The first wave of tears has passed, and now it is the small moments, the little things they once took for granted, that remind them of their loss. When Tiffany Bias, Oklahoma State's sophomore point guard, took the floor for her regular pregame shooting drill last Saturday morning, assistant coach Miranda Serna wasn't there to rebound and feed her confidence-building chatter, like always. When media relations coordinator Ryan Cameron walked past coach Kurt Budke's office last week, he didn't hear Budke call out, "Get in here, Ryno," gruff but affectionate, like always. "It's strange," Bias says, "the things that hit you."
Budke, 50, and Serna, 36, died on Nov. 17 in a single-engine-plane crash near Perryville, Ark., that also took the lives of the pilot, 82-year-old booster and former state senator Olin Branstetter, and his wife, Paula, 79. In the cruelest of coincidences, the coaches, who had been on a recruiting trip, were on their way back to the Stillwater campus, just as 10 members of the Oklahoma State men's basketball team's traveling party had been when their plane crashed 10 years and 10 months before, killing everyone on board. There is a memorial to those earlier victims in the lobby of Gallagher-Iba Arena, with a statue of a cowboy kneeling, his hat in hand, before a granite slab adorned with 10 stars. It is meant to look as though he is taking a moment to reflect, but after the latest tragedy it seems more that he has been staggered by a second blow. "Anyone who was here 10 years ago had to think, Not again," says Cameron.
But the community, having endured this sort of mourning before, can help the Oklahoma State players cope. The Cowgirls are an exceptionally young team, with 10 freshmen and sophomores and not one senior on the roster, and when they took the court on Saturday afternoon against Coppin State for their first game since the crash, there were 3,557 fans in the stands—about twice the normal crowd for a game during the Thanksgiving holiday—applauding their every move even during pregame warmups, giving them the closest thing to a hug that a crowd can deliver.
The players appreciated it, and they rode the warmth and energy to a 59--35 victory. But the day, like each one since the crash, was a jumble of emotions for the Cowgirls. At times they were filled with sadness, then touched by kindness, such as the Coppin State players' warming up in orange T-shirts bearing the symbol Oklahoma State has adopted to honor the victims—the number 4 emblazoned with the date of the tragedy and the initials of the victims. The Cowgirls tried to focus on their game, yet remember their loss. Center Vicky McIntyre pointed both index fingers skyward every time she scored, a nod to her fallen coaches. "There's not one specific emotion you feel," said guard Jenni Bryan. "It changes minute to minute."
Interim coach Jim Littell, who was Budke's top assistant and close friend, wants to make sure his players realize that even in dark times they are allowed to feel joy. "I want them to know that it's O.K. to smile," he said after the game. "It's O.K. to laugh out there. It's not disrespectful."
The Cowgirls did smile once or twice in the days after the crash, mostly at memories. They recalled the time Serna tried to inspire the team by showing them clips from Little Giants, Gladiator and Remember the Titans, then acted out the scenes when the video didn't work. They remembered how Budke would find something positive in every game, win or lose. "I think we took a step today," he would often say in his postgame talks. "We took a step."
Littell, who came with Budke to Stillwater seven years ago, tried to keep the tone on Saturday from being too somber, because he knew that wouldn't have pleased his buddy. Instead of a moment of silence before the tip-off, he had the public address announcer call for the crowd to stand and applaud. "That was Coach's personality," Littell said. "He wouldn't have wanted silence. He would have wanted this place rocking."
It was that kind of attitude that helped Budke take Oklahoma State from 0--16 in the Big 12 in his first season to the Sweet 16 in his third, forming bonds beyond basketball in the process. "We were part of his extended family," Bias says. The rest of Budke's family was in attendance on Saturday, including his parents; his wife, Shelley; and his three children. Everyone would have understood if it had been too painful for them to come back to Gallagher-Iba so soon, but family supports family.
When the game was over, the Cowgirls gathered around Littell, who told them how proud he was of them, and the next thing you knew they were all in the stands behind their bench embracing Budke's relatives, which seemed to change everything. They came back down and looked more relaxed, freer, than they had all day. The players did a lap around the court, high-fiving and shaking hands with fans, smiling warmly and thanking them for coming. It really was O.K. to smile.
The sadness will return, of course, sometimes when they least expect it, when something small brings it all rushing back. But on Saturday the Cowgirls won a game. They pushed through their grief, and even laughed a little. They took a step.
WHEN OKLAHOMA STATE TOOK THE COURT FOR ITS FIRST GAME SINCE THE CRASH, FANS APPLAUDED THE PLAYERS' EVERY MOVE, THE CLOSEST THING TO A HUG A CROWD CAN DELIVER.