When Tall Men Cry

No moment in sports is as bittersweet as Senior Day. Last week the emotion flowed freely, from a moving oration at Kansas to a tear-jerking upset at Ohio State
March 14, 2005

Boy, was Big Dub ever a wreck. ¶ All day long he had fought back the tears. For Kansas forward Wayne Simien even the smallest things on Senior Day had triggered a wave of nostalgia: Walking to class past Allen Fieldhouse and gazing at the flags fluttering in the sun. Tiptoeing through the adoring student campers with their laptops in the arena hallways. Pulling on that white jersey one last time in the KU locker room. The most wrenching part was seeing his three Jayhawks classmates--Keith Langford, Aaron Miles and Michael Lee. Hadn't he always called them the brothers he never had?

Why, poor Dub nearly broke down crying at the midday shootaround.

Now it was 10:46 p.m. on March 2, and Simien stood alone at center court, microphone in hand. Kansas had polished off Kansas State an hour ago, yet nearly 16,000 fans remained in their seats, waving flowers and signs (THE CLASS OF 2005: ALL HEART) and shedding a few tears of their own. Simien glanced over at his parents, Margaret and Wayne Sr., and suddenly the memories flooded over him like a second baptism: the thrill of cheering here as a boy, a hotshot from nearby Leavenworth who dreamed of playing for the Hawks someday. The pain of myriad injuries and a devastating coaching change. The joy of being born again, of finding God and forging an All-America-worthy senior season.

Big Dub took a deep breath. "I'm going to go ahead and apologize right now," he began, a hush falling over the old barn. "Get comfortable, 'cause I've been waiting for this my whole life."

No tradition in sports is quite like Senior Day, and as we learned again last week, no sport does Senior Day like college basketball. Maybe it's the indoor setting, the emotional intimacy akin to sharing a couch by the living room fire. Maybe it's the small number of players, who seem more human than their armored football counterparts. Maybe it's the knowledge that a chapter of their lives, and ours, is over. Whatever the reason, in the past quadrennium we got to know these seniors, their strengths, their faults, their stories. And so, during one final pause before March's Big Bang, we crossed the nation last week as the college game honored its four-year survivors--the stars and walk-ons, the done-thats and could-have-beens--and young giants wept like infants as they said goodbye.

The Inland Islander

If the 14-hour journey from Martinique to Spokane couldn't dampen Aline Cesar's Caribbean optimism, then nothing would keep her from savoring Senior Night with her son, Gonzaga forward Ronny Turiaf. Each new mental snapshot brought tears of joy: seeing the huge spread in the paper that celebrated Ronny's career and acclaimed him as the only athlete in Spokane's history (which includes John Stockton, Mark Rypien and Ryne Sandberg) to be known to the public by his first name. Hearing the fans in the Kennel Club student section sing, "We love Roe-nee!" as she walked out in the pregame ceremony with him, his sister Elodie and his girlfriend, Tracey Thomas. And watching her son, always emotional anyway, break down in a puddle after hugging his coach, Mark Few, just before tip-off against Northern Colorado.

"It's wonderful to be here and see how special this is," she said in French after the Bulldogs' 87-60 win, her eyes still wet at the corners. "This is like a gift to share this moment with Ronny."

The last time Aline had visited her son on campus, Ronny was a homesick freshman floundering in the subarctic winter, to say nothing of the English language. "It was awful," Ronny says. "After class I had to ask the teachers, 'What eez that? What ... does ... that ... meeeen?' I felt like I was really stupid." Basketball wasn't much better. Despite Turiaf's prodigious athleticism, his inside game was raw, and Few spent weeks trying to rid him of the throat-slashing and scowl-flashing Turiaf had learned while watching the NBA on television abroad.

Now look at him. Fluent in four languages, Turiaf is on track to earn a sports- management degree in May with a B average. He's projected as a first-round NBA draft pick, not least because he has perfected a range of moves on the low block. What's more, the 6'10" Turiaf's decision to pass up the pros last year has made him an icon in Spokane. "He's the most visible person in this community," says his roommate, senior guard Brian Michaelson. Over the past four years Turiaf has been Gonzaga's Waldo, a cornrowed fixture at campus plays, concerts and sporting events. Last spring he asked the Bulldogs' baseball coach for permission to sit in the dugout during a game, just so he could learn the finer points of hardball chatter. "Everybody who comes across him feels like they're good friends with him," says Few. Maybe that's why, after Turiaf had piled up 22 points and eight rebounds in his last home game, a half-dozen Kennel Clubbers unveiled a multipaneled sign: TODAY, WE CONSIDER OURSELVES THE LUCKIEST FANS ON THE FACE OF THE EARTH.

Someday Turiaf's baseball-team buddies will tell him about a famous speech by an old Yankee. But for now the Pride of the Bulldogs could barely find the words. "I'm going to miss them as much as they miss me," he said, his lip quivering below his special Senior Night samurai Afro. "Probably even more."

The Bench Warmer

John Meeker was under no illusions when he came to play at Cincinnati. Two years ago the 6'1" walk-on guard from Troy, Ohio, gave himself a tongue-in-cheek nickname: the Human Victory Cigar. You always knew the Bearcats had sealed a win when the crowd began chanting, "Put in Mee-ker!" and coach Bob Huggins summoned the fan favorite from the end of the bench. "Coming in my freshman year, I knew I wasn't going to be a starter," says Meeker, who'd met Huggins while the coach was recruiting two of his high school teammates. "But I was going to do whatever it took to become a better player and help the team out in any way. My dad told me if I played one year and quit, I'd always look back and regret it."

The scene for Senior Night at a sold-out Fifth Third Arena made the four years of weightlifting, film study and scout-team work worth the effort. In a pregame ceremony Meeker escorted his parents, Cindy and George, down a red carpet toward the waiting Huggins, who presented John with a framed action photograph, which the player raised to the roaring fans. In the student section two female students wore matching T-shirts that read MEEKER IS A HOTTIE, while other signs proclaimed MEEKER IS MY HERO and RETIRE #3. Not bad for a guy who came in having played 1.6 minutes a game.

Then Huggins gave Meeker an even better present: the first (and only) start of his career.

It hardly mattered that Meeker's five-minute stint was unremarkable save for the unholy racket that kicked up whenever he touched the ball. He started. When Meeker returned in the last two minutes of Cincy's 77--56 win over Tulane, his late scoring flurry (a jumper and two free throws) drew the biggest cheers of Senior Night. Meeker's final line: six minutes, one assist, four points, three rebounds (nearly halfway to a double double!) and a story he can share with his grandkids. "When Coach told me I was going to start, I figured, Hey, it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I should take advantage of it," Meeker said afterward. "All the hard work you put in, to have one last chance to go out there and enjoy yourself was great."

There's more to the college game than styling for SportsCenter and impressing the scouts and making it to the League. Even the great ones know that. In the stands Bearcats alum Oscar Robertson looked down at the Human Victory Cigar and smiled. "He's not going to play pro basketball, but that's not really what college basketball should be about," said the Big O. "There's another experience in this also, and he just proves it."

The Apostle

It's a rite of spring at allen Fieldhouse. On Senior Night the Kansas cheerleaders climb into the stands, collect hundreds of flowers (roses, sunflowers, red and blue carnations) and toss them at the seniors' feet as they walk, one by one, into the waiting embrace of their parents. By the time Big Dub reached the Simiens last week, his tear ducts--the fountains of Wayne, if you will--had turned into geysers. "He grabbed us just sobbing," Margaret Simien marveled afterward. "My baby has never cried like that before. It made me feel so good to see him just let it all out."

We all change in college, some of us more than others. "From top to bottom," Simien says, "I've grown in every area of my life." Basketball. School. Religion. His awakening was kindled by two painfully public ordeals. In March 2003 Dub was in a New York City hospital recovering from surgery for a dislocated right shoulder--the second of three significant injuries during his college career--as he watched the Jayhawks beat Arizona to make the Final Four. Then a few weeks later he found himself careering around Lawrence in Langford's Ford Explorer as the members of the class of 2005 tried to digest what they'd just been told: Their coach, Roy Williams, had decided to leave for North Carolina.

Yet there was more to Simien's unhappiness. As with most elite players, his status afforded him the run of the campus, from girls to free meals to VIP rooms in Lawrence nightspots on Saturday nights. "I had all that, but deep inside I wasn't really happy," he says. "One day someone asked me what I was truly living for, and it struck a chord in my heart and my mind. I was like, Wow, outside of basketball and personal gain, my life is really insignificant. I wanted to live for something bigger than myself."

In July 2003 Simien was baptized at a conference for Christian athletes in Texas, and soon he was giving impromptu campus sermons and attending Lawrence's Morning Star Church. He took out his earring and started wearing a suit and tie regularly. He replaced the BIG DUB #23 decal on his black GMC pickup with one that reads TRUCKIN' FOR JESUS. He even traded in his hip-hop CDs for gospel music. "Mom," he said over the phone one night, "I'm happy to tell you I threw away all that 'rap crap' you always talked about."

Big Dub's upbeat attitude kept him from despairing when he missed four games after having midseason ligament surgery on his left thumb. "He's been able to spin every negative that's been thrown at him into a positive," says Kansas coach Bill Self. "He was convinced: My legs will be stronger. I'll have more energy for the stretch run." Simien was right: He entered March in top form, setting career highs with 32 points on Feb. 27 in a thrilling win over Oklahoma State and 20 rebounds in the Jayhawks' 72-65 Senior Night triumph over K-State.

Yet when the final horn sounded, his evening was only beginning. Simien announced last year that he was postponing potential NBA riches and returning for one final season, and his explanation was simple: "I want to give a Senior Day speech." Now, as the last of the four seniors to speak, he was going to get his money's worth. "The last few days I've been dreading this because I just don't want it to be over," he said after taking the microphone. "You fans have a special place in my heart. Because before I was down here, I was up there. I started out being a fan. One of the very first games I came to, I was sitting up there by the Pizza Hut sign behind the band."

Dub was rolling now, just like the full-time minister he hopes to become someday. Displaying a natural rhythm and rhetorical ease, he thanked, among others, his fellow seniors ("When people think of one of us, they'll think of all of us"), his father ("a pillar, a tower"), his mother ("I hope one day I find a wife with as much strength and encouragement as you"), Self ("You have to play with the hand you're dealt, and I can't think of a better hand") and finally the Lord ("The work he's done with my heart and my body, it's a miracle").

The day before, Simien had said he wanted to avoid sparking a revival, but the red-state audience was feeling him, demanding a stirring finale. "No matter how many victories I've had on this court--all the championship banners, all the accolades past, present and future--the one thing I'll glory in is my relationship with the living God," he said, his voice met with a chorus of applause. "When I was 11 years old, I dreamed about playing on this court. Well, my dream now is to see each and every one of you, all 16,000, everyone listening on the radio and seeing this on TV, to have the same love and relationship with Jesus Christ as I do. I love all of you!"

By the time he was done, the fieldhouse clock read 11:14. He had spoken for 28 minutes. Almost nobody had left.

The Grieving Son

All game long, as her beloved son's Buckeyes were achieving the unthinkable, Mom's spirit surged in their hearts. Before a car accident took her life in November, Chris Fuss-Cheatham had dreamed of walking arm-in-arm with her son, Brandon, and husband, Jeff, on Ohio State's Senior Day. Brandon's last home game loomed as a crowning moment for the Team Mom, a woman who made egg sandwiches for players at football tailgates, who drove three hours from suburban Pittsburgh to do her son's laundry, who joined her two guys on hoops odysseys around the country from the time Brandon was five. "My mom," he says, "was everything to us."

No one could deny that Chris's memory was alive when the Buckeyes met unbeaten Illinois, the nation's top-ranked team, in Columbus on Sunday. It was alive when her sister, Patti Savage, held Brandon's hand in a heartbreaking pregame ceremony. It was alive when Brandon glanced over at section 124 in crunch time and saw his dad raising a custom-made medallion, Mom's picture engraved on the shiny metal. And it was alive when the unranked Buckeyes toppled the mighty Illini, sending Brandon and his teammates into a rapturous midcourt dog pile, their CFC memorial patches heaving above their pounding, pride-filled hearts.

Ohio State junior Matt Sylvester's three-pointer may have clinched the 65-64 upset, but a nearly flawless Fuss-Cheatham was instrumental in the win, holding Illinois star Dee Brown to two second-half points and not committing a single turnover. When his father embraced him in the locker room, the two men dissolved into tears. "We did it, Dad!" said Brandon, four months of volcanic emotions erupting at once. "We did it."

His mom had an expression she used with her family whenever she said goodnight or signed a birthday card: "Love you 10 packs." Every day Brandon imagined her saying those words as he tried to cope with the setbacks of his senior season. Like having Ohio State ban itself from postseason play in the wake of violations under former coach Jim O'Brien--infractions that had nothing to do with the Buckeyes' seniors. Or losing his starting point guard job in January as new coach Thad Matta opted to groom youngsters for the future.

"Basketball has been my therapy this year," Fuss-Cheatham says. "That's where I feel most comfortable. After the season's over, it's going to be tougher. I'll have a lot of free time, a lot of things to think about."

He plans to stay in Columbus through December, complete his degree in sport and leisure studies and begin a career in coaching. Someday soon he'll discuss for the first time with his father what happened in November. "He's not quite ready yet," says Jeff Cheatham, who has recovered from the serious injuries he suffered in the crash. "When he is, we'll talk about it."

But on one glorious day last week Fuss-Cheatham's family enjoyed the most memorable Senior Day Ohio State has ever seen. Hadn't Brandon called the Illinois game the Buckeyes' national championship, a chance to prove that they were good enough to make the NCAA tournament if they'd only been given the chance? "It's amazing," Fuss-Cheatham said afterward. "With all the things we've been through this year, you couldn't ask for a better opportunity to end your career. Senior Day, the last game on your home court, the undefeated Number 1 team? You can't script it any better."

As he spoke, Fuss-Cheatham was holding his talisman, the same medallion his father had flashed from the stands in the game's searing final minutes. Brandon had had three of them engraved for his family over Christmas. RIP MOM, they read above Chris Fuss-Cheatham's smiling face. LOVE YOU 10 PACKS.

She had made it to Senior Day after all. ■

COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by David E. Klutho HEARTFELT Dad Jeff and Aunt Patti proudly shared in Fuss-Cheatham's celebration. COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by David E. Klutho SERMON ON THE COURTIn a 28-minute oration he had long anticipated, Simien was tearful, worshipful and grateful to the Allen throng. TWO COLOR PHOTOSRICH FRISHMAN (LEFT, 2) SWEET AND LOWDOWN Turiaf got his final home introduction, then lowered the boom on his foes. TWO COLOR PHOTOSBRETT HANSBAUER/BRSP (2) BLINK AND YOU MISSED IT A big success in his first start, Meeker was soon back in his accustomed spot on the Bearcats' bench. TWO COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by David E. Klutho PREACH AND REACH Simien talked the talk and walked the walk, grabbing 20 boards. TWO COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by David E. Klutho GOODBYE, COLUMBUS After bottling up Brown (in headband), Fuss-Cheatham shed postupset tears of joy and remembrance.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)