Wednesday, Dec. 07, 2011

A High School Game of Grief

One minute in early March, Wes Leonard, a high school junior from Fennville, Mich., was being mobbed by his teammates after hitting a game-winning shot, preserving Fennville High School's perfect 20-0 regular-season record. Moments later, he collapsed to the floor, dead of a heart attack. The tragedy shook Fennville, a town of 1,450 people some 200 miles (320 km) west of Detroit. Fennville's first playoff game was scheduled to take place in Lawrence, another western-Michigan town about an hour south of Fennville. Lawrence High School, in an inspired act of sportsmanship, agreed to give up its home-court advantage and play the game at a neutral site closer to Fennville that could accommodate a larger crowd. This allowed more Fennville residents to travel to the game and support a team playing under difficult circumstances.

Wes' brother Mitchell, an eighth-grader, led the Fennville players onto the court. In a symbolic gesture, Fennville started the game with four players — one starter, Leonard, was irreplaceable. Both teams wore "Never Forgotten" warm-up shirts. The team that gave up home-court advantage, Lawrence, lost to Fennville 65-54, a small consolation for the grieving players. But the result didn't really matter. By honoring a young basketball player taken away too soon, two small communities rose to the occasion.