They read off the names of the dead. There were prayers and tears and scribbled notes for “10 special angels.” The governor called them all
“champions.” Heads shook in disbelief. Trembling lips were bitten.

It was a memorial service Wednesday for the 10 members of the Oklahoma State basketball program who died last weekend when their small plane crashed in a snowy Colorado field.

All involved were too young. The victims, the families, the crying students who packed the Stillwater gym Wednesday.

They wept. They mourned. But beneath the surface, itching like a bug in a shoe, was one haunting question: Did it have to happen?

The OSU team used three planes to make that trip last Saturday. Two jets. One prop. The two jets were bigger and faster. The prop was smaller and slower.

No one can say — or should say — that the prop was less safe. Only that it was different.

It is in this difference that the questions arise.

“Danny hated flying on those small planes,” says Phyllis Lawson, mother of Daniel Lawson Jr., the 21-year-old from Detroit who was one of two players switched to the ill-fated prop just before takeoff.

“That wasn’t the first time. He called them barn-hoppers. Every time he had to go on one of those he would call home and we would pray together.

“And when the game was finished and he was getting ready to leave, he would call me again and we’d pray again.”

This time, he didn’t call before he boarded.

He never got the chance to call later.

Everyone should stick together

Now, no one doubts the grief and sorrow of the OSU coaches and athletic department. Sympathy should be extended. They never knew this would happen.

But the question must be asked: If you are running a team, an all-for-one entity, how do you disturb that balance with seat assignments? How do you tell players, “You are all part of a unit that stays together no matter what,” then tell two of them, “You guys ride in the back”?

It is a small stick in this sea of grief. But it pokes just the same. Particularly to the families of the victims who died when something went wrong with that King Air 200, just 17 minutes after takeoff. And particularly to the parents of the players.

After all, college coaches come to their homes, sit in their living rooms, eat their pies, rub their dogs’ heads, and promise Mom and Pop they will watch over their son “as if he were my own.”

Well. Those cannot just be words. It seems fair to ask a university to use the largest, safest planes available. It seems more than fair to ask a school to keep the team together.

Most schools do this. Most schools have it easier than the Big 12 conference. East Coast universities are usually close enough to major airports to fly commercial, or at least land decent-sized charter jets. Smaller schools get by with buses.

Schools such as OSU and Texas Tech are burdened by location. Small-town airports can’t always accommodate big planes. Commercial flights are limited.

Even so, only a few Big 12 basketball programs use prop planes to travel. The rest manage to find chartered jets with at least 30 seats, enough to keep the team and its critical personnel together.

It should be a priority for all of them.

Especially now.

Safety more important than game

“I always assumed the planes must be good,” Phyllis Lawson says, “because coaches tell mothers all the time, ‘Your kids are in good hands.’

“I never asked where the planes came from.”

Here, reportedly, is where they came from: friends of the program. Rich people who wanted to help. In a best-case scenario, that’s a generous act that can be accounted for with the right paperwork.

In a worst-case scenario, it’s giving enormous leverage to boosters.

Now, I don’t know the case at OSU. But any such arrangement should raise an eyebrow — especially in a sport where the NCAA suspends a player if the wrong guy buys him a hamburger.

The larger point is this: Safety must be priority No. 1. The reason schools like OSU have to make charter plane trips is that they have midweek games all over the place. That’s how college hoops became the big-money monster that it is. Games used to be played on or near weekends.

Now, teams start games at 9 p.m. to accommodate TV, then are forced to hightail it back to campus for academics. Something’s got to give. Last weekend, something did. An airplane.

As a result, at least one university announced it was switching from charter planes to commercial for the rest of the basketball season. With all the money in college sports, “switch” should be used in the past tense.

Meanwhile, we mourn two players, two pilots, two media members and four members of the OSU basketball staff.

At the memorial, mourners lay flowers under the OSU school statue, which is a rider on horseback, a symbol of a slower time, when you didn’t think about dying while coming home from a basketball game.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.

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