It sounds cliche to call two teams in an elimination playoff game "winners," but it's even harder to label the team which finished on the short end of Monday night's touching game between Fennville (Mich.) High and Lawrence (Mich.) High anything less than that.
Days after star basketball player and beloved student Wes Leonard died of a heart attack immediately following a high school game, Fennville returned to the court to play its first 2011 playoff game against Lawrence, a team which had given up its own home-court advantage to move the game to a larger, neutral site closer to Fennville.
Eventually, Fennville emerged victorious despite playing without its irreplaceable star in a tight, 65-54 game. Amidst hugs and tears from both sets of players, the Blackhawks continued an unbeaten streak that was once pushed on by Wes Leonard, but now continues as an ongoing memorial to his legacy at the school.
Fittingly, reminders of Leonard were everywhere. Both teams wore warm-up shirts that read "Never Forgotten" on the front and had Leonard's name and number on the back. There were dedicated signs all around the interior of the basketball arena at fittingly named Hope College, with large swaths of Fennville's black and orange school colors throughout the crowd.
When Fennville's team took to the court, it did so arm-in-arm, with players entering the arena in groups of three. They were led by Mitchell Leonard, Wes' younger brother, who is currently an eighth grader at Fennville middle school. The younger Leonard is pictured in the white T-shirt above.
The Blackhawks entered to a thunderous standing ovation, a reception from fans who bought the entire allotment of 3,300 tickets within an hour of their release earlier on Monday. The town of Fennville has a population of just 1,400, yet it sold 2,000 tickets to the game in an hour. A second rapturous reception greeted the entrance of Leonard's parents, who soaked it all in while hugging and crying, surrounded by some 100 other members of the extended Leonard clan.
And then, after a moment of silence, Fennville's starters took to the court for the opening tip-off, fittingly down one man. With Leonard irreplaceable, the team began the game with four instead of the customary five.
While Fennville may have prevailed, both teams could take something from the game, and the painful but touching circumstances that led up to it. From Lawrence's readiness to move the site of the game to help Fennville fans travel to and attend it, to a combined dinner with both teams attended by former NBA star Bo Kimble, who lost his friend and collegiate teammate Hank Gathers in similar fashion 21 years ago, the entire event made it impossible not to focus on something besides the game on the court.
For once, that's exactly how everyone wanted it, too.
"We want to do as much as we can tonight to focus on athletics, on unity -- but most of all remembering Wes," Fennville superintendent Dirk Weeldreyer told the Associated Press. "So to some degree the outcome of the game -- you know, it's a little less important. We want to see certainly a well-played game, a well-fought game because that's what Wes would have wanted, too. But I think both teams are realizing that there's more to life than this win or loss tonight."
"Lawrence won the [Southwestern Athletic] Conference in the south and Fennville won in the North, so it's kind of like a conference championship -- minus one," Lawrence Public Schools superintendent John Overley told the Detroit News. "That one is a big one and that's one of the one's we're here for.
"We know that people aren't coming here to see the Lawrence Tigers, but that being said, we're all feeling [the change of locations] needed to be done. We thank Fennville for going through with the game and we're going to honor Wes the best way we can."
It feels safe to say that was accomplished, thanks to everyone involved, from the teams, to the crowd down to Kimble -- who drove through the night to get to the game from Philadelphia -- and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who reached out to Fennville coach Ryan Klingler as soon as he heard of Leonard's passing.
With the "celebration" of a first postseason game over, Fennville is forced to return to the difficult business of trying to fill a huge void throughout the community, all while keeping alive a magical undefeated basketball season, now at 21-0, which was once forged by Wes Leonard's clutch shooting touch. Now it is powered by -- and in honor of -- his memory.