One thing about life and the Big 12 basketball season: They go on. And so it was that 10 days after one of the three private planes used by the Oklahoma State team crashed, killing 10, including two players, the Cowboys had to fly again—on three private planes.
At the Stillwater airport they waded through all the dread cries of, "We'll pray for you!" and "Call the second you land!" They talked down the fear in their hearts and the lunch in their stomachs, deiced their nerves, tried to ignore the minicams on the tarmac and took their seats next to 10 ghosts. "Me," said an Oklahoma State student who was watching, "I'd have to be sedated."
Assistant coach Kyle Keller looked as if he was. Slit-eyed, he'd hardly slept since the night of Jan. 27, when coach Eddie Sutton had switched him out of the doomed plane for the flight home from Colorado and sat Keller's cousin, freshman point guard Nate Fleming, in his place. Sutton wanted Keller on the faster jet instead of the turboprop so Keller could get back to Stillwater a half hour earlier and start grading film. Now Fleming was gone. "I don't go 10 seconds without thinking about it," said Keller, who had to pull over on the interstate between funerals last week and sob for 20 minutes. "Someday, I'm hoping God explains this all to me."
The guy sitting behind him now, broadcaster Tom Dirato, knew the feeling. Sutton had switched Dirato from the turboprop to the jet, so he and his aching back wouldn't have to sit so long, and put junior guard Danny Lawson in Dirato's place. Now Law-son is in a grave in Detroit. "I go from grief to relief," said Dirato, who will undergo counseling starting this week. "I'm 56. Danny was 21. He had his whole life in front of him."
As the cabin door closed, 7-foot freshman center Jack Marlow was thinking the same thing. He'd always hated to fly, but when the crash killed his road roomie, Lawson, his fear doubled. Sutton had asked the players if they wanted to take the 55-minute flight or the eight-hour bus ride to Lincoln for their game against Nebraska, and Big Jack had yelped, "Bus sounds great, Coach!" But he was the only one. So as the Lear engine revved, he stuck his Choctaw mandala in the window, kissed it once, bowed his huge head and started praying.
Two planes back, 280-pound center Jason Keep clamped assistant coach Sean Sutton's hand so tight it went numb. Not that Sean, Eddie's son, wanted Keep to let go. Every time he closes his eyes, he imagines the inside of that turboprop, beelining nose-first for a Colorado pasture. "I can't stop seeing them," said Sutton, whose best friend, director of basketball operations Pat Noyes, died in the wreckage. "Did they know they were going to die? Were they screaming? Panicking? I have nightmares about it."
Last to buckle in was Eddie Sutton, the 64-year-old coaching legend who had to call the 10 wives and mothers and fathers and girlfriends that night and tell them their men weren't coming home.Sutton said he carries no guilt over having changed the seating arrangement. "We've switched 100 times, every trip, for 100 reasons," he said. But those calls, those funerals, those what-ifs have added 10 years to his face. His friends worry about him. Bill Clinton called to check on him. "Eddie's in denial," said Patsy, his wife. "He's had to be so strong for everyone else, he hasn't been able to grieve."
Well, my God, where would you start? With Will Hancock, the sports information assistant who loved Beethoven, his soccer-coach wife and his two-month-old baby? Or student manager Jared Weiberg, who was making his last scheduled road trip of the season? Or radio engineer Kendall Durfey, who with his wife had just adopted a little girl whose parents had died? Or trainer Brian Luinstra, who had two kids under three? Or the two pilots, Denver Mills and Bjorn Fahlstrom? Who has that many tears?
Now the jet engines shudder, and now the planes lurch, and now it's wheels up. And now, for the first time in his life, star point guard Maurice Baker's hands drip wet on a flight. And now Dirato remembers that his dead colleague, play-by-play man Bill Teegins, had a commercial ticket home from Denver before a spot opened up on the turboprop. Talk about luck: Turns out the commercial flight was canceled because of the bad weather.
This time, of course, nothing happened, not a bump. All three planes made it safely to Lincoln, where the Cowboys lost to Nebraska 78-75 in overtime.