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 Monday. The Blackhawks move to the second round with a 21-0 record.
Fennville's decision to play 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 -- a sellout of roughly 3,500.
The game turned into a tribute to the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Leonard even before it started.
Players from Lawrence and Fennville wore black T-shirts honoring Leonard during pregame warm-ups. Leonard's name and number 35 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, before tipoff.
Fennville schools superintendent Dirk Weeldreyer told the crowd that 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. ... We're glad that we can be here as one extended family to experience it together, and we know that Wes is here with us, too."
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."
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.
Lawrence Superintendent John Overley said he hoped Monday's game between conference rivals would be "a fitting tribute" to Leonard. Some of Lawrence's players were at Thursday's game and were "distraught" and "numb" at Leonard's death, Overley said.
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 in Holland.