March 8, 2011 in Sports

Michigan high school honors fallen player

Tim Martin Associated Press
 

HOLLAND, Mich. – Days after a southwest Michigan high school basketball player collapsed and died, his team was back on the court Monday, honoring the star player who helped lead Fennville High to an undefeated regular season by playing in a state tournament game.

Fennville High was playing its first game just four days after star guard Wes Leonard, a 16-year-old junior, hit a game-winning shot then collapsed and died from a heart ailment. Unbeaten Fennville, one of the state’s highest-rated Class C teams, was playing Lawrence High in a district opener Monday.

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 warmups. 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 warmups, 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.

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’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.

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.

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.

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