From their usual seats about 15 rows off the floor at center court on the west side of Lloyd Noble Center, LeAnne and Larry Spangler watch their son work his way through a crowd of fans.
They don’t mind. They see him all the time.
They wait at the end of a line of autograph-seeking kids and old friends looking for a hug. Ryan Spangler greets every one.
Spangler acknowledges his parents before every home game, and they haven’t missed one. But they’re not the only ones who come to see him play. A friendly crowd has grown to almost 80 now as a group of fans from the small, unincorporated community of Bridge Creek – and the surrounding area – has followed to Norman.
They’ve come for Ryan Spangler, who knows the whole town looks at him.
“It’s not a burden to me,” he said. “Obviously, I want to make them proud, but I know they’ll support me the whole time. They are the ones that helped me and supported me.”
Bridge Creek is a small community of less than 500 people southwest of Oklahoma City off Interstate 44. For a long time, Bridge Creek was known for the devastating F5 tornado that killed 12 people and injured almost 40 others in Bridge Creek alone in 1999.
It remains one of the stronger tornadoes in U.S. history.
Just a few years ago, when the Spanglers told people they lived in Bridge Creek, they had to elaborate – pointing out the surrounding larger towns of Blanchard, Tuttle and Newcastle.
When Larry Spangler walks into restaurants or other places outside of the Tri-Cities area now, people strike up a conversation. He went to vote two weeks ago, and the woman checking IDs saw his name and his hometown and wanted to talk about Ryan Spangler.
In a small town where just about everyone knows everyone else, everybody in Bridge Creek knows the Spanglers. People around the state, especially Oklahoma basketball fans, are starting to take note of Bridge Creek once again, because of one of the town’s favored sons.
“Nobody knew where Bridge Creek was, other than a tornado, until Ryan,” LeAnne Spangler said.
There have been a few gawkers and onlookers who have driven by the Spanglers’ house to take pictures of the two basketball hoops the family has in the front yard. When Ryan Spangler, the youngest of the three brothers, goes back to Bridge Creek for basketball or football games, young admirers follow him.
Spangler led the Bridge Creek basketball team to the state championship game his senior year. He was a Parade All-American and the Gatorade Oklahoma Player of the Year. As a senior, he averaged 29.2 points, 17.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game. He shot 71.4 percent from the field.
Neither Oklahoma nor Oklahoma State offered or even gave much attention to the in-state product. So, Spangler left for Gonzaga – a mid-major school that was becoming one of the best programs in the nation.
At first, Spangler was too busy to miss home, meeting new teammates like current Boston Celtic Kelly Olynyk and former West Coast Conference Player of the Year Kevin Pangos, who he still keeps up with to this day. But eventually, he started to miss home. He missed Sunday night dinners, when his entire family would get together. They talked through FaceTime, but Spangler was sitting in his dorm room more than 1,500 miles away.
It was quiet in the Spangler house, where LeAnne had grown accustomed to a lot of one-on-one time with her youngest son. Larry Spangler missed watching football games with all three of his boys.
“We missed him there,” Larry said. “We were used to him being there.”
After the NCAA Tournament his freshman year, Ryan Spangler made the decision to transfer closer to home without even knowing Oklahoma would be a viable option. Less than a month later, he had signed with Oklahoma, where new coach Lon Kruger didn’t hesitate to bring Spangler into the fold.
Even during his redshirt year, fans from Tuttle, Newcastle, Blanchard and Bridge Creek began to flood the Oklahoma ticket office. Their prided son was coming home.
Glenna Interwicz, a family friend, met the Spanglers when they moved from Denison, Texas while Ryan was in eighth grade, and she was serving on the school board. She graduated from Oklahoma State. The thought of buying Oklahoma season tickets had never crossed her mind. She still hasn’t purchased them, but she hasn’t missed a game.
Spangler’s high school basketball coach at Bridge Creek, Jason Sanders, stopped coaching last year. One of the big reasons was because he wanted to come to as many of Spangler’s games as he could. The college and high school schedules conflicted too often.
“The following has built,” Sanders said. “Not just Bridge Creek but people in the surrounding areas that kind of followed Ryan his senior year. I kind of saw him just becoming a folk hero in that community.”
Before Ryan Spangler showed up in Bridge Creek, football games didn’t have much of a following. Scores were usually lopsided when playing against Tuttle, Newcastle and Blanchard, all rival schools that had large crowds. People started coming out of the woodwork for football games when Spangler started playing, Interwicz said.
But Spangler, who threw more than 70 touchdowns in his career, never had an aura of arrogance about him that might have segmented him off from the small community. He maintained his selfless, hard-working character.
“He’s kind of the community hero that everybody looks up to,” Interwicz said. “. . . They’re looking up to him and thinking, if he can do it, I can do it. He’s proved that with hard work and dedication, you can achieve anything.”
Whether it’s a good game, a bad game or, in this weekend’s case, an NCAA Tournament game, Spangler always knows what to expect. He’ll have his family – his community – there supporting him.
Spangler expects he’ll need at least 20 tickets for the Sooners’ first-round game against Cal State-Bakersfield and probably the same number for Sunday’s game if Oklahoma avoids the upset. Those will be the last two college basketball games that the community can watch him in person.
It’s a community, young and old, that looks up to Spangler.
“They look at me as big-time, but at the same time, they know who I am,” Spangler said. “They spent a lot of years with me. They know what I’m about.”
LeAnne and Larry Spangler showed up early for the Sooners’ final home game this season – just like they have for every game. They get there two hours early to make sure they get the same seats. They hug security guards who recognize the Spanglers coming through the door, and long-time Oklahoma executive assistant Renee Forney greets them.
This night was Senior Night.
It was the last time they would watch their son play inside Lloyd Noble Center. They’ll be back to watch the school they’ve been fans of since they were both kids. But Ryan won’t be back – at least not to play another game.
“We are very blessed,” LeAnne Spangler said. “We couldn’t ask for anything better than OU and Ryan and coach Kruger. . . . . It’s home now. Ryan has made the most of it. We’ve made the most of it as a family.”
When Spangler moves on from Oklahoma, he wants to give professional basketball a shot. He’ll try the NBA but knows he might have to go overseas. Larry and LeAnne laughed that they might finally be able to do some traveling.
Ryan Spangler will always have his fan base, though. He’ll always have his home.
“I learned a lot of stuff,” Ryan Spangler said. “I learned what I do and don’t like. I learned where I need to be in life, and when I’m done in basketball, where I need to live.”