A night, a promise that still resonates for Ingles family

Updated: March 17, 2005, 12:32 AM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

They walked the streets of Nashville in the wee hours of a March morning, not saying much. Father and son were soaking in a moment so rich with emotion that words would cheapen it.

"Sometimes," said Kent Ingles, "the best times are when there's no conversing."

Zach Ingles
APZach Ingles delivered for the Colonels and on a promise made to his mother nine years ago.

Hours before, Kent's only son, Zach, had shot the Eastern Kentucky Colonels into the NCAA Tournament. His 3-pointer with 22 seconds left, from roughly 26 feet -- "every story I've read, it gets 3-4 feet longer," Zach said -- clinched the Ohio Valley Conference tournament and delivered Eastern its first NCAA bid in 26 years.

But when the Colonels' team bus left that night for Richmond, Ky., Zach Ingles stayed behind. He needed to share this precious time with his family.

He sat in a hotel room with his oldest sister, Jessica, and they talked a lot about the woman who wasn't there to see the shot go down. When Jessica, her husband and baby girl went to bed, Zach met his father and his dad's best friend, Paul Engel, in the hotel lobby. Sleep was impossible, so they went out for a walk.

Finally, who knows how much later, they came back to the hotel and went to Kent's room.

"Zach laid down on the floor and went to sleep," he said. "The hero."

An Eastern Kentucky hero, yes. A March hero, the kind that makes this month so compelling. But a family hero, most of all.

The shot kept a promise Zach Ingles had made to his mother nine years ago. The day before she died.

***

On a January morning in Gowen, Mich., 12-year-old Zach Ingles stumbled downstairs for school wearing an NCAA Tournament T-shirt. Cynthia Ingles questioned his attire.

"Mom, I'm going to play in this Tournament someday," Zach explained.

That night, as a sixth-grader playing in an eighth-grade league, Zach had the game of his life. He scored somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 points, including 17 in a row at one point.

Kent Ingles, the coach at Greenville High School, normally watched games from courtside. For some reason, he chose to sit in the stands next to his wife that night -- so surprising her that she did a double-take at his presence. After the game, Cynthia told Kent what her son had said about playing in the NCAAs one day.

Perhaps the revelatory glimpse of her son's potential was a gift. Because it would be the last basketball game Cynthia Ingles ever saw.

The next night, Zach was running around the gym at Greenville High, waiting for his dad's game to start. It never did.

Rather suddenly, Kent Ingles left the gym. Word trickled out that the game was canceled. When Zach asked why, somebody (nobody knows who, to this day) told him the news:

His mom had died in a car accident. His sister Libby was critically injured and not expected to live.

***

Jessica Ingles was 17 and a star athlete, owner of 21 school records at Greenville High. She found Zach lying on the floor in the gym lobby, crying. People were just standing there, staring, so she swept up her brother in her arms and carried him away.

In a way, she's never stopped carrying him.

"She's always been like my angel," Zach said.

"Jessica woke up one morning at 17," Kent Ingles said, "and went to bed at 30."

Her first adult task was trying to console the inconsolable. Zach sat on her lap and sobbed, repeatedly saying, "I didn't get to say goodbye."

The subsequent weeks were a swirling trip through grief and chaos. After taking a couple of games off, Kent Ingles returned to coaching -- then spent every night at the hospital, where Libby was in a coma. Jessica had her own practices and games, but also helped shepherd Zach through the days -- fixing him dinner, overseeing his studying, lending an ear when possible.

But mostly, Zach took his refuge in the gym. Using his dad's keys, he'd go there for hours on end -- sometimes shooting jumpers by the hundreds, sometimes just sitting in the solitude and thinking.

"Jessica was torn everywhere," Zach said. "I was in the gym. It got me through."

A month to the day after Cynthia Ingles died, the kids lost their grandfather, Kent's dad. But then, they finally got some good news.

Libby had awakened from her coma.

She began recognizing family members. Friends began coming to visit. Then, one day when her hospital room was crowded with friends, she spoke.

Her first two words: "Where's Mom?"

"You never saw a room clear so quick," Kent Ingles said. "It was left to Jessica and I to tell her."

Tears flowed from Libby, a straight-A student, class president and star athlete in her own right. But she knew the answer. She'd already been wondering where her mother was, but hadn't been able to verbalize it until that moment.

From that point, Kent decided that his grieving family needed a bonding agent. They had always taken a spring break trip; they would do so this year, too. Despite everything that had happened.

They coaxed Libby through her physical rehabilitation to the point that she could leave the hospital. That day, they left for Myrtle Beach, S.C. Jessica describes one misadventure after another on the trip, including Kent backing the rented Astro van into a ditch.

"I said, 'I bet Mom's getting a kick out of this,' " Jessica recalled. "We were half crying, half laughing. It was the first thing we really did without my mom."

Said Kent: "We spent a lot of time walking on the beach and talking, and, really, putting together a game plan."

Zach remembers the first family dinner after the accident -- literally months afterward, following the weeks of hospital vigils. They sat at the dinner table, one chair empty. Kent Ingles told his family, "We're going to do this. We're going to be OK."

They would be OK. And sports would help.

***

"Sports was very important to us before," Jessica Ingles said. "I'd almost say it was more important to us afterwards. It didn't take the place of relatives we had lost, but it gave us an outlet. Especially for Zach and my dad.

"I don't know if [Zach] practiced more, because he always had practiced a ton. But I think the dream became more important, because he had told my mom, 'I'm going to do this.' "

A classic gym rat/coach's son, Zach became a scoring machine. Playing for his father, he scored 2,230 points in his high-school career. South Florida sent him his first recruiting letter in eighth grade, and the idea of playing for Seth Greenberg in Tampa never left Zach's mind.

That's where he planned to go, but Greenberg stashed him at Pasco-Hernando Junior College in Deland, Fla., for further seasoning. After his freshman year there, Greenberg was gone to Virginia Tech and Ingles was left twisting.

Spectacular shooting helped him average 25.5 points per game as a juco sophomore, but recruiters remained lukewarm. Ingles was considering going to LaSalle before that program blew up in scandal. Finally, his junior-college coach told Eastern Kentucky's Travis Ford at a juco tournament, "I've got a kid who can just score."

"I like scorers," said Ford, who was a prolific gunner in his high school days.

Ford landed Ingles and plugged him into the starting lineup right away -- a small peg in a large hole. He'd been a point guard in high school, then a shooting guard in juco -- now he's a 6-foot-2 small forward.

"He may be the only 6-2 white kid playing the three spot in D-I ball in America," Kent Ingles said. "And he doesn't have great hops, either."

Whatever Ingles has, it's enabled him to average 11.9 points per game as a Division-I rookie. He's made a team-leading 64 3-pointers -- including the biggest 3 in Eastern Kentucky history.

***

The OVC title was slipping away in the Gaylord Entertainment Center. The Colonels had led Austin Peay all game -- led by as many as 13 in the second half -- but the game was unraveling down the stretch.

The Governors kept coming, finally hacking the lead down to a single point with 51 seconds left. Eastern looked like the magnitude of the moment would force them to buckle.

Miracles do happen. One's already happened, many times over. Lib wasn't supposed to live.
Kent Ingles

With the shot clock dwindling, Ingles wound up with the ball in his hands on the right wing. He was a long way out -- "a 30-footer," Ford says today, adding a few feet more -- but he squared and fired.

"It's easy to say, but I knew it was going in," Ford said. "He likes taking the big shot, and he's made a bunch of 'em."

Seated about a dozen feet from where his son launched the shot, Kent Ingles was slightly less confident. Zach already had made a pair of 3s, but had had a couple others lip out. Nevertheless, he had no qualms with his son taking it.

"I've only seen him make that shot a few thousand times," Kent said. "But I was nervous. As a coach I typically don't get very nervous, but that was a nine-year-old dream."

When the ball ripped the net, the dream was realized. A promise had been kept. And when it was over, Zach Ingles bounded into his dad's arms.

"The reaction was just crazy," Ingles said, rubbing his crewcut and shaking his head. "Seeing my dad cry -- he taught me to play and everything. It was just amazing."

Said Jessica: "It just totally fit. It was just kind of worth it. Just to see him, how excited he was.

"It was such a bittersweet moment. You were so happy you're watching it, but you're missing your mom so much and wishing she could be there to watch it."

Cynthia Ingles would love what she sees. In one way, this spring is the final piece of a triumphant Ingles family comeback.

Jessica went college, saw her athletic career ended by a knee injury, but then went into coaching. Today she's the softball and basketball coach at Big Rapids High School. Her husband, Tim Haist, is the school principal and athletic director. Her dad is the basketball coach. Her daughter, Rylie Cynthia, carries her mother's name.

Libby is the true miracle. At first, they feared she would not live. Then, they feared life in a vegetative state. Then they were told she wouldn't walk. Then they were prepared for a life of limited mental capacity and menial jobs. Now, Libby Ingles is on course to graduate from Western Michigan this spring.

"She's had a hard, long road," Jessica said. "But she's overcome and outdone everything they said she was going to do. She's tougher than any of us."

And now there is the baby, Zach, hitting the kind of shot that makes March magical. The family was in the stands in Nashville, and it will be in the stands again Thursday when Eastern plays goliath Kentucky in the very first game of the 2005 NCAA Tournament (12:20 p.m ET).

One Las Vegas line installed the Colonels at 1 billion to 1 to win the national championship. A friend of Kent's asked him if he had a spare dollar to invest.

"Miracles do happen," Kent said. "One's already happened, many times over. Lib wasn't supposed to live."

***

The note was dashed off quickly, in pen on yellow paper, a mundane message from a mom to her son. Not the kind of thing you'd normally find framed in a college student's apartment, but you'll find it on Zach Ingles' desk.

He'd rediscovered the note a couple of months after his mother died, and has kept it ever since. She'd left it for him one day when he got home from school, telling him that she wouldn't be there but had left him a snack in the fridge.

The note said one more thing: She'd be at his game that night, watching.

Jessica Ingles thought of the note that night in Nashville and was sure.

"She was watching."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.