'One helluva ride'

The 2003 Cowboy seniors have watched their last collegiate game come and go. Where did it all begin? Who influenced these young men? Which OSU hoopster didn't even begin playing organized basketball until his junior year in high school?Graduation and real life await at the next stop. One thing is for sure, the road to success may be paved with good intentions and a healthy mindset, but there is a basketball goal at the end of the cul-de-sac.

Even while playing basketball in the parks as a child, Cheyne Gadson knew that the game was part of his lineage.

Wayne Gadson, Cheyne's dad, knows a little bit about the tradition of basketball. Shooting hoops in the parks of New York City when he was growing up, he learned a lot about basketball and a little about tradition. He was a talented and quick guard who played in Rucker Park when he was younger -- a place where basketball is a way of life and its heroes are legendary.

"The old Rucker used to be at 127th Street and Seventh Avenue," Wayne said. "That's where I played at against guys like Tiny Archibald, Earl Monroe, Melvin Davis, Earl "The Goat" Manigault -- the list is endless, it's endless."

Wayne was a talented player on the streets, but he was just as lethal in an organized game in the gym. He rode the morning train every day to play basketball at his high school on the lower side of Manhattan.

"I enjoyed playing basketball, and I think that was my motivation to just get on the train and get to school," Wayne said. "Because I knew at three o'clock we was gonna be practicing, and I knew I could play then -- that was my motivation."

In 1967, Wayne's motivation paid off. He was invited from his school to play in the All-City game at Wagner Center, where a collection of the best players in New York City assembled under one roof. Wayne was listed as one of the best backcourt men in the city while averaging 32 points a game in high school.

Wayne Gadson's time spent playing in the parks of New York City had paid its dividends. He was one of the best guards in New York City when he graduated from high school. He had learned basketball from playground legends in New York City, and his youngest son would follow in the tradition.

Cheyne played in the parks like his father when he was younger, but he didn't start playing organized basketball in high school until the 11th grade. Wayne and Renee Gadson, Cheyne's mother, decided that they wanted to keep Cheyne away from basketball because they had other activities for their son to be involved in. Renee said they knew that Cheyne could play basketball from the streets and what other people said about him, but she didn't encourage basketball.
But once a coach found out about Cheyne, it was hard to keep him from the courts.

"But it was something we couldn't keep from him because in New York City, you're known for playing basketball in the parks," Renee Gadson said. "That's what they do for recreation, they just go to the parks and they find ways to play ball. People soon start to realie that a person has potential or that this person is pretty skilled in playing ball and word gets around. When he was attending high school he was playing in the gym. The coach saw him playing and came up to him and asked him to be on the team and that's when it all started."

Cheyne's parents realized how talented he was from watching him in the parks, and they felt compelled to give him the chance to play organized basketball. In the 11th grade, Cheyne played his first organized basketball game in a gym, but he had already played in tournaments in the parks. Wayne said Cheyne had the chance to play against current NBA players in summer leagues in New York.

"I just let him start playing then he started playing in the summer leagues, and he played with "Skip to my Lou" (Rafer Alston, who picked up the nickname playing at Rucker Park) -- the guy who's with the Toronto Raptors now," Wayne Gadson said about Cheyne's path after first starting to play basketball.

"He played with Baron Davis at different tournaments. It just escalated, a lot of people who talked to Cheyne were amazed with the fact that he just started playing organized basketball."

Even though he started playing organized basketball late, Cheyne Gadson was a dominant player at Jamaica High School in Manhattan, New York. He was named the best athlete in his school and received awards in New York City for basketball. From Jamaica, Gadson went to school at Kilgore Junior College in Texas, but he injured his back in a car accident and never returned to Kilgore. From there he went to Westchester Community College where Oklahoma State coaches remembered him from his days at Kilgore and recruited him to come back to Big 12 country.

From Westchester, Cheyne found his way to Oklahoma State University and the basketball program of coach Eddie Sutton -- a program with tradition, albeit a very different kind of tradition from that of the parks of New York City. Gadson was in a new setting under the spotlight of Division I athletics, and he was in a completely new program under a coach that demanded a lot from his players. In a sense, Cheyne needed to learn about the program from someone who had already been at Oklahoma State, someone who could help him adjust to the changes he was encountering.
Maurice Baker was the person who helped Cheyne adjust the most to the new program.

Wayne Gadson said Cheyne met Baker when he came to Stillwater for a recruiting trip.

"Me and Mo Baker was real cool off the court," Cheyne said. "So, he carried a great example, he was an example of leadership off the court. That means a lot to me, it brought some things to me that I needed to do as far on the court and off the court. I would say Mo Baker carried me a long way, he helped out.

"We just helped each other out. But he helped me in a lot of ways because he was experienced and he was here already."

In much the same way, OSU's senior class of 2003 helped out the younger guys on the team as well. Ask any coach and they'll tell you that seniors are a driving force behind a team because they know what the coaching staff expects both off and on the court.

Seniors help younger players adjust to new their surroundings. Renee Gadson said that she thought seniors such as Baker helped Cheyne adjust to a new type of basketball and lifestyle in Oklahoma.

"I think that helped too because of the adjustment," Renee said. "It was an adjustment to the coaching difference, the lifestyle difference, and it was an adjustment from streetball to a more organized style. I think East Coast style of playing ball is different from out here. But with some of the players, the academic support staff, the coaching staff, and his family — he has such a supportive family — and me being here has helped him."

In his senior season, Cheyne averaged just over two rebounds a game with nearly six points a game in 19.2 minutes played per game, but Cheyne said he was prouder of graduating more than anything else.

"Well I had some rough times -- sitting on the bench a lot, learning some things through coaches way of teaching and things like that," Cheyne said. "Altogether, it was pretty fair for me I'd say. I went through a knee injury, so it was up and down for me from beginning to end. Overall, I'm just happy I'm graduating more than anything."
Like his father, basketball provided the motivation to go to school. Basketball provided the vehicle that motivated Cheyne to continue on with his school."

"I would nine times out of 10 say that Cheyne's primary reason for being in school is because of basketball," Renee said. "So that was a means, a vehicle, for him to get education. If it wasn't because of basketball, he might not have had an interest of attending college because it's just not emphasized that much in New York. It was because of basketball that education became important to Cheyne because he knew he had to do it in order to play and once he got into it he really enjoyed it."

More than anything else, basketball provided a means for Cheyne to reach his goals. It took him from the parks of New York City, to a gym in Jamaica high school, to Kilgore Junior College in Texas, back to New York to Westchester Community College, and back south again to Stillwater, OK. From here, the vehicle can take the driver wherever he wants to go.

"He told me it was a vehicle for him to get where he needed to get to so he could be in a position to do what he wanted to do," Wayne said. "That's the kind of attitude that he has. That's what it's meant to him, a vehicle. He's always going to respect that vehicle.

"I'm just happy for Cheyne. Like I said, he has the potential to go as far as he wants to go. A lot of times you just do what you can do until you can do what you got to do. And you just keep moving on."

A place to grow up

College, for most people, is a time to experience the world. It's a chance to see all the positives and negatives that await people outside the safe havens of their homes. Most of the time, it's an opportunity to experience all the good things that are available, but sometimes people can run into the negatives. For most people, college is a time to grow up and experience the world.

Melvin Sanders was no exception.

"We (the team) are a really close knit group -- sometimes I think we are too close," Sanders said. "The things that we have experienced together as a family unit is something that an outsider couldn't understand. We have seen each other at the best of times when we are on a roll winning games, and we have also seen tragedy in each other's hearts. Everyone in this program, from Coach (Eddie) Sutton to my teammates to the fans will be a part of me no matter where I go. It is literally a part of my body, my heart.

"This place has been where I really saw the world and its happiness and sadness — I grew up here."

While most college basketball players would consider losing a lot of a games in a season or ending their season with an injury to be a tragedy, the OSU players understand there is much more to a tragedy. Sanders said that he never experienced having such a large family like he felt he had after the Jan. 27, 2001 plane crash.

"Stillwater and OSU and the people are so great," Sanders said. "It is like one big family that I never imagined I would experience. The fans love you through thick and thin, even when you are losing. The people here were witnesses to some heartbreaking times especially with the plane crash — there is no way I could forget that kindness.

"It was a time where such an intimate tragedy was on the news every day, and the people here still let us know that they loved us. They didn't pry, they just wore their ribbons and cheered us on. That is what we needed and that is what they did."

The fans were an important part of the team's healing, but it was the players themselves that had to go back out onto the court after the tragedy. They did and were applauded by the college basketball community. But the Cowboys were unable to get past the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 2001 as they lost to Southern California. Last season, the Cowboys lost their leading scorer Maurice Baker and fell to Kent State in the first round of the tournament.

This season, the Cowboys were determined to break the hex of "one-and-out" that had plagued the team and did so with 77-63 win over Pennsylvania. But the Cowboys were unable to get past Syracuse and the Orangemen's freshman sensation, Carmelo Anthony, in the second round. The loss ended the OSU season and the tenure of the senior players at OSU.

But ask the coaches, and they'll tell you it'll be hard to forget this group of seniors.

"I really have come to have a lot of respect and feelings for all these seniors," OSU assistant coach James Dickey said. "They've all got tremendous personalities, they've all got great smiles, and they do have infectious personalities, all of them."

Sanders arrived at OSU after a successful season at Seward County Community College, and he quickly developed a reputation as a defensive stopper with a sharp eye from beyond the arc. If there was a player that Sutton needed to have stopped, he would usually assign Sanders to do the job. Sanders was repaid for his effort this season after he was named to the Big 12 Defensive team.

In his senior year Sanders averaged 12.9 points and 4.8 rebounds per game.

If you ask Sanders who he looks up to as a player, he'll tell you that it was the man who ran his position in Gallagher-Iba Arena prior to his arrival.

"That's easy -- the guy who played my position before I did is one of the best guys to play on this floor -- ever," Sanders said. "When I was one of the young guys, there weren't any seniors on the team, but I still had tapes of Desmond Mason to look at. Desmond Mason is my favorite NBA player right now, I watch him constantly and try to model my game after him, he is one of the best young guys in the game. I can't think of anyone to look up to better than him, it is just a bonus that he is from OSU."

Sanders, like the rest of the seniors, echoed the sentiment that a senior should always provide an example for the rest of the team to follow. If the seniors can provide leadership, the rest of the team falls in place after the seniors.

"Being a senior is all about leadership," Sanders said. "To have a good team you have to have good leadership -- you are only as strong as your weakest link. I believe if everybody can come out and be a team, from the walk-ons up to the senior starters, then you have a pretty good chance of winning games no matter what team you play for."

If there is one thing Sanders and the rest of the seniors can be proud of beyond the individual accolades, it is being a part of a team and program that continually wins 20 games a year. The seniors left the string intact for the younger players to continue the tradition.

Not much of an appeasal, though, to men who are leaving their second home.

Ask any of the seniors, and they'll tell you they will miss Gallagher-Iba Arena — maybe more than anything else.

They might miss the electric feeling generated by a raucous crowd; they might miss the sense of something from playing on a court with such tradition; they might miss the memories of great games or players; or they might miss a combination of a million different emotions. The simple fact of the matter is that the players will miss Gallagher-Iba. After all, for the period of time that each was at OSU, they laid it all out on the line every day in practice.

They left their legacy on the court, and it's easy to miss something like that. Unfortunately, you can't pause the moment in time either.

"I am gonna miss it, of course," Sanders said about his time at OSU. "Sometimes you just gotta grow up, though. I wish I could stay in this time of my life forever, like freeze it in time. But I guess life doesn't work like that unfortunately."

As the Cowboys were losing to Syracuse to end the season, the seniors' moment in time had finally come to an end. They couldn't pause it, and they had to watch as time ran down on the clock and on their careers.

But the clock ran down on their college basketball careers and not their lives, and Sutton knew that there was much more out there for the players to find.

"I told the seniors after the game ‘you're going to have to live with this the rest of your lives knowing that you could have won,'" OSU coach Eddie Sutton said. "You were up by nearly 20 and then let them come back.

"But they are good kids, they won't be happy for a while, but they know a lot about life. They've been through a lot together, and they're a tremendous group of kids. They know there's a lot more out there for them, they just haven't realized it yet. Sure it hurts now, but they're going to accomplish so much more in life than basketball."

Learning from the best

Most basketball purists would say that a point guard's sole responsibility is to get the ball to his teammates.

Most don't care whether a point guard gobbles up rebounds or can shoot from beyond the arc with deadly aim. It doesn't hurt to have those talents, but basketball conservatists just drool over a point guard that can handle the ball and see the floor perfectly and make sharp passes to his teammates to help them score. When looking at a point guard's statistics, the first thing a basketball traditionalist would check is his assists.

To a basketball traditionalist, Victor Williams learned to play the point from the best point guard OSU has ever seen, Doug Gottlieb.

Gottlieb wasn't the shooter -- he averaged only 5.2 points per game in his career -- and he didn't always get the rebounds -- averaging only 2.3 per game. But the one part of basketball that Gottlieb excelled at was passing the ball, to the tune of 8.1 assists per game. Gottlieb graduated in 2000 as the OSU career leader in assists with 793, but he left a legacy behind in a person that went up against him every day in practice in his senior year.

Williams spent the 1999-2000 season in practice as a redshirt going up against Gottlieb after transferring in from Illinois State. Williams said he picked a great player to learn from once he got to OSU.

"Doug was a great passer," Williams said. "He was a great guy for me to come in and learn from. He was the taught me a lot about passing a ball and being a leader. I just kind of wanted to take up that after him."

Ask any coach and they'll tell you that leadership is important from the senior class to set examples both off and on the court. The seniors have been in the program for a while and they know what's expected from them by the coaching staff.

OSU assistant coach James Dickey said the seniors have a responsibility as both verbal leaders and leaders by example to the younger players on the squad.

"Leadership is really important and especially from your senior class when you have four seniors," Dickey said. "So it is important for them to set a good example -- one on the court, but certainly off the court as well. They know what's expected of them off the court, they know what coach Sutton expects. It's very important to be a positive influence and a positive guise to these younger players and the underclassmen. That's part of giving back to the program, and it also helps ensure the success on the court."

 

With a program and a coaching staff that prides itself on having a high graduation rate, senior leadership becomes even more important. The seniors are the players who take charge in practice and make sure the players stay in line with expectations. Williams said it is important for seniors to take charge in a program.

"That's what this program has always prided itself on is having seniors that really can lead the ballclub," Williams said. "My sit-out year I learned from Desmond Mason and Doug Gottlieb and all those guys that were seniors, and now it's my time to do it."

But the lasting impression left by the seniors is that of trying to build a cohesive unit. Once a senior is gone, he's never quite forgotten. The players are left with a legacy of family.

"I always keep in touch with them," Williams said. "That's what this program is all about is a lifelong family. Once you come through here you keep in touch with the old guys you always have kind of a camaraderie you've got between each other."

Williams, as one of the more visible Cowboys, was considered by many to be the leader of the team. Junior Ivan McFarlin said Williams was almost the father of the unit on the court.

"Victor is sort of like the father of the family," McFarlin said. "He makes sure everyone is doin' what they're supposed to be doin'. He's a great leader, he gives great advice on the court, he makes sure all of us is gonna be together. He's definitely the leader of our little family."

While the senior from Kansas City, Kan. is considered a role model to the younger players, OSU coach Eddie Sutton is almost like a second father to Williams. Williams said he learned a lot of lessons about life from Sutton.

"A lot of people don't know, but me and Coach Sutton have definitely got a bond that I don't think he shares with too many other players," Williams said. "Me and him is just like father and son -- it's just like he's coaching his son out there when he's coaching me, I think. I don't get in trouble for stuff just on the court, if I do stuff off the court he punishes me -- that's just how it is.

"He's been my father away from home. He taught me a lot not only on the court but off the court, a lot of life lessons that I'll always cherish."

Serving the orange forces as a veteran member of the squad is beneficial -- Williams said it is easier to understand the expectations put forth by coaches.

"It's a lot of fun because you know the system and you know what coach expects because you've been in the program for a while," Williams said. "But it's kind of sad because you know it's your last time through. It's your last go around and your last time to be able to play on this basketball court."

The hallowed walls of Gallagher-Iba Arena have a tradition that stems back to 1938. Banners hang from the lofty rafters above the court, and a pin drop could be heard when the old, historic gymnasium is empty. On game day, however, screaming fans, are donning orange and toting pompoms. OSU students line up at the doors hours before home games to offer a contribution to the proclaimed, "Rowdiest Arena in the Country."

For Williams, the fans -- as well as his younger teammates and coaches -- hold a special place in his heart.

"I'm gonna remember the family atmosphere with the basketball team and playing with coach Sutton," Williams said. "It was just like a family away from home. It's like I've been living with my brothers. It's going to be a time to remember.

Road to fulfillment

His story is that of rags to riches. Pain to happiness. Weakness to strength.

Andre Williams grew up in the middle of a bitter custody battle; he saw the foster care system; he saw his parents fight over who would take care of him. He saw what it was like to crave normalcy; he saw what it was like to experience life as though he was window shopping at Macy's.

But then, he got a chance. A road out of nowhere -- a journey far away from the cold, abusive father and crime-ridden streets of Kansas City.

Williams once uttered five words that a young man in his early twenties shouldn't ever be forced to keep on his lips, "I know how to survive."

When most college kids are reveling in their first time away from home -- no rules, no overly-protective parents -- Williams was just glad to get a ticket out of town. He got a chance to do what he loved doing; he got a chance to play the game that seemed to numb all the pain.

"Andre Williams is just one of those really special kids," Eddie Sutton said earlier this season. "You almost can't call him a kid, though. The things he has faced in life made him mature quickly."

Williams recanted to reporters last year about how he awoke in a hospital when he was a teenager. The high school freshman had been badly beaten with a tree branch that his father used on him frequently.  

Luck seemed out of reach for the kid from KC. Until, that is, he walked into the OSU basketball empire that Henry P. Iba built.

Williams, fittingly on senior day, broke the Cowboy single-season shot block record (80, set by Joe Atkinson Jr., 1984). As the public address announcer proclaimed Williams' feat to the spectators at Gallagher-Iba Arena, Williams threw his hands in the air, pounded his chest a little, and smiled a prideful smile.

"I really wanted that, I have been working for that record the whole time I have been here," Williams said. "I couldn't have scripted a better day for my last game here."

And, it seemed as though the kid that has been through hell and back, couldn't stop smiling for once.

"Being at Oklahoma State, I couldn't have asked for anything greater," Williams said after playing his final home game in a Cowboy uniform on March 8. "I don't think it has really hit me yet, that I will be leaving this place. This is my home now, and I know I need to leave, grow up and all -- but it is really hard now that it is becoming a reality."

And, even though Williams has said he talks to his biological father now, he isn't shy about his feelings toward Sutton, the man that took him under his wing and believed in his talents.

"Coach Sutton is like a father to me," Williams said. "He gets on me when I don't produce, because he knows that I am better on the court than I show sometimes. We been through a lot, me and coach, and he is part of my family."

This from a man who doesn't show much emotion, because his head and heart have been programmed to disappointment over and over again.

A cousin and a friend were murdered in separate incidents. An old friend from Williams' AAU days succumbed to cancer. Ten of his basketball family perished in a place crash while returning from a game in Boulder, Colo.

"I guess you could say I have been through a lot of stuff," Williams said. "But what was important was that I kept going, I didn't let it get me down for long."

After the Jan. 27, 2001 plane crash, Williams was the spokesman of sorts for his mourning team. His heart was tuned to the channel of hard times; he knew how to handle the pain, and in turn, became the shoulder for his teammates -- his brothers.

"Andre is strong -- he accepts this role," Sutton said after Williams' stepped to the forefront after the tragedy two years ago. "He can absorb a lot of pain, he isn't numb to it, but he handles it better because he has seen more."

One thing that the 6 foot 8 inch Cowboy senior has always had going for him is basketball. And, to the spectator, it seems like an escape for Williams.

He earned MVP accolades at Schlagle High School in Kansas City, averaging 13 blocked shots during the 1997 season. Williams then went on to a preparatory school, Maine Central Institute, where he averaged 15.1 points, 12.7 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game.

"I thought when he was young, he could have been another Dennis Rodman," Sutton said following a seven-block, three-steal performance against Kansas State on Feb. 5.

It didn't take long for Williams to be a smash hit in the Big 12. It also didn't take long for other coaches to notice his amazing defensive skills in the paint.

"He is a monster down there," Texas head coach Rick Barnes said after the Cowboys beat the then-No. 3 Longhorns this season. "He is as tough as any player down-low as I have seen -- and I have seen a lot of really talented guys. So, yeah, I think it is safe to say I am glad he is a senior."

Williams is the type of player that demands respect. Aside from his defensive skills amassed through a wingspan like an eagle's, the opposition actually looks forward to facing off against him. He isn't an offensive powerhouse, but the other "big men" in the Big 12 know that when they go at Williams, they will improve their own games.

"He's the kinda player that you want to play against," Missouri's Arthur Johnson said earlier this season. "He really makes you bring your ‘A' game; he's a great defensive player. He makes you work off the dribble, and you better have a quick release and high arch, cause if you don't he's gonna swat it back in your face. That is what you want as a player -- to play against guys that are gonna make you work to be better."

Williams has since gone on to add to his statistics at OSU. He finished out the season with 85 blocks, and averaged 5.6 rebounds per game.

"Of course Andre is someone I will miss, I will miss all of my players when they graduate," Sutton said affectionately. "That young man will leave an empty spot in the locker room. I won't miss his free-throw shooting (33%), but I will miss him. It is a loss anytime you graduate such young men of character."

This time, it is Williams who is experiencing the joy that life can provide. No more window shopping for laughter and stability, no more climbing the ladder to get to the top.

"Getting your degree is what counts," assistant coach James Dickey said. "(The seniors) all have endless possibilities ahead of them...Andre is going to be able to do anything he wants to do."

And Williams -- the big animal in the paint -- wants to give back to the world that put him in a happy place. Graduating with a family relations and childhood development degree, Williams wants to be a role model for kids who have none. Maybe he will be able to help the children better because he has been there.

"You can't see 'Dre bein' with the kids?" forward Melvin Sanders asked. "He is crazy, he gonna be great at that, he is really gonna be a great teacher to them."

Looking back on his basketball career instantly brings back the infectious smile that makes him a fan-favorite in Stillwater.

He looks around a room of reporters, shakes his head, and for the first time in a long time, it looks as though the strong, big brother of the OSU family may be getting choked up a little.

"What a ride, you know? It has been one helluva ride."

 

 

story republished from The Daily O'Collegian

Photo Illustration/Matt Palmer


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