February 9, 2008

Stewart's loss brings Wildcats together

They sat next to each other in the postgame room wearing pink T-shirts emblazoned with a white Powercat in the middle of the chest. Below, also in white, read "FAMILY." About 24 hours before, Michael Beasley and Jacob Pullen wept with teammate Clent Stewart. And after No. 20 Kansas State's 82-61 win against Oklahoma State, a part of their hearts left with Stewart as he traveled back to Norman, Okla., and back into the real world.

"To know what he's going through and for him to still be with us, it was special," Beasley said. "That just shows how strong Clent is. He told us he might (come to the game). I wouldn't have come given the circumstances, but that just shows the type of person Stew is and how much he cares about the team."

Most Saturdays are about basketball. This was a different kind of special.

Family? That's precisely what this is. That's exactly what Saturday was all about. It's about the special young team and a special first-year head coach and a special purple-clad family its fan base that ever since Vanessa Stewart's death on Tuesday after a long and courageous battle with bone cancer, has grieved in thought alongside the senior point guard.

The K-State basketball family flew to Norman at 6 p.m. Friday night after a shortened practice, attended a memorial service for Mrs. Stewart and returned to Manhattan by 10:45 p.m. with heavy hearts.


"We're family, you know," Beasley said. "We're not a basketball team anymore. We're brothers. The coaches and players, we're just one big family. That's how we play."

No, nobody knew for sure whether the 21-year-old Stewart would attend the game Saturday. Nobody expected him to, either. Funeral services were at 9 a.m. at the Crosspointe Church in Norman. But an ESPN camera captured a K-State university jet stopped at the Manhattan Municipal Airport at 4:08 p.m. It showed Clent Sr., and Clent Jr., and 22-year-old sister LaTori and her young son headed away from the airport runway in a green SUV -- "a gesture for the Stewart family by athletic director Tim Weiser," Martin said.

At 4:43 p.m., the Stewarts walked together through the tunnel and near the baseline of Bramlage Coliseum court. The chants from the student section started a minute later.

It took several double takes for the K-State family to grasp the fact Stewart was actually there.

Father and son wore black suits, and black, white and pink-striped ties. They hugged before Clent Sr. and LaTori ambled up to the third row of section 26 amid a standing ovation -- no doubt, every step to the usual perch unbelievably emotional.

Clent, a smile wiped across his face, found his teammates shooting around 23 minutes prior to tipoff. He stood courtside. You could tell the gears were turning. A couple words by strength coach Scott Greenawalt, the meanest-looking guy in the arena but who is blessed with a tender heart, made Stewart chuckle.

President Jon Wefald, Weiser and a couple other school officials wore pink ties in tribute. Cheerleaders wore pink wristbands. And near the end of the Wildcats bench, Stewart sat between Chris Merriewether and David Hoskins -- a pink T-shirt draped across his knee.

"It was emotional going to what we did last night but we knew we had to come out and play not only for us but for her," Beasley said. "We just came and played for Stew."

Frank Martin continued to show his emotions after the game. Beasley recorded his school-record 19th double-double (23 points and 13 rebounds), but Martin clearly wasn't thinking about that. A part of his heart, too, was with Stewart, whom he wept with not too long ago.

"Last night at the service, when we first got there, we've got so many young kids, kids who haven't experienced so many things in life yet," Martin began. "To see one of their own just struggling with something as much as Clent and his family have struggled with this whole situation, it really made our guys…"

Martin paused. He tried again.

"When you see a bunch of 18 and 19-year-old guys who think they're stronger than anything, to watch them weep like little kids, that was a heck of an impression on us."

- Frank Martin

"When you see a bunch of 18 and 19-year-old guys who think they're stronger than anything, to watch them weep like little kids, that was a heck of an impression on us," he continued. "I know it was a heck of an impression on me. By the end of the night, I think Stew and his family, when they saw all of their family and all of our guys there, I think it lifted his spirits. When it lifted his spirits, the whole focus turned from sorrow to celebrating what an incredible job his mother has done in raising him and his sister and that family."

Martin and the Wildcats might never forget Stewart walking into the locker room prior to the game, either.

"When he walked into the locker room before the game, all the guys had big smiles on their faces," Martin said. "There were a lot of hugs and high fives. Then Mike, as only Mike can do it, said, 'Now sit down, we've got a scouting report to go over.' It's been really neat.

"It's been an experience that was really hard at first but one that continues to make that group of guys in the locker room even tighter."

And they seemed tighter. And the sellout crowd of 12,528 seemed warmer -- if that's possible for the Wildcat Nation. As the players always do, they walked down the hallway, their every movement captured on the arena video screens. Fans reserved their loudest cheers for Stewart. Then the players huddled together. They huddled a little longer, maybe a little tighter. When they broke their huddle, away from the crowd, one observer standing close to the team wasn't certain, but it sounded like the Wildcats yelled, "Clent!"

You knew Vanessa Stewart was there, too, watching from above.

Beasley exploded with one of his better dunks of the season. Bill Walker made a statement dunk as well, then earned a 3-point play with a crossover that nearly broke viewers' ankles. And, of course, Pullen drained his first four 3-pointers. All in the first 10 minutes. The reason for his offensive burst, Pullen said, was simple. It went back to what Stewart told him prior to the game.

"(Stewart) just told me to go out and play," Pullen said. "Don't feel any pressure, just play basketball."

And so Pullen believed it was his duty to make up for Stewart's absence.

"I'm just trying to make up for Clent, doing things that Clent does," he said. "Clent guarantees us some 3s every game. I've got to pick up the slack a little bit until he comes back."

When will that be? Martin isn't for sure.

Martin and the Wildcats remain consumed by different thoughts and priorities.

"It's not about winning, it's about life," Martin said. "It's whenever (Stewart's) heart tells him he's good to go. If we go 0-10 our last 10 games and his heart isn't ready to do it, it's not about winning games, it's about living life, man.

"For me to even ask him when he wants to play would be an injustice on my part."

It has been an emotional time around K-State basketball since its 84-75 upset of No. 2 Kansas at Bramlage on Jan. 30. It's been documented, all of it. The trip to Norman to be with Stewart on Friday night could've been potentially emotionally draining. It wasn't.

The young Wildcats have grown up. They've turned into a strong family.

The Wildcats are 17-5 overall and 7-1 at the halfway point of the Big 12 season and are off to their best start since 1981-82. They remain in a tie with Kansas for the lead in the league. They scored their most points against Oklahoma State since 1987 and improved to 13-1 at home.

The emotions swirled inside Martin's head afterward. He thought about everything that had happened since beating the Jayhawks. He reached a conclusion.

"We could've lost today for all of those reasons and I don't care. I don't care," he said. "Clent Stewart is a stand-up guy and it's our duty to be there for one of ours. Winning the basketball game falls way back in the order of things that are important. The most important thing is that one of ours was down and we had to be there for him."

And in his dark hour and in what was likely the most emotional day of his life, Stewart apparently believed he needed to be there for his team.

Wins and losses sometime reflect a special team.

On Saturday, the K-State basketball family proved it was above that.

K-State is a different kind of special.

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