FENNVILLE, Mich. (WOOD) - In the Fennville boys basketball team's final game of the regular season, the Blackhawks were gunning for a perfect 20-0 record.
Fennville battled back from a double-digit deficit, and forced overtime with 20 seconds left.
Leonard, 16, collapsed after hitting the game-winning shot March 3. Celebration turned to shock and devastation -- that a teenager; an athletic kid could just die, hours after the game.
Fennville's population is 1,400. Christ Memorial Church estimates 1,700 people attended Leonard's funeral. National media flocked to Fennville to cover the story, including Sports Illustrated and Sporting News. ESPN staffed Fennville's entire tournament run with a documentary crew, as well.
Leonard's winning shot has been viewed on YouTube nearly seven million times.
"This is what Wes wanted," said Leonard's mother, Jocelyn Leonard. "(This is) what he dreamed of -- (but) not like this."
Forever an athlete
Wes certainly won't be forgotten in Fennville.
His name had been mentioned on 24 Hour News 8 Sports a handful of times over the years. In October 2010, Leonard and his teammates earned a playoff-clinching win over Bloomingdale in football. Wes, also the Blackhawks' quarterback, threw seven touchdown passes in that game.
In February, back on the court, he put up 30 points against NorthPointe Christian. It was clear he was the best player in whatever sport he played.
Leonard was a great athlete from a small school. And still, his sudden death -- of cardiac arrest from an enlarged heart -- managed to capture the attention of the nation.
Taking the court -- again
Just several days after Leonard's death at Holland Hospital, his teammates walked arm in arm into an at-capacity DeVos Fieldhouse, to play a district opener against Lawrence. The Blackhawks were led by Leonard's 13-year-old brother, Mitchell.
No one knew what to expect when Fennville took the court, except that tears would be shed -- and Leonard was on everyone's minds.
"I threw up the number 35 because that's my main man," said Xavier Grigg, Leonard's teammate and backup. "I miss him -- wish we was still here with us today."
Grigg's love for his friend showed when he came to the bench in the first half, and had to be consoled by head coach Ryan Klingler.
How does one play with a broken heart? How does a parent come to the game, knowing a son won't be there?
"It was really hard to get Jocelyn and Gary to come," Leonard's uncle said. "Until now, they had been sheltered from all of this."
The emotion in the gym was overwhelming; the sportsmanship was uplifting. Lawrence and Fennville played against each other, but grieved together. Before the game, players from both teams wore shirts honoring Leonard. They shared a pregame meal, and on the advice from Michigan State coach Tom Izzo -- who spoke at the meal -- exchanged hugs instead of handshakes when the game was over.
Somehow, Fennville won, even without its leader.
"They have shown me that you can rise up," Klingler said after the game. "And my gosh, the strength they showed -- and the Leonards showed -- to be here tonight, just blows my mind. That exemplifies Wes Leonard."
The Blackhawks would need to draw on that strength in the coming days, because one day after Leonard's funeral, they had to play another game; this time against Bangor.
Winning and losing
They played hard -- focused and inspired, thrashing Bangor 79-50, also at DeVos Fieldhouse before a packed crowd of about 3,500.
Grigg scored a career-high 25 points. As he walked off the court, he exchanged smiles with Klingler.
"Honestly, with all my heart, I think it was six against five tonight," Bangor coach Rocky Johnson said after the game.
Said Klingler: "I know (Wes is) around. He's going to be an angel to us for a long time."
The win moved Fennville into the district championship game, where the Blackhawks took on Covert. They weren't about to be denied, and despite being down at the half, battled back to beat the Bulldogs, 51-48.
They were district champions.
Mitchell Leonard was sent to the court to accept the trophy.
"It meant a lot," he said. "(It was) an emotional moment."
Added Klingler: "I thought it was something he deserved -- and the Leonard family deserves. These guys have played the last two games with Wes in their hearts."
The victory put Fennville into the regionals; three wins from an improbable trip to the state finals at Breslin Center.
But the Blackhawks' run came to an end against No. 2-ranked Schoolcraft. In a battle of the unbeatens, the Eagles topped Fennville, 86-62 at Vicksburg High School.
Fennville may have lost the game, but the team's effort and resolve did more than honor a fallen friend.
"People have an idea of who he was," Klingler said. "Outside of his passion to compete. ... I don't think they understand, or the team understands the ramifications down the road on what they'll be able
to draw from this. For 15-, 16-year-olds to be able to do what they did -- I think down the road -- they'll find a strength that can be almost unbroken."
Toughness and coaching
When he played at Hope College, Klingler earned the reputation as a fierce competitor who played the game with a football-type mentality.
He brought a toughness to the team that his coach, Glenn Van Wieren, loved. Now a coach himself, Klingler brings that same resolve to Fennville.
But as he guided the Blackhawks through the tragic loss of Leonard, it was another side of his personality that served his players best.
"I don't feel I've been coaching basketball the past week and a half," Klingler said during the turmoil. "I was trying to coach young men how to deal with the situation."
Said his players: "It was definitely more support and love than Xs and Os. He was there for us."
All the while, Klingler was learning a loss like this one changes a person's perspective. During the tournament, he rarely yelled at the referees; and if he got in a player's face, it was to see if he was all right.
It's something, he said, this experience has taught him. He should do more of this in the future.
"We was pretty darn special to a lot of people," Klingler said after the Schoolcraft loss. "And I know I probably never took the time to tell him how great he was. So, I'm going to make sure I do a better job of telling people how much I care about them -- and how important they are."
Leonard was a difference-maker, he said, or, the type of player who demanded a coach to push him; to make him the best he could be.
The two spent countless hours in Fennville's gym, on the same court Leonard capped off the Blackhawks' perfect season, and the same court he played his final game.
While Klingler led his team with a heavy heart, he learned from the players, too. No matter how painful, the coach discovered, you can -- and must -- move on.
He also learned he couldn't do it alone. His wife Becky, an assistant coach, has been at his side every step of the way.
And his faith, while rocked, has remained strong.
"The faith I have, and what I believe, I think Wes and the Lord have said: 'Here's the path. We're not going to leave you anything behind to look back on,' " Klingler said. " 'We're just going to help you go forward and we're going to lead you with what to do with these kids and the community. Just trust us.' "
Sharing his story
For Bo Kimble, it must have felt achingly familiar.
In March 1990, Hank Gathers led the NCAA in scoring and rebounding for Loyola Marymount, when he suffered a sudden cardiac arrest -- and collapsed and died on the court.
"I was 22 years old when Hank died. ... You never really get over it," Kimble said. "You don't want to get over a great guy like that. You want to remember them."
Kimble shot the first free throw of each following game with his left hand, in remembrance of his longtime friend. He made all three shots.
Kimble traveled to DeVos Fieldhouse from Philadelphia for one of the first district games.
"It was hard for us then, and now you're talking about kids five or six years younger," he said. "And it's very traumatic."
Kimble founded the 44 for Life Foundation, a group aimed at reducing the incidents of death due to heart disease, through medical testing.
During Fennville's game vs. Bangor, Kimble expressed frustration over the lack of consensus on testing within the medical community.
"This whole process is not normal," he said. "If you look at stats, they'll tell you it's not a big concern. Tell that to the Leonard family."
The Leonards share Kimble's concerns. They hope to advocate for testing young adults, so that no one has to endure the pain of losing someone so young.
"It's going to be on the side of prevention," Jocelyn Leonard said. "We want to make sure it's used right."
Mitchell was recently tested and given a clean bill of health.
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