Stillwater feels the loss of Budke, Serna

STILLWATER, Okla. -- There was supposed to be a basketball game on Sunday, the third one of the season, in a gym affectionately known as the rowdiest in America. At the end of the game, coach Kurt Budke was supposed to turn to the stands and wink at his wife Shelley, like he did every time the Oklahoma State Cowgirls played. They were still in love after decades of marriage, still "disgustingly romantic," said Kevin Gum, play-by-play voice of the Cowgirls.

And though he was 50 years old, Budke was still a giant kid in slacks and a neon-orange vest. He'd hide behind the locker-room door before games and leap out to scare Gum, then laugh like it was still hilarious, even after the hundredth time. Budke made a prediction last week. His Cowgirls, incredibly young but massively talented, were going to be good. It was Tuesday, and the Oklahoma State campus was brimming with excitement and optimism. The football team was 10-0 and churning its way to a BCS bowl bid and possible national championship; its men's and women's basketball teams, so tight and closely connected, were ready to give Stillwater an entertaining winter.

Elizabeth Merrill for ESPN.com

Kevin Gum, play-by-play voice of the Cowgirls.

"What do you think now, Gum?" Gum recalled Budke saying after his team opened the season with a dominating win against Rice, silencing at least one doubter. Thing is, Budke was always optimistic. He was going to win every game. On Thursday, he skipped practice and hopped on a plane with his assistant, Miranda Serna, for a short trip to Arkansas to visit a couple of recruits at a tournament. What kid wouldn't fall in love with Budke? Gum has a 12-year-old special-needs son named Landry who was born with a brain injury. Landry has a hard time speaking, but last year learned how to say, how to yell, "Budke!"

At 4 o'clock on Friday morning, Gum was jolted out of bed with the news. That Budke and Serna were dead; that Oklahoma State, 10 years after burying 10 members of their men's basketball family after a plane crash, had to somehow lift itself up from another one.

The air turned bitter cold in Stillwater on Sunday, the sky was slate-gray, and Gum sat courtside at Gallagher-Iba Arena, staring at the long rows of black folding chairs on the basketball floor. Gum and Ryan Cameron, the longtime women's basketball sports information director, had no particular reason to be at the gym, other than it was the only place that made them feel a little less sad. Gum has seen the gym set up like this before -- for graduations, and after the first plane crash. He points to the stands where he sat at the service in 2001. He points to where Cameron sat that day, too.

They swap stories and cellphone pictures for more than an hour. Neither of them wants to go home Sunday night. It's almost like being in the gym makes them feel connected to something that is gone.

They have no idea how they'll get through Monday's memorial. They'll get through it because they have to, but most of all because they know how.

"It's just damn bad luck," Gum said. "I mean, I'm pretty sure I could win the Powerball three times before a plane would crash twice at the same school.

"I tell you what, my heart breaks for all those people who were involved with the men's program. Those poor people. We got them 10 years down the road, and now it's right here back at the front of their minds. I mean, how much can a person take?"

Why they were flying

The details, like in most plane crashes, will come out in increments until the National Transportation Safety Board issues a final report many months from now, when the season is over and the memorials have ended.

Here's what is known: that a single-engine, four-seat Piper Cherokee 180 crashed into a wooded hillside near Perryville, Ark., in clear skies and calm air on a late Thursday afternoon. Olin Branstetter, an 82-year-old former state senator and a big Oklahoma State fan, was piloting the plane with his wife, Paula, beside him.

Gum said it was the first time Budke and Serna had flown in the plane with the Branstetters, but that former OSU women's coaches Dick Halterman and Julie Goodenough had taken flights with the couple before. University officials say they will re-examine the school's travel policy in the wake of the crash.

The Branstetters were boosters who sat near the OSU women's bench during home games. Like her husband, Paula, 79, was a pilot, too.

They flew cancer patients to hospitals on their own dime. Paula's nickname was "Dusty." In her guestbook on Legacy.com, a woman named Penny from Dallas said Paula Branstetter once flew her and her dying brother over Dallas so he could see the city lights at night. "This was his dying wish," the woman wrote.

The plane, built in 1964, was very small, the type of plane that didn't exactly comfortably fit four passengers. The Tulsa World reported over the weekend that the plane is believed to be the same one the Branstetters flew over the North Pole in 1984. On Thursday afternoon, it was roughly 45 miles from its destination when it nose-dived into a wildlife management area in Central Arkansas.

'OK, I heard a bad rumor'

Suzanne Long takes solace in the fact that Budke and Serna were at least together when the plane went down. Long is the general manager of a Perkins restaurant just down the street from Gallagher-Iba, a hangout for the women's basketball team. They'd stop by before games, with Serna ordering the egg-white omelette with vegetables and Budke ordering the eggs and bacon or whatever sounded good that day.

Elizabeth Merrill/ESPN.com

Suzanne Long, right, general manager of Perkins restaurant, fed the OSU women before many games and became close friends with Miranda Serna. She desperately tried to text her Friday morning. Long's daughter, Angela Butler, is also pictured.

Budke, people close to the coaches say, was like a father to Serna. She was the first in her family to go to college when she played for Budke at Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas, winning a junior-college national championship. She followed him to Oklahoma State, and was on his staff for seven years. Budke believed in Serna, and she repaid him with unwavering loyalty.

"I don't want to know what was going through their heads at the time of the crash," Long said, "but it's comforting to know they were together, that they weren't alone in this. They followed each other here, and they were with each other, as far as I'm concerned, when they reached the gates of heaven."

Long considered Serna a close friend. She once told Serna that she'd never seen an Oklahoma State football game before, so Serna gave Long her two tickets to last year's season opener. They texted each other all the time. When Serna's mom used to visit from New Mexico, she'd take her into Perkins to visit.

Serna, 36, was single. Basketball was her life, and the team was her family away from New Mexico. She doted on Gum's kids, buying them stacks of presents each Christmas, and would sometimes go to church with Kurt and Shelley.

She had boundless energy, and did just about everything she set out to do. She ate bland omelettes because she wanted to be healthy, but also because she had long wanted to get down to a size 4. She reached it before her death.

On Friday morning, Long was at the bus stop with one of her daughters when she heard that an Oklahoma State women's basketball coach died. She tried frantically to find out if it was true, and who it was, and kept texting Serna. She assumed that something had happened to Coach Budke. She started texting Serna at 7:01 a.m.

OK, I heard a bad rumor.

Please tell me he's OK.

Elizabeth Merrill/ESPN.com

View of the memorial for Oklahoma State University women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant coach Miranda Serna at Gallagher-Iba Arena.

After three texts, she went to the Facebook page of one of Serna's cousins, and learned the news. Long couldn't do anything for the next day and a half. Whenever she cried at work, her customers knew why.

Stillwater, a north-central Oklahoma town of 45,000, is close-knit. They wear orange to church on Sundays; they follow every pulsating victory of their beloved football team; they know that Kurt Budke has a daughter and two boys and that the women's soccer team is good. There is a bond here that was no doubt forged deeper after Jan. 27, 2001, and will be even more unbreakable after Nov. 17, 2011.

Long sent an email to OSU's president a few days ago. She wants to do something for Budke and Serna, wants to dedicate the restaurant's back room that they always hung out in to them. Serna's family was in that back room Sunday, eating breakfast in the afternoon and spending time with Miranda's other family. There were aunts and nieces and nephews at the table. Long's daughter Angela waited on them. At one point, they saluted a birthday to someone at the table.

Happy birthday to you. May the good Lord bless you.

Like in 2001, Stillwater will lean on its faith, and each other, during the next few weeks. Jim Littell, Budke's best friend and the Cowgirls' interim head coach, slumped into the front pew Sunday morning at St. John the Evangelist University Parish, a Catholic church on campus. Across the aisle sat members of the OSU women's basketball team. The night before, men's basketball coach Travis Ford arranged for the teams to go bowling together. They laughed for a few hours. It was a temporary reprieve.

At Sunday morning Mass, the priest called Budke and Serna a father and mother to the team. He told them to follow their example. After the service, a couple of the players stopped by Perkins.

"I miss her. So much," Long said.

"I know, and it hurts to say it, but I know in my lifetime I probably will not come across two people as friendly and good-spirited as those two individuals. When you lose people like that, I mean, it's like a Mack truck going through your gut."

Connected to the 10

Where would he start? Cameron, the SID, has been at Oklahoma State through three women's basketball coaches, but Budke was the one who never, ever called him by his first name. He always called him "Ryno." The first team picture, he insisted Cameron be in it. Cameron kept saying no, that's not what SIDs do, but Budke was stubborn. Every year, he kept asking Cameron to get in the shot. He said Ryno was part of the team. Eventually, Cameron showed up in flip-flops and a T-shirt, and Budke must have gotten the hint. He stopped asking.

Ryan Cameron

Kurt Budke devoloped a close bond with radio broadcaster Kevin Gum's sons. Budke is pictured with Landry, left, and Trevor, right.

Oklahoma State's program was abysmal before Budke, and that first team didn't win a game in Big 12 action. But the next season, Budke had them in the NCAA tournament. On the flight to Michigan State for a first-round game, Budke stuck his head out of the first-class cabin and shouted out to Cameron, "Have you ever flown first class, Ryno?"

Budke insisted he join him in the front. He said Cameron deserved it after all of his hard work.

There are tons of memories, and Cameron keeps talking well into the night. Like the time Gallagher-Iba was packed for a Bedlam series game with in-state rival Oklahoma, and Cameron never thought he'd see it, the place full for a women's game, and Budke had a look like he expected it all along. Budke had a special orange blazer that he had made for that occasion, and trotted it out for big games. Texas A&M coach Gary Blair, a friend of Budke's, joked that he needed sunglasses to avoid the glare.

Friday, the day Oklahoma State learned of the coaches' deaths, was also Cameron's birthday. When his cellphone kept buzzing early that morning, he assumed it was a friend sending a birthday text. But it was another heartbreaking call.

Cameron was just getting started in the SID business in 2001 when the OSU 10 died. His mentor, Will Hancock, was on that plane. Hancock, he said, was brilliant, and anytime he got a compliment from him, it meant the world to Cameron. He's never completely gotten over those deaths. How could he? Every day on his way to the office, he walks past the memorial, the kneeling cowboy, the photo of Hancock.

Cameron tries to use those memories of 2001 to help the team today. He tells them that the burden of pain eventually lightens. He tells them that they can't do this alone, and that the strength of this very unique community can get them through this.

Every team, every alumnus, Cameron said, feels the Cowgirls' pain. They huddled around their TVs on Friday night to watch the football team play Iowa State -- superstar receiver Justin Blackmon is a regular at OSU women's games -- and were dejected, like everybody else, when OSU lost in double overtime. But it wasn't life or death. Wasn't even close.

It was 8 o'clock Sunday night, and Cameron decided it was time to end the stories and go home. He'd been at the gym almost nonstop since Friday. Tomorrow would be another emotional day. As he headed for the door, he ran into Karen Hancock, the longtime assistant coach for the women's soccer team. Karen is Will Hancock's widow. They hugged. It was actually a big day for Hancock. Her team had just made the NCAA quarterfinals, and Cameron congratulated her. He wasn't going anywhere. He wanted to hear all about it.

He'd watched Hancock's team play Friday, just hours after news of the crash. Cameron's friends didn't exactly understand it, how he could go watch a soccer game after something so devastating. His answer was simple: That's what they do.

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.

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