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
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
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 Lawson 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
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.
The newspaper said they had trouble rebounding.
COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA
"Did they know they were going to die? Were they screaming?" says
Sean Sutton. "I have nightmares about it."