Memories Are Held in Reserve

You don't know them. They're wearing their warmups, so you can't even read the names on the back of their jerseys. But you can read the emotion on their faces.

They clasp hands, bite their lips and look skyward for any possible help while their teammates shoot pressure free throws. They bounce up and down along the sidelines in anticipation of victory, then they spill onto the court when the final buzzer sounds.

Or they hang their heads and fight tears--often unsuccessfully--when a loss brings their season to an end.

They are the reserve players, and they are as much a part of March Madness as the future NBA draft picks and the heroes who make the last-second shots. They are a reminder of what we like about the NCAA tournament, a bit of purity about the sport that not even billion-dollar rights fees, 10 p.m. start times or even the omnipresent specter of Bob Knight can ruin.

Nate Fleming was such a longshot to get playing time his teammates nicknamed him "Rudy." Dan Lawson was usually the first guard off the bench, but on a team that relied on its starters as heavily as Oklahoma State does that meant an average of only nine minutes a game.

"Both of them were gentlemen that you want on your team, regardless if they're going to play 35 minutes or two minutes," Oklahoma State assistant coach Kyle Keller said.

Good guys, but on the court only good enough to score 36 points in the team's first 17 games (33 of them were by Lawson). Fleming scored the first point of his career in the season opener against Missouri Kansas City, and scored his only field goal against Lamar on Dec. 22.

The most points Lawson scored in a game were seven. His biggest moment came when he grabbed two key offensive rebounds in an overtime victory against Iowa State on Jan. 8. But in all likelihood, a few moments on screen as the TV cameras panned the bench were about the extent of the glory Fleming and Lawson could have expected from the NCAA tournament.

For most of America, Fleming and Lawson are the players you never got to know. If you've heard their names at all, chances are it's because you know they were on that plane, the Beechcraft Super King Air 200, that crashed 38 miles east of Denver when the Oklahoma State Cowboys were returning home after a loss at Colorado on Jan. 27, killing all 10 people on board.

"We live every day for those two guys and the other eight that were on that plane," Keller said. "We remember Nate and Dan and the rest of them hopefully by the way we play.

"There's the patch [on the uniforms], we have a banner hanging in our arena. In time we'll have a memorial in the gym. But their spirit lives within us."

Look closely when the Cowboys play USC tonight in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

If you see Oklahoma State players holding their first two fingers together, it's to represent Fleming's No. 11 before the game. If you see them waving three fingers, it's for Lawson's No. 3.

You might catch a glimpse of Fleming's practice jersey beneath forward Fredrik Jonzen's uniform. Or you might see Lawson's jersey hiding under guard Maurice Baker uniform.

Who were Dan Lawson and Nate Fleming?

Teammate Andre Williams' quick description--"'A guy from Detroit and a little tennis player from Edmond [Okla.]"--only begins to tell the story.

Lawson was regarded as the funniest guy on the team. Fleming was the valedictorian at Edmond North High.

Fleming was so well-liked in the community that his sister worried that their church, with a sanctuary that seated 1,000, wouldn't be large enough for Nate's funeral. She was right; an estimated 2,800 people showed up at Westminster Presbyterian Church for the service.

"Dan and Nate were just very fun people," Williams said. "I had the chance to room with both of them. It was just a very new experience every day. Especially with Dan, he was always outgoing and fun-loving.

"Nate, every day in practice, was a war because you knew he was going to come out whether he got his nose busted or head [slammed] down on the floor or whatever. Nate did whatever it took to get practice going."

Both players were popular with their teammates, although more than one person speculated that might have been because they were as adept at attracting women as any four-year starter.

Fleming did it by playing guitar and singing Dave Matthews songs. Lawson? Well, he had that smile.

"He had girls at every turn," said Marilyn Middlebrook, Oklahoma State assistant athletic director for student affairs.

She described Lawson as "Mister Happy.

"You couldn't be mad at him, no matter what he did. He was a pleaser."

Both players were redshirts in the 1999-2000 season after playing in a handful of games that year.

Lawson, named the top community college player in Michigan while playing at Mott Community College before transferring to Oklahoma State, was adjusting to life as a reserve this season. Although he felt he could have been playing more, he didn't become a divisive force in the locker room. He just worked harder. Keller was responsible for supervising Lawson in his 7:30 a.m. individual workouts, and usually arrived to find that Lawson had beaten him to the gym.

Although Fleming was a standout tennis player at Edmond North High, he decided to attend Oklahoma State on an academic scholarship because he thought he had a chance to walk on to the basketball team.

"He just really loved basketball," said his father, Zane Fleming. "He was a little better athlete in tennis. He made all-state first team in tennis. He loved basketball more."

Nothing made Nate happier than the day Keller and fellow assistant coach Sean Sutton told Fleming they had something to show him. They pulled out a Cowboy jersey with the No. 11 and Fleming's name.

Fleming had worn No. 11 since he was 8. It made sense. He was born on Sept. 11, and weighed in at 7 pounds 11 ounces.

"It seemed like 11s just kept coming out everywhere he went," said Nate's father.

Even the phone number at the home he shared with Jonzen this year ended in 11.

Zane Fleming can rattle off every number associated with his son, and he seems to take an equal measure of pride in each, whether it's Nate's grade-point averages in his three full semesters at Oklahoma Sate (3.8, 3.5 and 3.7) or that "he got to play in eight games this year."

Zane Fleming and both of his daughters had gone to Oklahoma, but they managed to cross into "enemy" territory and root for Oklahoma State on Nate's behalf.

Lawson, farther from home, didn't always have his parents in the stands. But his brother Eric, who lived in Texas, would frequently attend games.

Lawson wasn't as stellar a student as Fleming, Middlebrook said, "but he always worked hard, did everything I asked of him.

"He was just a genuine young man. He wanted to succeed. He loved basketball, but he wanted to finish school because he wanted to provide for his family."

The two kids, from different backgrounds, with different talent levels, "were just good friends," Middlebrook said. "They were both the same kind of kids. They had a camaraderie between them--we really share on the whole team--but those two in particular."

Fleming usually wound up being friends with everyone.

"Since I was from Sweden, I didn't have that many friends coming in here," Jonzen said. "He became one of my best friends. . . . He was a really hard worker. Last year I broke his nose in practice [with an elbow]. This year he had two of his front teeth knocked out. He had a pretty rough two years."

Nate Fleming asked for only one thing in return. It was the same request he made before every game: "Get me my ticket."

By that he meant get a blowout, amass a lead so insurmountable that in the final minutes Coach Eddie Sutton could clear the bench and give such pine-riders as Fleming a chance to play.

The Cowboys got their ticket, the big ticket, to the NCAA tournament. They won six of their last nine games to earn it, which is pretty remarkable considering the tragedy they have endured. The starters, the reserves, all of them get their moments.

The music plays on. It's a little harder for Zane Fleming to listen to Dave Matthews now. One of the only songs he will listen to is "Two Step," which contains a lyric he finds rather poignant these days: "Celebrate . . . because life is short but sweet."

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J.A. Adande can be reached at his e-mail address: ja.adande@latimes.com.

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