NCAA Tournament

Plane crash gave new perspective for Michigan Wolverines basketball team

Michigan guard Zak Irvin says of his teammates, “We’ve gone through a lot of adversity. I just like how resilient our group has been, just to be able to get through that.”
Michigan guard Zak Irvin says of his teammates, “We’ve gone through a lot of adversity. I just like how resilient our group has been, just to be able to get through that.” AP

Zak Irvin heard the question, waited for a beat and smiled.

Are you guys tired of hearing about the plane crash?

“Yeah, I think at this point everyone is just trying to move on past it,” Irvin said with chuckle.

But don’t get Irvin – a senior wingman for Michigan – wrong; he certainly hopes relief doesn’t come any time soon. It’s a compelling story, tailor-made for this time of year, and he knows that as long as the Wolverines are in the NCAA Tournament, people are going to want to hear about The Crash.

So ... long live The Crash questions!

“We’ve gone through a lot of adversity,” he said, still smiling. “I just like how resilient our group has been, just to be able to get through that.”

Certainly, however, the crash – which took place at 1:52 p.m. on March 8 after the Wolverines’ plane skidded off the end of a runway while taking off during a serious windstorm – has left an imprint on the 109 passengers who were forced to evacuate the aircraft via emergency escape slides.

The airplane sustained substantial damage, but all aboard survived, with only one passenger suffering a minor injury.

Though the Wolverines – winners of six straight since then – stop short of crediting it for their recent winning streak (remember, they had won six of their previous eight games), several players said it is the kind of thing that easily gives you perspective.

“Nothing can’t be overcome after what we experienced,” senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. said. “We just play so much more free. When things get tough, our heads are level. It’s easy to fight back.”

Interestingly enough, it wasn’t the first time Michigan coach John Beilein had experienced airplane issues on the eve of the conference tournament. In 2005, Beilein’s West Virginia squad had issues getting to the Big East Tournament.

“Well, that wasn’t nearly as dangerous,” Beilein said. “They couldn’t land in New York because there was an ice storm ... and the deicer wasn’t working. So we had to fly to land in Scranton. The issue was it was six or eight hours to get to New York which should have been a two-hour drive, so we got there to 3 or 4 in the morning.”

Nevertheless, the Mountaineers proceeded to play lights out and win their next three games, though they fell in the conference championship game (unlike Michigan).

Beilein explained that story to his players in the moments after the crash, once it became clear they’d have to get back on a plane the next morning (March 9) and play the first game of the conference tournament in their practice uniforms only hours after landing.

“Bo Schembechler called it ‘sudden change,’ and you have one choice in life, and that is to embrace it,” Beilein said. “Because life is about a lot of sudden change.”

Let’s just say the message has hit home. The constant reminders they’ve been getting since then, via the media, probably haven’t hurt, either.

“We’re playing loose, we’re playing free,” Irvin said. “And I think that’s helped our team.”

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