WASHINGTON – What the basketball coach for Michigan remembered 24 hours later, thinking back on the terrifying moment his team had to flee a shattered jet, was the noise of the escape.
“The engine is still running, there’s gas fumes coming in on everybody,” John Beilein was saying Thursday. “When the engine finally shut down, there was a big pop. I said, `Oh, my goodness.’ But everybody was away from the plane. We were good.”By Thursday afternoon, it was time for them to reflect and give thanks, while the rest of us looked on in wonder at how a team that had just endured so much could show up at Verizon Center – almost literally at the last minute – and beat Illinois by 20 points in the Big Ten tournament.
“At this time 24 hours ago we were aborting a takeoff at a couple of hundred miles an hour,” Beilein said. “What these guys have been through the last 24 hours has been incredible.”
It is worth a revisit. This day in the lives of the Michigan Wolverines that they will never, ever forget.
It started in darkness Wednesday afternoon. The Wolverines were in the middle of practice back in Ann Arbor, when the lights went out. A power outage, apparently caused by high winds.
“We had to go out in the practice gym and find natural light, and go basically halfcourt,” senior forward Mark Donnal said. But no big deal. The workout soon ended and the team hopped on the bus for the airport.
There were 119 on board the team plane that taxied out for takeoff. Coaches, players, cheerleaders, band members, school officials and family members. Most of the players had their headphones on, lost in music, or already dozing.
The plane accelerated down the runway, but then something began to go wrong. Those high winds. The pilot decided to abort at the last minute and tried to stop the plane. But the plane wasn’t stopping.
Junior forward D.J. Wilson: “I had my head phones on and I was just chilling. Then I felt him hit the brakes. In the back of my mind I knew we had only so much runway left. Then I saw ahead of me a fence and a ditch and we ran through the fence. I thought, `Oh no, the ditch is coming.’”
Television analyst Dan Dakich, whose son Andrew is a senior guard: “He told me some guys were flying around because they didn’t have their seat belts on. He said `I’ll never have my seat belt not on.’ He said it was little bit of chaos but everybody was pretty calm.”
The plane finally rumbled to a stop. Evacuation time. Donnal was in the emergency seat, which meant he had to help with the door. He put all 6-9, 240 pounds into it. “I’ve been on a plane hundreds of times and never thought I’d have those duties and actually try to pull out the door. The adrenaline kind of hit me pretty quickly.”
Sophomore forward Moritz Wagner: “I’m never going to sit in an exit row, ever. I don’t know what I would have done. I jumped off the wing. I ran. You’ve seen the movies, right? You’re a 19-year-old naïve kid, (you’re thinking) this plane behind us is going to blow up. That fear moment. I ran as far as I could.”
Beilein: “We had players know enough to open the emergency doors and get everybody out. We’ve got people jumping onto the wings, we’ve got cheerleaders jumping on the wings, and the band getting out of there.”
No one was hurt. Many quickly got on phones to contact family.
Junior guard and team star Derrick Walton Jr.: “The first person I thought about was my mom. It put a lot of things in perspective for me personally. Life itself is more important. I was able to step back and look at things differently.”
Senior guard Zak Irvin called his mother. “It was so windy, she could hardly hear me. I just told her I loved them.”
They were safe, but what to do now? The Wolverines were scheduled to play Illinois the next day at noon in Washington, D.C. The team collected in a hotel, and counselors were called in to address any anxiety.
“We care deeply about what these kids are going through, and our staff, so it was important to do that,” athletic director Warde Manuel said. “We will continue to monitor it. We just want to make sure everything is good with them. Games are something we do, but it’s not life.”
The players met among themselves. Michigan could either try to find another plane and get to Washington the next morning, or just forfeit if too many were too upset to travel. It was the kind of decision suddenly rattled college athletes never expect to have to make.
Beilein: “I didn’t want to be a part of that. I made sure they could tell their feelings to some counselors. I told them, `I’m with you, either way.’’’
Wilson: “We had a long discussion multiple times throughout the day. I know we had a couple of guys who were hesitant. But we all grouped together and decided to get on the plane.”
Irvin: “My whole thing was, I know it was going to be tough, but we’ve got to get on a plane eventually."
Robinson: “There were some different ideas thrown out, like driving and then stopping and then waking up and driving again. We kind of all decided if we banded together and did it as a team...”
A Plan B jet had to be found. Who stepped forward to help? The Detroit Pistons. Their plush charter jet would be available. The players would get a kick out of that.
There was still Illinois to prepare for at the hotel Wednesday night. The normal routine would be a film session, a walkthrough, lots of game plan discussion.
“I walked in there and said, `We aren’t doing this,” Beilein said. “We have to let time take care of this a little bit.’
The Wolverines were sent to bed, since the morning would be early. They’d have to get going before dawn. “It was tough to fall asleep,” Robinson said. “But we were waking up at 6, anyway.”
They were on the way to the airport by 6:45 a.m., ready for takeoff an hour later, which was the moment of truth for many of them. Some staff had elected not to fly because of what had happened. Beilein’s wife, too.
Wagner: “I’m usually not scared, but today I was a little scared.”
Irvin: “The hardest part for all of us was getting back on the plane. I think it definitely helped we were on the Pistons plane. It helped everybody’s spirit.
“Once we landed, everybody was fine.”
Next obstacle: The weekday District of Columbia traffic. The Wolverines landed at Dulles, a long haul from the Verizon Center. They arrived with 80 minutes to spare before the scheduled tipoff. No practice, no game uniforms – those were still in the belly of the jet – not much in the way of clothes.
“We’re here, bare-bones,” Beilein said.
They made a request – immediately granted by the Big Ten – to push the game 20 minutes. But even then, would they be ready?
Turned out, that was not a problem.
Irvin: “I felt like we were going to be amped up. Once we got off the plane, everybody was ready to go. We were just excited to get out and play basketball. It was a time to get away from everything.”
“Once we got out on the court, we just got back to doing what we do every day.”
Beilein studied his locker room: “It was very quiet everywhere. I wasn’t going to shout at them, `What’s wrong with you guys? It’s a big game.’ It wasn’t a big game anymore. It was an important game, but being safe...
“After the anthem, they came back in, I could tell we were going to be ready.
“I said, `We just need to make one shot and we’ll be fine.’ Because it seemed like a whole new season, and it is. It was as unique an experience as anybody could ever have.
How ready were the Wolverines? They made 12 of their first 18 shots, blew away to a 20-point lead — the poor Illini, a desperate bubble team suddenly relegated to the bad guys in this drama — and never looked back.
The scoreboard didn’t make sense. The team ahead by 20, those were the guys who the day before had run through a field, their lives flashing before their eyes
Beilein: “They played connected today, like they were connected yesterday when we got a hundred-some people off an in airplane it seemed like in two minutes.
Wilson: “It’s been crazy, but at the same time I think it’s brought us closer. We’ve got each other’s back.”
If the scoreboard didn’t say it, you could tell what the Wolverines had gone through by their attire. Gold tops and blue bottoms, casual practice gear, fine for a scrimmage but hardly suitable to wear for a Big Ten tournament game. But nobody cared.
And nobody knew if their uniforms would make it in time for Friday’s game with Purdue. “We have washers and dryers here in D.C.” Beilein said. And the practice uniforms had worked out pretty well. “We might ride that wave,” Robinson said.
It ended 75-55. Walton had 19 points. Indeed, he had made the most of the day. Irvin had 18. It also was Beilein’s 210th victory at Michigan, making him the winningest coach in Wolverine’s history. What a moment to get it.
“I don’t know what to think right now,” he said. “I was not emotional at all in this game until the end -- when I saw my daughter.”
That’s when the feelings flooded over him, like it did at some point for all of them, thinking of family, and how this story could be turned out so, so different. Back in Michigan, a plane still rested off a runway in a heap. They would be back to play again Friday. Their 24 hours were over.