STILLWATER — Shelley Budke remembers looking down at the huddle and seeing her husband celebrating with his players.
His team could be down 20 or 30 points — and that first season, it often was — but there he'd be back patting and high fiving. Everyone in his rag-tag band of seven players at Kansas City Kansas Community College would be smiling.
“Win the next five minutes,” he would say.
And when they did, they'd celebrate.
Since Kurt Budke died in a plane crash a year ago Saturday, Shelley has been living — and surviving — by those words.
“Win the next five minutes.”
On a day when many near and far will remember the four who were killed while on an Oklahoma State women's basketball recruiting trip, none will feel the loss quite like Shelley. She lost her husband. Her soul mate. Her best friend.
The days that have followed tested her like never before. Where Kurt was the orange-blazer-wearing, hand-shaking, back-slapping coach, Shelley preferred being in the background.
This extremely private and intensely religious woman became the face of the victims.
Earlier this week, for the first time since her husband's death, she talked about the crash. She talked about the struggles. She talked about the support.
She talked about the man she loved.
She talked, too, about the woman she's become.
* * *
Kurt Budke didn't make many recruiting trips during the season. He'd drive to see an in-state kid occasionally, but out-of-state trips meant missing practice.
He hated that.
After clawing his way up the coaching rankings — a climb that included a part-time job unloading UPS trucks and a decade coaching junior-college ball — Kurt rarely turned over practice to his assistants. A sloppy preseason made him even more hesitant last November.
“This is not a good week to be gone,” he told Shelley. “We need to get off to a good start.”
But he eventually decided to go to Arkansas.
There were two players in Little Rock who were considering the Cowgirls, Tyler Scaife and Roshunda Johnson, and Scaife happened to be one of the nation's best point guards.
“I know if we get this kid,” Kurt had said, “we can make a run at the title, the Big 12 title.”
Kurt's lead recruiter Miranda Serna had been busting her tail with the two players, especially Scaife, and she asked Kurt if he would go and help her. Sell the program. Seal the deal.
They were set to leave Stillwater Regional Airport at 1 p.m.
Kurt spent the morning at home. He did that whenever he was going to be gone in the evening. He worked a bit and rode his stationary bike for 45 minutes or an hour — watching game film or catching up on his reading as he did — but a good chunk of the morning was spent with Shelley.
But even as he left for the airport, he was questioning his decision.
“He was really torn,” Shelley said. “But he knew this kid ... ”
“That's the tough part about coaching. You can't ignore your future.”
* * *
Kurt said he'd be home by 12:30 a.m.
He always overestimated, too. He learned early in his relationship with Shelley that if he ran late, it worried her. So she knew that a little after midnight was the latest he'd be home.
Shelley texted Kurt a couple times during the afternoon just to see how things were going. Even though he didn't reply, she didn't think much of it.
“He's busy,” she thought.
She texted him again that evening, and this time when she got no reply, she started getting worried. He might not reply right away, but he usually did when they were either driving to the gym or heading to the airport.
Shelley texted Miranda. Over the years, the two had become like sisters. Miranda would go on family vacations with Kurt, Shelley and the three kids.
“I'm getting' worried about you guys,” Shelley wrote. “Where you at?”
By 10 o'clock, she still hadn't heard from Kurt or Miranda, so she called Jim Littell. He was Kurt's longtime friend and assistant as well as Shelley's former college basketball coach.
“Have you heard from 'em because I haven't,” she told him. “I'm kind of getting worried.”
“No, I haven't heard from 'em,” he said. “If I hear from 'em, I'll call you back.”
Shelley went to bed but woke up around 12:15. She couldn't believe Kurt still hadn't called or texted. But then, for reasons that she can only attribute to God's mercy and grace, she fell back asleep.
At 2 a.m., she bolted straight up out of bed.
Kurt wasn't back.
She called the Stillwater airport and was given a number to call in case of an emergency. When no one answered that number, Shelley decided she had to do something.
“I gotta go,” she thought. “I don't know what I'm gonna do, but I'm gonna drive out to the airport.”
She got in her car, but as she started backing out of the garage, she noticed a bright light just down the street.
It was a police car.
Her next door neighbors were there. So was her good friend Julie Sanchez, wife of OSU's equestrian coach.
“They were grouping up to come get me to tell me,” Shelley said.
The plane had crashed.
Kurt was gone.
Around 7 a.m., after making the hardest phone calls of her life to Kurt's family and to her family, Shelley was drained.
“You'd better go get in the shower,” Julie told her, “because people are going to start coming.”
“What?” Shelley asked.
“People are going to come to your house, so you'd better be ready.
* * *
For the next week, Shelley was never alone at the house. Someone, be it family or friend, was always there.
There were times that Shelley would go back to the bedroom and hide out.
“It wasn't really my house at some points,” she said.
“This community wrapped us up in their arms. It was amazing.”
She struggled to accept all of the kindness and generosity. She was flattered. She was honored. But she was worried that she would never be able to reciprocate.
“How am I going to thank all of these people for this?” she fretted.
Even now, she wishes that she could write a letter that would adequately express her gratitude. But she knows that the best thanks is to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to keep showing that she can make it.
That's also the best way to honor Kurt.
“He was not a guy that would get knocked down,” she said. “He didn't pout. It was God, Kurt and my kids that I wanted to shine through in this.
“I wanted to make him proud.”
On those days after the crash when she didn't want to get out of bed, she would pretend that she was playing basketball again and that the clock was winding down.
“OK, you gotta get out bed.”
“Gotta get up when you get to one.”
She had to beat the buzzer.
Then, she would think back to Kurt coaching that first team in Kansas City.
“Take a five-minute segment, Shelley,” she could hear him saying. “You can do this.”
Then, he pushed it out a bit more.
“OK, now you can do one hour. One hour at a time. Don't look into next week. Just one hour.”
Then, a bit more.
“OK, half a day.”
“OK, a day.”
Early on, when people would say, “We need to get together for lunch next week,” Shelley would tell them that they'd have to call her next week. She had to first get through that week, that day, that hour.
She had to get through that next five-minute segment.
“I definitely heard Kurt's voice,” she said, “kind of coaching me along.”
* * *
Shelley Budke went to every Cowgirl game at Gallagher-Iba Arena last season.
She was drawn to them.
“Those first couple games ... I knew Kurt was there,” she said. “I just had to be there. That's where I felt close.
“But as the season went on, it got tough.”
It wasn't the empty seats on the bench. It wasn't the banner memorializing the crash victims that hangs from the rafters. It wasn't the sometimes tearful hugs that she got from the players after every game.
It was the countdown.
Much like the game she played on those days she didn't want to get out of bed, Shelley knew the buzzer was going to go off.
“It got really hard as the season went on because I knew that was coming to an end for me,” she said.
She paused, tears rolling down her cheeks and emotions catching in her throat.
“When you've done something that long and you know it's never going to be the same ... it was just hard. It got really hard at the end.”
The Cowgirls prolonged it as much as they could. They made a six-game run through the Women's NIT that culminated with a championship on a crisp Saturday last March.
Shelley was there, of course, and as the players and coaches were climbing the ladder and cutting down the net, Shelley found out they wanted her to be the last one wielding the scissors.
The net she cut down that afternoon is now among her most prized possessions.
This season, though, she isn't planning to go to any Cowgirl games.
“For several reasons,” she said. “It's hard. It's a reminder. It's kind of like pouring salt in the wound right now.
“But also, it's Jim's team now,” she said of Littell, who was named head coach. “I don't want to pull anything away from him and his staff.”
And yet, she's still so close to some of the players. They supported each other after the crash. They texted. They called. They cared.
How can she not go watch them play?
All of it is a work in progress, really.
“I feel like I'm finally being able to feel again,” Shelley said.
She sat at the family's kitchen table where morning sunlight streamed through a nearby window.
In the kitchen, on a cabinet near the crosses and the pictures of the kids and Miranda, hangs one of those photo calendars; all of the pictures are of Kurt. The one for November is a shot of him outside. The sun is hitting his face in such a way that it looks like he's glowing orange.
“You're just numb for so long,” Shelley said. “The healing process has started, and I think it will continue. It will never go away.”
“But I believe it's gonna be doable.”
Win the next five minutes.
She's already won so much more.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.