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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Beyond the Game

No Season Has Been Closer to the Hearts of Sutton and Oklahoma State in the Wake of Tragic Crash

March 13, 2001|MIKE TERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The exhilaration of making the NCAA tournament field has helped soften the most tragic season in Oklahoma State basketball history.

But it cannot totally end the pain of the Jan. 27 small-plane crash that killed two players, six men associated with the program, and the plane's pilot and co-pilot as they returned from a game in Colorado. The tragedy devastated the team and university, and saddened college basketball fans nationwide.

On Monday university president James Halligan visited the crash site, a snow covered field located 40 miles east of Denver, to determine whether a memorial to the victims can be built there.

"This has been the most difficult thing in my life," Halligan told reporters at the site. "I have never experienced anything like this, and we're doing our very best to reach out and encircle [the victims'] families."

If the Oklahoma State basketball team had decided to cancel the rest of its season six weeks ago, no one would have complained.

Instead the Cowboys are seeded 11th in the East regional. They play sixth-seeded USC in a first-round game Thursday at Uniondale, N.Y.

The recovery and resiliency of the Oklahoma State team is more than a feel-good story. It is more than a Cinderella story.

Coach Eddie Sutton has taken eight Cowboy teams to the tournament in his 11 seasons at Stillwater. The 1994-95 team reached the Final Four, losing to eventual champion UCLA in the semifinals. Last year's team reached the East regional final, losing to Florida. This is the fourth consecutive season Oklahoma State has received a bid.

But Sutton--who has taken four schools to the tournament in 31 years of coaching--said he has received his greatest satisfaction from this 20-9 squad that finished fifth in the Big 12 Conference and was eliminated in the second round of the conference tournament.

"I think a team with less character and courage would not have made it," Sutton said. "For a few days, those close to the team knew it was so despondent it might not continue. That's why I have a special place for them in my heart.

"No one can fully comprehend how difficult it was for those guys to lose teammates and the other guys."

The joy of being selected washed over the campus and the rest of Stillwater on Monday.

"The bid was important because the team became a symbol for all of us," said Harry Birdwell, vice president of business and external relations at the school.

"This was more than basketball; it was about the soul of a university that had been wounded. And the support of the team from students to alumni and faculty . . . it has just been an incredible outpouring."

Stillwater Mayor Larry Brown said his town of 22,000 students and 20,000 full-time residents, nestled 60 miles north of the state capital, Oklahoma City, and 60 miles west of Tulsa, has been celebrating since Sunday's announcement of the 65-team field.

"There is a great sense of pride," Brown said. "We knew they could do it. The community has not gotten completely over the accident. There is still a lot of remembrance and sorrow. But this is a strong community. And it rallied behind the university and the team in a way that I had not seen before in my 14 years of residency here."

*

Walk-on freshman Nate Fleming, 20, and junior Dan Lawson, 21, both guards, were part of the Cowboys' traveling party flying back in several planes from the game at Boulder, Colo. Fleming and Lawson did not make it back to campus.

After takeoff their plane, a turboprop Beechcraft King Air 200 Catpass, reached an altitude of 23,000 feet and flew another three minutes before air traffic controllers lost contact with it. No distress call was heard.

The accident was at approximately 5:35 p.m. on Jan. 27. Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board continue to investigate.

Also killed were Bill Teegins, who broadcast the school's football and basketball games; Pat Noyes, director of basketball operations; Will Hancock of the school's sports information department, trainer Brian Luinstra, student manager Jared Weiberg, broadcast engineer Kendall Durfey, pilot Denver Mills and co-pilot Bjorn Falistrom.

"No one could have blamed the [surviving] coaches or players had they not wanted to go forward with the season," Birdwell said. "But I think, again, it was about more than basketball. It was about grouping together and proving we're able to overcome the adversity. And through our collective actions, we were better able to honor the friends we lost."

There was a campus memorial service Jan. 31. The Cowboys returned to their basketball court, the Gallagher-Iba Arena, on Feb. 5 against Missouri, winning a difficult game, 69-66.

"That game turned the corner for us here," said Kent Sampson, director of Campus Life, the center for all student organizations at Oklahoma State.

"After the memorial service, it was about trying to move on and still have respect for the [surviving] families. That game was a key launch point. The other was beating Oklahoma [Feb. 14]."

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