Buddy Hield walked from the back of the bus, on his way to yet more adventure, patted me on the shoulder and said, “Sorry, they put y’all through all this stress.”
Yes, that Buddy Hield.
There we sat on a bus on an airport tarmac, a little after midnight Wednesday night, in Clarksburg, W.Va., the Harrison County seat, population 16,578.
We had escaped from New York. And like so many before us, from Huckleberry Finn to Gulliver, from the Griswolds to John Candy in “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” we were off on more grand adventure.
How did we get from Broadway to Appalachia? Well, sometimes it’s best to start at the beginning.
DRIVING ON THIN ICE
Tuesday night, after our Newark-to-Oklahoma City flight had been canceled for the second straight night, and after our fourth Broadway show of the fortnight, my mind started racing.
I like to be proactive. Not reactive. And I thought of the Oklahoma basketball Sooners.
Turns out, conference realignment had placed a school in the Appalachian Mountains in the Big 12. And OU was playing hoops Wednesday night in Morgantown, W.Va.
I got on mapquest: 378 miles from New York to Morgantown. What if, I asked the Dish, we could drive to West Virginia on Wednesday. If the Sooners had any extra room on their charter plane, maybe they would be kind enough to give us a ride home.
So I fired off a veiled email to Mike Houck, the Sooner publicist.
“Crazy question,” I put in the subject line. “What kind of plane did you guys fly to Morgantown? Was it full.”
OK, so it wasn’t that veiled. Houck had a fine University of Wisconsin education. He can figure out things.
I sent that out around 12:43 a.m. New York time.
Then I went to sleep. Slept in quite a bit, probably 8:30 a.m., looked outside and saw that New York/New Jersey had been hit with more snow and a bunch of ice. No way was I driving 378 miles to Morgantown on this day.
Then I checked my email.
Houck had responded at 3:24 a.m. New York time: “Are you still out here? We’re staying the night at Newark Airport Hilton. You’re welcome to come with us to Morgantown and then home. Don’t know Wednesday schedule yet, but guessing we’ll try to leave late morning.”
Forty-five minutes later, with me still conked out in a Fairfield on West 40th Street in Midtown Manhattan, Houck wrote me again: “Update. Sounds like earliest we can leave from airport is 2 p.m.”
Now I know how European immigrants felt when they got a ticket to go to America. (Please, no Titantic jokes here.)
Newark is 15 miles west of New York. We had been at the Newark airport just the night before, trying to get on our plane to OKC.
I called Houck immediately, warned him that I had the Dish with me and enough luggage to carry a small circus. He said he would check with all the proper authorities and get back to me.
I woke up the Dish, told her the improbable tale and we started getting ready to join some familiar faces in a foreign land.
All the while thinking, what is Lon Kruger’s basketball team doing in Newark?
This has and will be a fun story. Travel problems aren’t tragic. They may be annoying, but they aren’t tragic.
We know tragedy in Oklahoma. Basketball teams in Oklahoma know tragedy.
Two OSU plane crashes since the turn of the century has most of well-attuned to the potential hazards.
Which is why the best thing about this story was the Sooners going to Newark.
The Sooners got to Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City around 4 p.m. Tuesday and were scheduled for a 4:45 departure.
Because of the weather, they took off about five hours late.
West Virginia opponents generally don’t fly into Morgantown’s airport; the runway isn’t long enough for the planes that carry most of these teams.
Clarksburg, about 30 miles away, is the primary option.
As OU’s United Express charter started its descent into Clarksburg, visibility was very low. Snowy and icy; the general storm that has afflicted half the nation.
With the landing gear already down and at 600 feet — close enough that grounds crew later said they could see the belly of the plane — the pilot aborted the landing. Too risky.
No one could blame him.
The pilot checked for directions and was told to divert to Newark. Not to Pittsburgh or Charleston or Richmond or Baltimore or any of a dozen closer cities. Newark.
So at 3 a.m. Eastern time, the Sooners landed in Newark, director of operations Mike Shepherd started working his phone and found the team rooms at the Hilton.
The hotel sent a shuttle bus over, but only a portion of the 30something people in the travel party could fit. So the bus made another run, and those left jumped into five cabs.
It was a short night.
The Newark airport basically was closed for flights until afternoon, so the Sooners could sleep in to some degree.
The word came that they would leave the hotel at 2 p.m. Tipoff in Morgantown was at 7.
ONE FINAL LINCOLN TUNNEL TRIP
We hurriedly got dressed and packed, wondering how difficult it would be to find a taxi to take us back to Newark.
We’ve had a lot of experience with snowy days in New York, and the cabbies say their business goes way down.
I didn’t know if that meant some cabbies would stay home or more would be looking for customers.
Taxis are easy to hail on the avenues, which are the big boulevards. Five, six lanes wide, most of them one way. Streets are much more narrow, and cabs don’t typically traverse the streets unless the they’re dropping off customers.
I called the Fairfield front desk, and they said they had a car service that makes runs to Newark Airport for a flat fee. I said we’ll be right down.
Traffic was minimal, we got through the Lincoln Tunnel relatively easy, the New Jersey Turnpike was wide open and we were at the Newark Hilton in maybe 30 minutes. So we were there before noon.
Some OU officials were in the lobby — Shepherd and Kruger came over to say hello and welcome us aboard their adventure — and I introduced the Dish to some of the guys I’ve known for years.
Houck, trainer Alex Brown, radio engineer Michael Dean. She has known Toby Rowland for years, since we worked together at KREF radio.
The Dish and I went over to the hotel restaurant and grabbed some lunch. She had a mediocre chicken sandwich and I had a good salmon salad.
About 2 p.m., we started loading up a bus to take us to the airport. But this is New Jersey. Nothing comes easy.
When I covered the 1995 East Regional at the Meadowlands, just off the Jersey Turnpike, we stayed at a hotel on the other side of the freeway from the arena. We could see the coliseum easily from our hotel.
And it was a 20-minute bus ride to get to the game.
Same thing Wednesday. We pulled out, went down a service road and then turned into a neighborhood. Literally drove a massive bus down a narrow street on which residents were out shoveling snow.
The bus meandered a few blocks and came out at an intersection that would take across the freeway and let us head back the other direction. We got back on the freeway and almost immediately drove past a hotel — the Hilton from which we had left probably 10 minutes earlier.
I’m told that most of New Jersey is a lovely state, so long as you get 5-10 miles either side of the Jersey Turnpike. I believe it. But that stretch of the turnpike, the part you see in The Sopranos and in backdrops of MetLife Stadium, ooh. A little rough.
HURRY UP & WAIT
Being imbedded with a ballteam is always dicey, and not just for a journalist. Fans, athletic department personnel, even people who regularly travel with the team. They don’t want to intrude. Don’t want to disrupt.
I have ended up traveling with a team on a few occasions.
John Helsley and I flew to San Jose last March on the OSU team charter, because the NCAA Tournament always coincides with spring break, and flights to desired locales are impossible to find. That was a jet, seated probably 130, so we were flyspecks in the ocean.
John Rohde and I flew back from Milwaukee and the Midwest Regional with Kelvin Sampson’s 1999 Sooners, and that was one happy plane, despite weather trouble and delays. They had just made Sampson’s first Sweet 16.
I bused back with Enos Semore’s 1985 OU baseball team from Austin, Texas, after an NCAA regional. But baseball is a little different animal.
It’s not ideal and I’d prefer not to do it, but traveling with these Sooners was easy. Kruger and his staff are gracious and friendly. Couldn’t have made us feel more welcome.
We bused to the Newark tarmac, which was not busy at all. Only a few planes taking off in the snow. We parked hard by the United Express charter, unloaded luggage off the bus and loaded it onto the plane, boarded and settled in.
And sat there. Something minor was wrong with the 50-seat jet. They tinkered and tinkered. Talked about moving us to another plane.
I chatted with Eli Wilkerson from OU’s marketing department and Chris Johnson from OU compliance, both relatively recent hires. Nice fellows. Eli is from North Carolina, Chris from Columbia, Md., the home area of my sports editor, Mike Sherman, and my radio colleague, Jim Traber.
Finally, we got the green light. At 3:30 p.m. Eastern, we took off.
New York was behind us. Adventure was not.
We landed in Clarksburg right around 5 p.m. The Clarksburg airport is straight out of “Wings.” Quaint little terminal, with a ticket counter for United Express, three flights daily to D.C. and three incoming from D.C. A rental car counter. Some vending machines.
Reminded me of the terminal in Alamosa, Colo., where we tried to rent a car last August when my brother-in-law’s truck broke down on our vacation.
A police escort awaited us. We got the bus loaded up, and we headed for the arena.
West Virginia is a beautiful state. It’s currently covered in snow and the trees are otherwise bare; I’ll bet it’s drop-dead gorgeous in October. I’ve only been here in late November and now February. The Sooners play football at West Virginia next Sept. 20; maybe I’ll make that game.
The drive from Clarksburg to Morgantown is about 30 miles, up Interstate 79. You’re going through small mountains and crossing magnificent rivers.
Traffic was not heavy. The police escort actually slowed us down more than helped us.
But you need the police in Morgantown, which is very congested. Lots of winding roads and lots of university traffic.
On the bus ride, I called United and canceled our reservations on the 8:30 p.m. flight from Newark to Oklahoma City. I had no confidence it would take off, but I thought I would let United sell the seats to someone else.
We navigated into the WVU campus and parked near the ramp into the coliseum. It was time to see some new friends.
MISTY TASTE OF MOONSHINE
Don’t worry. No one did any drinking. I just love the lyrics of “Country Roads.”
And I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the West Virginia people.
I looked up radio voice Tony Caridi, who I’ve gotten to know. Been on his radio show several times. Super guy.
The media relations staff, Mike Montoro and Michael Fragale, have been helpful in the past, and the basketball publicist, Bryan Messerly, was quick to set me up with a press credential and the Dish a ticket to the game.
And of course, the game gave us a chance to see Jonathan Kimble.
You know him as the Mountaineer.
America’s biggest mascot has become a good friend in West Virginia’s two years in the league. He gave The Oklahoman crew a tour of Morgantown in November 2012; Jason Kersey and I reciprocated last September in Norman.
Jonathan met the Dish and my three granddaughters at Big 12 Media Day last summer, even posed for pictures with two of them (Tinley wanted no part of it). Just a wonderful fellow.
We went in the pressroom Wednesday before the game to grab a bite to eat, and Jonathan came in and ate with us. Even gave me a piece of deer jerky.
Maybe you can get some deer jerky in Midtown Manhattan, but you can’t get it from a friendly fellow in a mountaineer costume carrying a musket that he’s liable to fire off at any time.
VALIANT IN DEFEAT
I don’t cheer at ballgames, but I usually want a certain team to win. And I always pull for the Oklahoma teams.
Thunder, OSU, OU. I don’t apologize for that. I’m an Oklahoman. I want Oklahomans to do well.
So I’d want the Sooners to beat West Virginia, whether I was watching on my couch, watching from a New York hotel room or sitting on press row in the WVU Coliseum.
But I really wanted the Sooners to win this game. Nothing against the Mountaineers, but I like for good things to happen to good people, and this Sooner team had been awfully kind to us. Besides, it would make the plane ride home much more celebratory.
OU scored on each of its first three possessions, but West Virginia quickly started dominating the first half.
The effects of the trip seemed to have caught up with the Sooners, who five fours before tipoff were in a New Jersey hotel, four hours before tipoff were on a Newark airport tarmac, three hours before tipoff were in the air I guess over Pennsylvania, two hours before tipoff were at a one-horse airport in the mountains of West Virginia and one hour before tipoff walked onto the coliseum court thankful they had finally arrived.
But to Kruger’s and the team’s credit, the Sooners fought back. Came back from 14 down early in the second half and seven down with four minutes left. Even took a late lead before West Virginia sent the game into overtime with a 3-pointer. Then the Mountaineers won 91-86.
Bummer. But Kruger should be proud of his team. We got a small taste of the wild adventure trying to get to Morgantown. To keep their focus and concentration can be nothing but positive for the Sooners in the future.
BACK TO CLARKSBURG
The game ended about 9:30 p.m. Eastern time. We didn’t have our OU basketball writer, Ryan Aber, at the game. He was doing football recruiting stuff Wednesday.
So when I found out I was going to be at the game, I said great, I’ll cover the game. I wrote during the game, hurried to the press conference afterward, asked Jordan Woodard and Lon Kruger a few questions and was hurriedly writing.
Houck came over and asked if I needed anyone else. I asked him how much time I had before we left, 20 minutes? He said more like 15. Or 10.
So I said no, no more interviews. I hurried back to my seat, whipped out a quick story and notebook, got downstairs and made no one wait on me.
I can’t fix a fuel pump or sing in the choir. But if you need something written quickly and coherently, that I can do.
We boarded the bus, headed out in the snow and I started counting down the hours. We were getting close to home. Less than four hours on a trip that started at 5:15 a.m. a week ago Monday.
We got to the Clarksburg airport, drove through the gate and one of the grounds crew poked his head through the door and said don’t unload just yet. There were a couple of issues.
Someone thought it was the bathroom on the plane hadn’t been drained.
But then we realized there was a crew problem. One of the pilots was going to be over his allotted flight time, if he flew all the way to OKC.
So there was talk of maybe flying to Chicago, switching crews and going on to Oklahoma.
We sat there 45-60 minutes. Some people got off the bus and went into the airport terminal.
We chatted with Michael Dean and Toby Rowland.
Finally, the Dish said she was hungry. Go see what’s in the vending machine.
So I went in, got her some M&M’s and me some sugar wafers (I love sugar wafers), and Kruger was hanging out in the terminal. We chatted and he let me in on the news.
Looks like we’re spending the night. Going back to Morgantown.
I can’t rip the Sooners for doing business with United Express. Heck, United Express is what I was trying to fly out of Newark.
But like I’ve told you. My experiences with United have been almost totally negative. I’ll fly United if I absolutely have to. Otherwise, I’ll stay away.
And Jozsef Szendrei, OU’s strength and conditioning coach, delivered the worst news. The flight crew told him everything was fine until the game went overtime. If the Sooners had arrived only a little earlier, the pilot would have had time to fly to Oklahoma City within the allotted window.
Eron Harris’ game-tying 3-pointer with 24 seconds left had delivered the Sooners a double dose of defeat.
BACK TO MORGANTOWN
Clarksburg (population 16,000, remember) didn’t have a hotel big enough for the Sooner party. So we went back to Morgantown.
The flight crew had retrieved the sack lunches that were waiting on the plane, so everyone had a pretty decent sandwich, chips, apple and a little candy. Toby Rowland got stuck with an Almond Joy, which I agree is a bad draw, but I got one myself. Gave it to Michael Dean, who likes the nasty things.
On the way back to Morgantown, for grins, I checked united.com. The flight from Detroit to Newark that supplies the plane from Newark to OKC had just taken off. It wouldn’t land in Newark until the wee hours. But United had finally capitulated and gotten another plane to go from Newark to Oklahoma City. It was in the air and scheduled to land soon.
But I had no regrets. We made a good decision back in New York, and I’ll take my chances every time with the people I was with.
We checked into the Waterfront Place hotel, which is where the Sooners would have stayed Tuesday night had they been able to land.
It’s a beautiful hotel, hard by the Monongahela River. We got into our room about 1:15 a.m. Eastern.
Full confession time. I packed well for this trip. Over-packed. Packed well enough that two extra days in New York was no hardship.
But when we didn’t take off from Clarksburg, I had to surrender. I was out of underwear. Long and not so long.
So I washed some stuff out in the sink — they’ve got some mighty fine hot water in West Virginia — and sat it out to dry.
Laid down at 2 a.m., our fourth hotel room in four nights. Three within spitting distance of the Hudson River, one within spitting distance of the Monongahela River.
Maybe Thursday we’ll get home.