STILLWATER — Eric Epplin and his pals would camp out at Gallagher-Iba Arena 10 winters ago. They wouldn’t be alone.
Those OSU students would play games and catnap and talk basketball. Talk a lot of basketball.
“Every game was an event back then,” said Epplin, who some know now as an Oklahoma County assistant district attorney but then was known as Robe Boy, the fan who dressed in a garish orange bathrobe and cheered Eddie Sutton’s basketball teams with uncommon zeal. “Every game was such an event, and everybody around campus … it’s one of those feelings in the air, one of the beauties of a college town. The fervor grew and grew. It bonded everyone together.”
Ten years ago this winter, people young and old, from near and far, flocked to Gallagher-Iba, not so much to watch a ballteam have quite the special season, but to experience that season for themselves, from the inside. As Sutton’s Cowboys won the Big 12 title and reached the Final Four, a wondrous thing happened.
An already-tight campus united. The stings of a still-remembered tragedy were soothed. A team and a student body and a fan base came together to celebrate being Cowboys.
It’s not just that Sutton’s players were successful. They were embraceable. They were magnetic and lovable. They embraced back.
“The fans believed in us, we believed in them,” said Janavor Weatherspoon, the backup point guard on that 2004 team. “Stillwater fans, they’re a heartbeat with the team.”
Robe Boy. Daniel Bobik’s wife, Natalie, who along with her sister started the “Cool Chicks Wear Orange” T-shirt trend. The hordes of students who waited sometimes 24 hours just to get through the doors. A special thing happened on campus that winter.
These days, it’s hard to imagine a basketball team around here taking over a campus. That was pre-NBA. Pre-Fiesta Bowl for OSU. Pre-Boone Pickens Stadium. OSU has become a football school.
But Cowboy fans hung their Stetsons on hoops 10 years ago, and in 2004, that pride zenithed around one very memorable team.
“That team we had, the personality of the players, just the environment around the basketball team, was just fantastic,” said Josh Pulver, one of OSU’s two Pistol Petes that season. “Everybody was on Cloud Nine all the time, of course. Great basketball. Lots of exciting games.”
And healing. That Final Four helped a campus heal.
“It was so special,” Epplin said of that season. “Especially for those of us who were upperclassmen, who were there in ’01, when the plane crashed.”
Indeed. The 2004 Cowboys rose from the despair of the January 2001 plane crash that killed 10 members of the OSU basketball traveling party, including players Daniel Lawson and Nate Fleming. 2004 Cowboys Terrence Crawford and Ivan McFarlin were on that 2000-01 team.
“I remember the way the university rallied around,” Epplin said. “That plane crash was one of those events … on the one hand, yeah, it is just a game, but on the other hand, it becomes almost even more important. It becomes a rallying point.”
The Final Four never could make up for the lost lives of 10 good men. But sports can bring people together. Sports can help replace screams with shouts. And basketball, in particular, has a therapeutic impact.
With basketball, you feel like you get to know the guys. Football is a gladiator sport. Lots of heroes, but detached. You rarely see their faces. Rarely see their body language. Rarely experience their personalities.
But by midseason 2003-04, OSU fans felt a kinship with Tony Allen and John Lucas and the Graham twins and McFarlin and Bobik and all the rest.
“They were very special guys,” said Pulver, who now lives in Tahlequah and manages Egan Camp and Retreat Center for the Oklahoma United Methodists. “Very friendly, very personable. You could reach out and touch ’em. They were part of our student body. We were able to embrace them. Wasn’t just sitting there watching people play. They were part of the family. That brought a lot of life to the campus that I hadn’t seen before.
“People talk with each other. You have something else to talk about. Adds a little more camaraderie to the campus when you have something like that happening.”
That’s the best reason for wanting Travis Ford to bring back the basketball excitement at OSU. The Cowboys’ recent football glory has been great, and you wouldn’t trade it. And while football, like no other sport, can ignite a school’s fan base, only basketball can ignite a campus like OSU experienced in 2004. We saw a glimpse of that last April, when Marcus Smart, Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash, standing in the atrium of the Student Union, announced their return for the 2013-14 season, and hundreds of OSU students cheered and celebrated.
Joey Graham transferred from Central Florida in summer 2002 and says “when I first stepped on the campus, I felt the love, the students, the fans. People were waving. I thought, ‘How do these people even know who I am?’ But they kind of knew. Word gets around Stillwater very quickly.”
Then came that amazing season, when OSU took a 31-3 record to San Antonio for the Final Four. Graham hasn’t forgotten what it was like to stand on Gallagher-Iba’s ancient white maple.
“Gallagher-Iba was filled up,” Graham said. “That was exciting, when the fans were screaming and they were jumping around. The floor would shake, and we couldn’t hear each other talking.”
Couldn’t hear. But absolutely could feel. Both on the court and in the stands, that basketball season tightened an already-tight community, and OSU would like to feel that way again.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.