Commentary

Wes Leonard taught us all

Updated: March 8, 2011, 2:42 PM ET
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

HOLLAND, Mich. -- Fennville's Jordan VanderBok walked off the court, made his way to the water cooler, dropped the first paper cup he tried to grab, then the second, before slowly crumbling into the arms of a friend who had come down from the stands to comfort him.

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Courtesy the VanderBok FamilyFennville's Jordan VanderBok, No. 15, plays defense along with Wes Leonard, No. 35, in a game earlier this season against NorthPointe Christian.

It was less than five minutes before tipoff, and he and teammate DeMarcus McGee were still crying.

Still hurting.

Still trying to find the strength to play in a basketball game the world hoped they would win. And they did, 65-54 against Lawrence High. But to characterize the victory as happy would be wrong. It was more like another loop on the emotional roller coaster the team and the entire town have been on the past five days. On Monday night, the Fennville Blackhawks won a Class C divisional playoff game. On Tuesday afternoon, they will bury their friend and teammate. There's not much to be happy about.

By now we have all heard the story. After hitting the shot in overtime against Bridgman High that preserved Fennville's 20-0 regular season, Wes Leonard collapsed on the court and died a short time later. His father Gary was by his side, begging, pleading for his son to breathe, and many of the 1,400 spectators who came to the gym to support the team watched in horror. The medical examiner tells us how Leonard died -- cardiac arrest brought on by a condition called dilated cardiomyopathy. But his report offers very little in the way of telling us why Leonard died.

He was only 16.

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AP Photo/The Holland Sentinel/Dennis R.J. GeppertWes Leonard, top, was hoisted by his Fennville High teammates after making the winning basket, then collapsed shortly thereafter and died.

He was the biggest and strongest player on the team.

He was the most popular kid in school.

It just doesn't seem fair that VanderBok and McGee and the rest of the young men of the Blackhawks have to experience such pain and heartache at such a young age. It doesn't seem fair that Fennville would have to bury another of its young athletes so quickly. In January 2010, 14-year-old Nathaniel Hernandez died shortly after contributing to one of his wrestling team's wins. Hernandez made the varsity wrestling squad as a freshman, and that evening he had won a match in five minutes. He had a history of seizures and died from complications of an attack later that night.

The entire town grieved then.

The entire town grieves now.

It just doesn't seem fair. But every so often life has a cruel way of reminding us that it is not fair. And that death doesn't care how young or strong or loved you are. Every so often life shakes us by the shoulders as if to say, "There is only now. There is only this."

Leonard didn't live very long, but his friend says he lived long enough to understand that frailty.

"He lived his life to the fullest, he really did," VanderBok said. "He was my best friend and I looked up to him even though I was two years older than him. He just had this way about him that made you feel welcomed.

"A couple of days before he died, we were talking about the kids in school we liked and the ones we had problems with. Wes just turns to me and says, 'I love you, man. You should know that.' I just smiled and said, 'Thanks, man.' … That was Wes."

Fennville sophomore Dezaree Gonzales and her father, Tony, know the Leonard family because Wes' mother, Jocelyn, started a choir for the Fennville High students when the Leonards moved to town about six years ago. Dezaree, once a shy and quiet girl, joined the choir and now occasionally sings the national anthem before games. The Gonzaleses were so emotional about the star athlete's death they stayed up all Saturday night making decals with "35" and "7" on them to represent the numbers on Leonard's basketball and football jerseys. They sold them Sunday as a fundraiser for the Leonards.

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Bill Pugliano/Getty ImagesFennville High senior Ivan Gonzalez wears a shirt commemorating Wes Leonard while waiting to get into the tournament game against Lawrence High on Monday.

"His mom really cares about people, and he really cared about people," said the younger Gonzales, who was a classmate of Hernandez and was at Thursday's game. "It doesn't make sense. … He was just such a good guy."

It's a sentiment echoed in the many messages from students to Wes written on a poster taped to a window near the school's entrance. One note in particular stood out, because it faced out so visitors could see it as they approached the building. It read: "Wes, you were the only jock that would talk to me. I miss you and you will always be in our hearts."

The team and many of the people who attended Monday's game wore T-shirts that said, "Never Forgotten." When the Leonards -- who understandably have stayed out of the spotlight -- entered the arena, everyone stood and cheered as they made their way to their seats. When Lawrence came out of the tunnel for warm-ups, fans in the Fennville crowd gave them a standing ovation and thanked them for allowing the game to be moved from their high school gym to the larger facility at nearby Hope College. Whether the venue switch affected the outcome didn't matter. What did matter was the courtesy and dignity everyone showed Monday night. There was a moment of silence, and at the start of the game only four Fennville players took the court in honor of Wes. Lawrence Tigers senior Austin Cammire said he didn't feel as if the crowd was rooting for his team to lose but rather was thankful they were there to help everyone move on.

"They weren't just playing for themselves," said Cammire, who also noted the crowd cheering when the Tigers made a nice play. "It was great to be a part of."

But that's Fennville.

And to understand the kind of person Wes was, you have to understand the people of the town he lived in.

In many ways, Fennville is everything you would expect out of a town with that name. On Main Street, there's a small children's museum, a hardware store and the Main Street Market. A little coffee shop sells day-old homemade bread at a $2 discount and closes at noon on Saturdays. And good luck finding a traffic light.

But while the community is small and close-knit, that should not be mistaken for small-minded or closed off. Outsiders are never treated as such. There is a large Latino population in the area, and with tourist spots Saugatuck and Douglas nearby, Fennville has an unexpected sprinkle of urban sensibility about it. Like a vineyard. And antique shops.

"We have a little bit of everything here," said Kyle Coffindaffer, who works at the hardware store and whose wife, Tara, is the school's guidance counselor. "No one is turned away. We just welcome everybody."

Coffindaffer saw the last game Wes played and said the tragedy brought the town together because nearly everyone was in the gym to see it.

"He was about as good as a basketball player could be that night," the 34-year-old Fennville native said. "We were down big that game, but he wouldn't quit and he wouldn't let the team quit. He just kept fighting.

"That's how the town is, really. We have a strong work ethic here."

That work ethic is why Wes was always in the gym working out. VanderBok said Wes never smoked or drank alcohol or even soda. Strictly water and Gatorade. The last meal he had was a spinach wrap with chicken.

"Wes hated junk food," VanderBok said. "Wouldn't eat it for nothing."

And he didn't like to lose.

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Bill Pugliano/Getty ImagesGary and Jocelyn Leonard, parents of Wes Leonard, shed tears during a tribute to their son before Fennville High's basketball game against Lawrence High on Monday night.

Once the decision was made to play Monday's game, many of the players initially said the outcome of the game didn't matter. But as they got closer to tipoff, that all changed. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo drove the 90 minutes from East Lansing to talk to the team during its pregame meal -- one the team invited Lawrence to attend. When Izzo learned that VanderBok was considering attending Michigan State in the fall, Izzo gave him his cell number so the 18-year-old could visit practice. Former NBA player Bo Kimble, whose best friend Hank Gathers died on the court 21 years ago, drove from Philadelphia to offer the team words of encouragement, as well.

"I told them to never, ever forget Wes," said Kimble, who founded the nonprofit Forty-Four for Life Foundation that seeks to educate the public about heart disease. "I made a promise to the Leonard family that I would talk about Wes when I go to speak, just as I do Hank. It's important that we make tests mandatory so we can make informed decisions."

But ultimately the decision will still be up to the athlete. The Leonards didn't know about Wes' heart condition, but Kimble said Gathers did. Hernandez knew about his seizures. And 17-year-old Matthew Hammerdorfer, the Colorado student who died Saturday on a rugby field from cardiac arrest, knew the risks he was taking. Hammerdorfer had multiple surgeries in an attempt to correct his heart condition but did not want the risk of something tragic happening stop him from doing what he loved. Kimble admitted he isn't sure whether he would have given up basketball if he knew there was a risk he could die due to playing.

"It's a hard decision, because I really loved the game," he said. "I don't think any of us would know what we would do in that situation."

It is a difficult decision.

That's why in some ways there is a beauty in how Wes passed away. There he was, a star athlete, surrounded by the teammates he loved, being cheered by the entire town and hitting the game-winning shot to save a perfect season. That is how he spent his last few moments on Earth: doing what he loved and celebrating a great achievement. Not many people of any age get to do that. If there's any sense of peace that can be taken from all of this, it's in that thought.

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Bill Pugliano/Getty ImagesFennville players greet Lawrence players at the end of their game. Fennville won 65-54.

"When they took the lead 46-45 I got scared," VanderBok said of Monday's game. "I was talking to Wes and saying: 'You can't let us lose. We can't lose. This would only hurt us so much more.'

"You could tell, at points in the game, we were just dead and we had mental lapses. Not to take anything away from Lawrence; they're a good team, but you could see the moments in which we were thinking about him, but when we got going we got going. And it all came together."

It seemed in that moment, Wes must have heard VanderBok's prayers because after Lawrence took that one-point lead, Fennville closed the game out on a 20-8 run -- 11 of them from Xavier Grigg, the player inserted into the starting lineup for Leonard. After Grigg hit his last free throw with 27 seconds left, Fennville coach Ryan Klinger subbed Grigg and the other heroes of the game out so the 3,472 in attendance could applaud their efforts. As soon as Grigg left the court, he went to Klinger and just wept in his arms. After the final buzzer, it was Klinger who needed a shoulder to cry on.

"It was the kind of game Wes would have loved to have played in," Grigg said.

Adam Siegel, who led the team with 22 points and 12 rebounds, said, "Wes would have wanted to win. … I wanted to win."

And so they did.

Now they must go say goodbye.

After the funeral at Christ Memorial Church in Holland, they'll head back home to Fennville to practice and prepare for Wednesday's game. That's the emotional roller coaster they've been on for the past five days. That's the emotional roller coaster they, along with the rest of town, will have to ride a little bit longer.

It doesn't seem fair.

It just doesn't seem fair.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

LZ Granderson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine

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