Fennville’s Wes Leonard much more than star athlete

Never had I witnessed such a momentous shift in emotions as Thursday night at Fennville High School.

The entire Fennville community rallied round its undefeated boys basketball team during a season that was already unforgettable — then became so for tragic reasons.

But transcending it all — from the time Wes Leonard led his team to a come-from-behind victory over the Bridgman Bees to after his shocking collapse — was that the Fennville community supported him.

As Leonard led the turnaround by scoring 10 points in the 3rd quarter, the home crowd exploded with cheers while he made those 1st 5 shots. They erupted in jubilation when his swooping finger-roll layup won the game 57-55 in overtime.

Then as Leonard lay on the court before being taken to Holland Hospital, where he was pronounced dead about 2 hours later, the tears and prayers showed that Leonard meant much, much more to this community than just his athletic prowess.

I was privileged to have a chance to experience a small sample of what they had become used to seeing out of Leonard, both on and off the court.

The first time I interviewed Leonard, he held a handful of balloons as we talked about his team’s win over Bangor on February. 11. He greeted me with a welcoming smile that became a regular occurrence during the handful of times I talked to him.

Engaging, smart, humble and insightful, I could count on him to put a voice to the action.

He received the balloons as part of a celebration that night for him surpassing 1,000 career points in the previous game.

It struck me as humorous to see him holding them, hinting at a gentler, lighthearted side after he spent the previous couple of hours fending off double teams in the paint, playing with relentless effort and toughness.

Other times, such as making five consecutive jumpers in the third quarter and the game-winning layup, Leonard made it look effortless.

As hard as he played and as good as he was, he never showboated in the games I covered, never complained about not getting the foul called — trust me, he could have argued a few — despite constant physical defense while posting up.

He just played.

And his stunning performance was supposed to be the story last night.
Obviously, when something as devastating as that happens, 5 pages of game notes become meaningless.

But last night’s game embodied what made him special as a player. He was a gamer in the truest sense of the word.

He took a charge in the third quarter, and Fennville took its 1st lead of the game on the next play. In overtime, the Blackhawks had the ball with the score tied and 56.5 seconds remaining. An entry pass to Leonard under the basket went low, and he had to save it from going out — a fingernail’s length from the boundary line.

About 40 seconds remained and he reset the offense at the top of the key. He then saw an opening and took the ball from 6 feet past the 3-point line straight through the middle of the defense. He elevated higher than he had all game and laid it in.

26 seconds of defense and a missed 3-pointer at the buzzer later and the whole gym rocked with Blackhawks glory, everyone wanting to celebrate with their hero.

I had so many questions for Leonard.

How did he do it? What did he see on that last play? What inspired his play in the third quarter?

Those questions, and others about how and why a 16-year-old with such a bright future could have his life end suddenly, will be left unanswered.

Posted by imran Saturday, March 5, 2011


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