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SPORTS EXTRA / NCAA TOURNAMENT | J.A. ADANDE

Memories Are Held in Reserve

March 15, 2001|J.A. ADANDE

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — You don't know them. They're wearing their warmups, so you can't even read the names on the back of their jerseys. But you can read the emotion on their faces.

They clasp hands, bite their lips and look skyward for any possible help while their teammates shoot pressure free throws. They bounce up and down along the sidelines in anticipation of victory, then they spill onto the court when the final buzzer sounds.

Or they hang their heads and fight tears--often unsuccessfully--when a loss brings their season to an end.

They are the reserve players, and they are as much a part of March Madness as the future NBA draft picks and the heroes who make the last-second shots. They are a reminder of what we like about the NCAA tournament, a bit of purity about the sport that not even billion-dollar rights fees, 10 p.m. start times or even the omnipresent specter of Bob Knight can ruin.

Nate Fleming was such a longshot to get playing time his teammates nicknamed him "Rudy." Dan Lawson was usually the first guard off the bench, but on a team that relied on its starters as heavily as Oklahoma State does that meant an average of only nine minutes a game.

"Both of them were gentlemen that you want on your team, regardless if they're going to play 35 minutes or two minutes," Oklahoma State assistant coach Kyle Keller said.

Good guys, but on the court only good enough to score 36 points in the team's first 17 games (33 of them were by Lawson). Fleming scored the first point of his career in the season opener against Missouri Kansas City, and scored his only field goal against Lamar on Dec. 22.

The most points Lawson scored in a game were seven. His biggest moment came when he grabbed two key offensive rebounds in an overtime victory against Iowa State on Jan. 8. But in all likelihood, a few moments on screen as the TV cameras panned the bench were about the extent of the glory Fleming and Lawson could have expected from the NCAA tournament.

For most of America, Fleming and Lawson are the players you never got to know. If you've heard their names at all, chances are it's because you know they were on that plane, the Beechcraft Super King Air 200, that crashed 38 miles east of Denver when the Oklahoma State Cowboys were returning home after a loss at Colorado on Jan. 27, killing all 10 people on board.

"We live every day for those two guys and the other eight that were on that plane," Keller said. "We remember Nate and Dan and the rest of them hopefully by the way we play.

"There's the patch [on the uniforms], we have a banner hanging in our arena. In time we'll have a memorial in the gym. But their spirit lives within us."

Look closely when the Cowboys play USC tonight in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

If you see Oklahoma State players holding their first two fingers together, it's to represent Fleming's No. 11 before the game. If you see them waving three fingers, it's for Lawson's No. 3.

You might catch a glimpse of Fleming's practice jersey beneath forward Fredrik Jonzen's uniform. Or you might see Lawson's jersey hiding under guard Maurice Baker uniform.

Who were Dan Lawson and Nate Fleming?

Teammate Andre Williams' quick description--"'A guy from Detroit and a little tennis player from Edmond [Okla.]"--only begins to tell the story.

Lawson was regarded as the funniest guy on the team. Fleming was the valedictorian at Edmond North High.

Fleming was so well-liked in the community that his sister worried that their church, with a sanctuary that seated 1,000, wouldn't be large enough for Nate's funeral. She was right; an estimated 2,800 people showed up at Westminster Presbyterian Church for the service.

"Dan and Nate were just very fun people," Williams said. "I had the chance to room with both of them. It was just a very new experience every day. Especially with Dan, he was always outgoing and fun-loving.

"Nate, every day in practice, was a war because you knew he was going to come out whether he got his nose busted or head [slammed] down on the floor or whatever. Nate did whatever it took to get practice going."

Both players were popular with their teammates, although more than one person speculated that might have been because they were as adept at attracting women as any four-year starter.

Fleming did it by playing guitar and singing Dave Matthews songs. Lawson? Well, he had that smile.

"He had girls at every turn," said Marilyn Middlebrook, Oklahoma State assistant athletic director for student affairs.

She described Lawson as "Mister Happy.

"You couldn't be mad at him, no matter what he did. He was a pleaser."

Both players were redshirts in the 1999-2000 season after playing in a handful of games that year.

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