Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
Is Michigan the Team of Destiny in this NCAA Tournament?
INDIANAPOLIS –– As Michigan’s team plane skidded off the runway at Michigan’s Willow Run Airport at 150 miles an hour last Wednesday, Coach John Beilein and his players feared for their lives.
“What made it Cinderella was the circumstance,” Beilein said here as his team prepares to face Oklahoma State on Friday afternoon in its first game since winning the Big Ten Tournament on Sunday in Washington, D.C. “It wasn’t just skidding off the runway. It was full going, 150 miles an hour, we can’t stop. And our kids got — thank goodness the plane didn’t flip. All kinds of things could have happened once we got off the plane and looked.”
The pilot “veered to the side” instead of going forward through buildings and that saved the lives of those on the plane, according to an account from Brendan Quinn of MLive.com.
Now, as the Wolverines prepare to play in the NCAA Tournament, one has to ask: Are they the team of destiny? Is it preordained that they will make some kind of deep run given that they all just survived a brush with death?
“I say it all the time, I believe God is good,” point guard Derrick Walton Jr. said here. “We avoided something that could have been tragic. Something happened in our life and brought us a lot closer. Like I said, we were there for a reason. It happened for a reason. The way we responded, I was very proud of it. It’s one of those memories that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
Across a coaching career that began in 1975, Beilein said he’s never been through an experience that brought a team together like this.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a team in that near-tragedy situation,” Beilein said in the locker room when I asked if he had anything with which to compare this experience. “And I don’t think we realized what was going on until we got out and looked at that dang plane and saw what we’d been through. So we’ll never forget that. That certainly separates them. I don’t know about the degree of the bond because we’ve had some really close teams.”
Still, Beilein said his team was able to make a run in Washington, D.C., beating Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin because it didn’t have time to think too much about the games themselves given what they’d been through.
“I think that brought us closer, especially going through something like that, so we just wanted to come out there and play for each other,” said senior swingman Zak Irvin. “The hardest part for us was getting back on the plane. Once we landed in D.C., we wanted to go out there and play the game that we love.”
Said Beilein: “It’s got to [bring you together]. I think you all have a better appreciation for the present, that you’re with this team, you’re with this bunch of guys. It doesn’t last forever, let’s make sure we appreciate it.”
In Oklahoma State, Michigan is facing a team that endured its own plane crash in on Jan. 27, 2001, one that killed eight people, including two players and six coaches and broadcasters.
“I mentioned it, but only to my family,” Beilein said of the 2001 crash. “I tried not to think about what could have happened, particularly if the plane would have got up in the air. I don’t think it makes it, just obviously didn’t have enough force to get up in the air. But if it gets up a little bit, now we got a whole different deal.
“So thank goodness the pilot put on the brakes. I thought about that. I thought about Evansville. I thought about Marshall. You think about all those tragedies that have happened in sports that really there’s a lot of — we’re just blessed. We’re just blessed that it never got to that point.
“But I’ve known Eddie Sutton for a long time. I really thought about that, how a coach goes through that.”
Now having forged a collective bond through near-tragedy, the Wolverines appear poised for more during the Madness.
Are they the team of destiny?
Friday marks the first step in their journey.
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Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.