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Original Issue

It's a Wonderful Life Story

Steve Randall isa small man making small money in small towns, a 5'6" high schoolbasketball coach who climbed a short professional ladder from Turtle Lake toMontfort to Oshkosh, Wis. He drives a banana-yellow Caprice Classic that cost$200 used, a car so mortifying that his three daughters put a for sale sign inthe window whenever it's parked in the driveway.

Lance Randall,Steve's only son, is a bigger man whose bigger plans draw him to bigger cities.At 25 he becomes the head coach at Webster University, whose streak of 13losing seasons is broken his first season. Then he coaches the BirminghamBullets in England, grounding himself in the professional game. Homesick after9/11, Lance returns to the States as a D-I assistant at Saint Louis University,an ambitious young coach on the rise.

In October 2004,53-year-old Steve is poised for his 16th season at Oshkosh West High. During aroutine angioplasty, doctors nick one of his arteries. A week later, whilewatching a Cardinals-Dodgers playoff game on TV, Steve tells his wife, Cindy,that he doesn't feel well. He lies down on the couch and dies.

Lance, by now 33,and the father of a one-year-old girl, drives to Oshkosh for the wake and isstruck dumb: A line extends for three blocks outside the funeral home, whichstays open three extra hours to accommodate the mourners. "When 3,000people show up at a high school phys-ed teacher's wake," he says, "yousuddenly see the effect a simple man has had on so many people."

The OshkoshNorthwestern receives hundreds of tributes to Coach Randall, from around thecountry and overseas. At the funeral players speak of his indelible impact ontheir lives. "That's when I had the epiphany," says Lance. "I hadto do this."

What Lance had todo was leave Saint Louis, walk away from his $56,000 salary, move his family inwith his mother and accept a $4,000 part-time coaching stipend to take over hisfather's team at Oshkosh West, which already had a locker labeled randall.

It means findinga full-time job that allows him to leave at 3 p.m. "I don't want to makethe team practice at seven because the coach is doing double shifts at theQuik-Mart," says Lance, who signs on as a fund-raiser for the ExperimentalAircraft Association.

His first seasonis a fairy tale. Oshkosh West is ranked No. 1 in the state for the first timeand takes an unbeaten record into the playoffs. "There was a fairy-taleending to be written," says Lance. "But a lot of kids--not justours--dream of winning state." West is upset in the sectional semis andsees two of its best players graduate. There is no happily ever after.

This season theWildcats' starting point guard is lost to suspension in December, but they areunbeaten. Over Christmas, West renames its home floor the Steven L. RandallCourt and is touched by a strange magic. In early January senior AndyPolka--the quintessential Wisconsin name--makes a 75-foot heave at the buzzerto keep the Wildcats unbeaten. A teammate jumps up and down so hard incelebration that his shorts fall down, a spectacle spot-shadowed onSportsCenter.

West continues towin, skating through sectionals, making it to Madison for the state tournament,where a metropolitan power from Milwaukee or Madison always wins. But thathardly matters. The Wildcats get to stay in Steve Randall's favorite Madisonhotel, the InnTowner, where he and Lance holed up every year as state tourneyspectators. And Oshkosh brings the tournament's biggest party of fans, biggereven than Madison's own Memorial High, West's powerhouse opponent for the statechampionship.

With two minutesto go, Polka dunks to give West a 12-point lead. The crowd chants "STE-venRAN-dall," reducing his widow to tears.

The team busesback to Oshkosh that night, escorted by police and fire trucks, pastcongratulatory bedsheets. They are met at West End Pizza by a spontaneous peprally for the new state champions.

"I've beenblessed beyond imagination," says Lance. "If I took over at Duke or wonan NBA championship, it couldn't surpass what I've been a part of at OshkoshWest."

Turns out, thesmall time is the big time. "They say 'Don't sweat the small stuff,'"Lance says. "But my dad has shown me, even in death, that the small stuffis what's important." Steve Randall so loved his players (and vice versa)that he cried at every postseason banquet. I tell him his dad reminds me ofGeorge Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life.

"You're thefirst person outside the family to mention that movie," says Lance."It's my favorite. My parents gave it to me when I was little. I cry justtaking it out of the box." The son inhales deeply and says, "You'reexactly right: My dad was the richest man in town."

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"When 3,000 people show up at a high schoolphys-ed teacher's wake, you suddenly see the effect a simple man has had on somany people."