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NCAA BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

More Than Memories

Oklahoma State's current team is last to have played with those who died in crash

March 18, 2003|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

STILLWATER, Okla. — The accident report stated "no survivors," but that wasn't entirely true.

Two years after a plane crash that might have leveled the Oklahoma State basketball program for 10 years, three holdover seniors and their senior-citizen coach have the Cowboys poking their noses in what was supposed to have been somebody else's business.

Picked to finish sixth in the rugged Big 12 Conference, Oklahoma State finished fourth, clinched its sixth consecutive 20-victory season and, with a 21-9 record earned a berth in the NCAA tournament. The Cowboys will open Friday night against Ivy League champion Penn.

These Cowboys don't sit tall in the saddle, though. They have no post threat and boast no starter taller than 6 feet 8. They forged into contention with defense, tenacity and resolve.

Ready for March Madness?

"I think we're ready for life," senior forward Melvin Sanders said after a recent practice at Gallagher-Iba Arena.

It is with a degree of uneasiness that one tries to connect the dots from the loss of lives to basketball victories, yet the evidence suggests a correlation between pain and perseverance.

In fact, this season's surprising success seems to have been almost willed by Sanders, Victor Williams and Andre Williams, three seniors who saw too much too soon, and galvanized by Eddie Sutton, a veteran coach who has seen just about everything.

"Because of that, those guys became tougher people," Sutton said of his seniors. "They became men."

The "that" to which Sutton refers remains embedded in memory and memorials.

The summary facts have been recorded with the National Transportation Safety Board in detached, independent, cryptic detail:

"On January 27, 2001, about 1737 mountain standard time, a Raytheon (Beechcraft) Super King Air 200, N81PF, owned by North Bay Charter, LLC, and operated by Jet Express Services, crashed into rolling terrain near Strasburg, Colorado.... All 10 occupants aboard N81PF were killed, and the airplane was destroyed by impact forces and a postcrash fire."

The plane was one of three chartered by Oklahoma State for a return trip after a basketball game at Colorado.

Two made it back to Stillwater.

The NTSB ruled the probable cause of the plane crash was pilot error: " ... final 2 minutes of flight was consistent with a graveyard spiral resulting from pilot spatial disorientation ... winds variable at 4 knots, visibility 1 mile in light snow, sky obscured.... "

Killed were Oklahoma State players Dan Lawson and Nate Fleming, media relations coordinator Will Hancock, director of basketball operations Pat Noyes, trainer Brian Luinstra, play-by-play announcer Bill Teegins, student manager Jared Weiberg, broadcast engineer Kendall Durfey, pilot Denver Mills and co-pilot Bjorn Falistrom.

Twenty-five months have passed since the crash and, although no one has forgotten what happened, time has slogged on. There are more than 20 new faces in the athletic department and most players from 2001 have rotated out of the program.

Disconnection was inevitable.

A moving memorial to the deceased adorns a corner of Gallagher-Iba Arena -- a bronzed Cowboy squatting, head bowed, holding his hat with both hands.

Yet, Andre Williams knows when he and his senior teammates depart, another link will be lost.

"The people who actually knew them and played with them, who remember what they were like," Andre said. "It's kind of hard to think of that."

The seniors have dedicated themselves to making one last, over-the-top push to legacy -- their endowment to the program.

Newcomers to the program have no choice but to be swept along.

"We talk about the guys a lot," Andre Williams said of the crash victims. "You get to know them, being around us. It's always there as a motivator."

For Andre, Victor and Melvin, the word "adversity" has taken on new meaning. Before, it meant facing rowdy road crowds at Lubbock or Lawrence or Austin.

"Nothing on the court will ever compare to the adversity of dealing with a plane crash," Andre Williams said. "We could be down by 50 [points] and I feel we can always come back, because we've dealt with a lot."

No one would have been shocked had Oklahoma State basketball gone on extended "personal leave" in the aftermath of the crash. Remarkably, though, the program has endured, remained vibrant and competitive.

"When it first happened, I wasn't sure whether we could finish the season," Sutton said in his office, overlooking a snow-covered football field. "But we got some counseling, and we did a lot of talking with the players."

The first instinct was to recoil.

"Give up, throw in the towel, let's sulk over what just happened," guard Victor Williams said. "But as time went on, you kind of realized those guys were very special to us. They'd want us to keep playing, and want us to be in the top 10."

Oklahoma State finished 20-10 in 2000-01 and 23-9 last season, although the Cowboys were first-round losers both years in the NCAA tournament.

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