HOLLAND, Mich. — A west Michigan high school basketball team mourning the death of a star player returned to the court Monday, winning a state tournament game that turned into a tribute for the 16-year-old who collapsed after scoring a winning basket last week.
Fennville High was playing its first game just four days after star guard Wes Leonard died from a heart ailment. Unbeaten Fennville, one of the state’s highest-rated Class C teams, beat Lawrence High 65-54 in a district opener. The Blackhawks move to Wednesday’s second round with a 21-0 record.
Fennville teammates hugged and cried after the final buzzer sounded and the crowd of 3,500 erupted in a standing ovation.
“Wes would have wanted to win,” said Adam Siegel, a teammate of Leonard’s. “I wanted to win.”
Leonard’s absence overshadowed the game. In tribute to their fallen teammate, Fennville sent just four players onto the court before the opening tip. The fifth player took the court after a dramatic pause to wild cheering from the crowd.
Fennville’s last game was Thursday, when Leonard made the game-winning basket in overtime on his home court against Bridgman to cap an undefeated regular season at 20-0. Teams shook hands after the game and Leonard was lifted off the floor in celebration, a wide grin on his face.
Seconds later, he fell to the court, stunning a crowd estimated at more than 1,400. Leonard was rushed to a hospital where he was pronounced dead. An autopsy by the Ottawa County medical examiner showed Leonard died of cardiac arrest due to an enlarged heart.
Fennville’s decision to play Monday came after school officials talked to Leonard’s family. The game was supposed to be played at Lawrence but was moved to Hope College in Holland to handle a larger crowd.
While some fans and school officials had talked before the game about how it wouldn’t really matter who won, Fennville players didn’t seem to have that attitude. The Blackhawks rallied from behind, with some players flashing Leonard’s jersey number, “35” — holding up three fingers on one hand and five on the other — after certain baskets.
“I’m just proud of the way we handled things; I’m proud of the way Lawrence handled things,” Fennville coach Ryan Klingler said. “The effort by both teams tonight is how it should be. I think Wes would be proud of us all. … I think he was watching down on us. This is a game he’d have liked.”
Even before the game started, it had turned into a tribute to the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Leonard. Players from Lawrence and Fennville wore black T-shirts honoring him during pregame warm-ups. Leonard’s name and number were on the back; the phrase “Never Forgotten” was on the front. Teams also wore black wristbands with Leonard’s initials on them.
The first standing ovation came as Fennville players stoically walked onto the court for pregame warm-ups, joined by Leonard’s younger brother, Mitchell. The crowd again came to its feet and clapped as more members of the Leonard family, including his parents, entered DeVos Fieldhouse and settled into seats high above the Fennville bench.
A moment of silence was held for Leonard, who also was the quarterback on the school’s football team.
The late player’s uncle, Jim Leonard, said the family is overwhelmed at the support it’s received.
Fennville schools superintendent Dirk Weeldreyer told the crowd the community had gone from the “highest of highs to the lowest of lows” in the span of a few minutes last Thursday.
“Since that time our community has been on a journey through shock, grief and sorrow,” he said. “But this gathering tonight, we hope, is one more step in the healing process. Tonight, we seek to honor Wes’ memory by participating in a game he loved.”
Fennville is a town of about 1,400, but the school district covers a broader area in southwest Michigan near Lake Michigan. Most fans wore the Blackhawks team colors, black and orange, for the game in Holland.
“I don’t think there’s anybody left in town,” said Lisa Wells, 39, of Fennville. “I think everybody’s here.”
Lawrence Superintendent John Overley said some of Lawrence’s players were at Thursday’s game and were “distraught” and “numb” at Leonard’s death. Lawrence players said they were impressed with the sportsmanship of the crowd Monday and with Fennville’s resilience.
“They weren’t just playing for themselves,” said Austin Cammire, a Lawrence player. “It was great to be a part of.”
Players on both teams were visited by former NBA player Bo Kimble, whose teammate at Loyola Marymount, Hank Gathers, collapsed during a game 21 years ago and died. Kimble, who is involved with a foundation aimed at increasing awareness about heart ailments, said he hoped to give athletes advice to help them cope with the tragedy.
Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo also visited the teams before Monday’s game.
A visitation for Leonard on Sunday drew such a crowd that a line of people who wanted to pay their respects wrapped around a Fennville church. Leonard’s funeral is Tuesday morning in Holland.