsed about 8 p.m. Tuesday with about four minutes left in the game against Quality Education Academy. He had to be lifted off the court and onto a stretcher.
With speeds reaching 100 mph, the Levels raced down Interstate 40 from Greensboro - crying, praying and talking to their 17-year-old son the whole way.
"Live, Josh, live," they urged until they got to the hospital.
"We came around the corner and we saw all those people working on my son," Joseph Level said Wednesday. An hour later, doctors at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center pronounced their son dead.
A Forsyth County medical examiner would find nothing unusual in the basketball player's medical condition to indicate a reason for the collapse.
"Our family - it will never be the same again," Joseph Level said Wednesday while surrounded by friends and family. "We will come together ... but we will never be the same. You just can't duplicate Josh."
His parents could barely talk without crying.
An autopsy after his death showed Josh had a slightly enlarged heart, but the Levels said the examiner told them it wasn't enough to cause him to collapse.
Josh had six siblings.
"He was our heartbeat," said Josh's sister Brittani, a junior at Wake Forest University, recalling her brother - the prankster - who had an infectious personality and kept the tight-knit family laughing.
He was resilient even as a 3-year-old, learning to ride a bicycle without training wheels, family members said as they remembered him through laughter and tears.
"You just couldn't shake his confidence," said his brother Joseph III, 19, a UNC sophomore. "I just can't believe I'm talking about him in the past tense."
Josh also seemed on his way to college basketball stardom.
"He worked hard, it just didn't happen overnight," said oldest sister Shanda Hamm, 29, a teacher. The recruiting website Rivals.com lists Josh as an NCAA Division I-caliber player who had received interest from seven schools, including N.C. State.
As a freshman, he played for High Point's Westchester Country Day team that finished 29-10 and won the NCISAA 2-A state championship.
"He was an under-the-radar kid at that point on this team full of Division I players, and he just took over against Northside Christian," Westchester athletics director and assistant coach Adam Schwartz said. "He had the potential to be an ACC basketball player. He was that good."
Josh later played a season-and-a-half for the highly-regarded Christ School, a private Episcopal high school in Asheville. Duke's Plumlee brothers all played there for coach David Gaines.
"It's been tough news for all of us here who coached him and taught him," Gaines said.
Josh, who wore No. 11 for the Greenies, averaged 9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game as a sophomore for the Asheville school last year. He had suffered a stress fracture in his foot playing AAU basketball in July and didn't play for the Greenies this year. After spending much of the first semester in a walking boot, unable to play or practice, he left the program in December. He moved to New Garden Friends School in January.
Josh never showed signs of any health issues, Gaines said.
The Levels said no one can recall Josh complaining of anything being wrong when something caused him to fall to the floor during Tuesday's game. A time-out had been called. As Quality Education coach Isaac Pitts gathered his players around, he heard a commotion and saw Level on the floor. Pitts also heard someone say, "Call 911," so he did.
A parent who is a nurse went over and started administering CPR.
"Everyone was somber, quiet and stunned," Pitts said.
Pitts and Simon Johnson, the chief executive officer of QEA, went to the emergency room and were told Level had died.
"My players knew him and were very fond of him," Pitts said. "These kids play AAU against each other in the summer."
QEA has canceled its last home game as a tribute to Level.
On Wednesday, BallisLife.com posted a tribute video about Josh on its website. The video shows highlights of Josh's basketball career, as well as Josh cutting loose, dancing in the locker room and laughing during an interview.
The Levels plan to set up a foundation in Josh's name for children who have dreams like Josh but not the family support he had.
"To play this game, you have to have a lot of heart," Josh said in one of the videos. "It's a privilege."
Phil Tockman, a coach and New Garden Friends athletics director who rode in the ambulance with Josh, was also the teen's mentor. He said he watched with pride as Josh became a mentor to others.
Josh's parents say he was always the child they had hoped - in case anything happened to them - would take care of daughter Jordan, 9, who has Down syndrome. So close to her brother, Jordan often climbed into his bed when she had nightmares.
Josh had two other younger siblings: Jeremy Level, 14, and Jaydon Level, 20 months.
Just before Tuesday's basketball game, Josh did do something unusual. He normally waited around after school to catch the team bus. But on Tuesday, he insisted that his mother pick him up from school.
In those few minutes at home, he grabbed a bowl of cereal, hugged Jordan tight and said his goodbyes before dashing out the door with his father, who got him back to the school just in time.
"That would be his goodbye," Joseph Level said.
Winston-Salem Journal reporter Mason Linker contributed to this report.
Contact Nancy McLaughlin at 373-7049.
Contact Jeff Mills at 373-7024, and follow @JefeMills on Twitter.
nThe medical examiner finds nothing in high school basketball player Josh Level's
physical condition to account for his death.