WASHINGTON — The plane didn’t take off, but Ibi Watson did.
“He actually was a little airborne,” Michigan guard Derrick Walton Jr. recalled. “I don’t know if he lost his seat belt or whatever happened. He was in the air. I just tried to help him come down back into his seat.”
The Wolverines star’s most meaningful assist of the Big Ten Tournament actually took place on a Wednesday, at Willow Run Airport just outside of Ypsilanti, Mich. A crash-dummy video come horribly to life.
As the pilot of the McDonnell Douglas MD-83 carrying the Michigan men’s basketball team to Washington, D.C. slammed on the brakes, the plane doing a hook slide through grass and into a restraining fence, the senior reached over to Watson, the 6-foot-5 freshman guard sitting next to him, and extended a long arm across his chest — like the safety bar on a Tilt-a-Whirl.
“(Walton Jr.) grabbed me and kept me back,” Watson said Thursday, shaking his head at the Verizon Center as he recalled the strangest, scariest 24 hours of his young life. “He helped me out.”
It’s easy to crack wise about your life flashing before your very eyes. For the Wolverines, though, it was literal. And awful. Their chartered jet aborted its takeoff in the face of heavy winds and skidded off the runway, leaving a reported 109 passengers and crew bruised and horrified. The landing gear went to shreds as the plane crashed through a fence and into a small ditch.
As D.J. Wilson watched from a window seat, everything felt normal. Until he started to notice how little tarmac they had left. And then the jolt.
“When we pressed the brakes, I knew in the back of my mind we only had so much runway,” the Michigan forward said Thursday after the Wolverines thumped Illinois, 75-55, to advance to the quarterfinal of the Big Ten tourney.
“We ran through the fence and then hit the ditch. A couple teammates and the managers swung open the emergency doors and everybody ran out from both sides.”
As he leaped — or tried to — from the exit to the wing, Watson couldn’t see the engine, but he could smell something burning.
“I wasn’t sure if it was smoking or not,” the freshman recalled. “I think all of us had that fear that the plane might blow up or something. So we all tried to get out as quickly as we could.”
Watson was in such a hurry, in fact, that he scraped his right shin upon landing on the wing, leaving a giant shiner and a pair of 3-inch gashes. The one closest to the ankle opened up again during warm-ups Thursday, necessitating a new set of bandages.
The top of the sock along Watson’s right ankle was caked in blood an hour after the game. Another souvenir.
“My shin is pretty swollen and stuff,” Watson said, nodding at his lower leg. “The cut doesn’t really hurt.”
There will be scars. And stories. Walton Jr. picked up a gash himself, one that required stitches. Senior forward Mark Donnal lost his cell phone in the rush to escape the plane and had to borrow one from a friend to call his mother before the news got out. Senior guard Zak Irvin fought a losing battle with tears.
“It was so windy outside that (my mom) couldn’t really hear me at first,” Irvin said. “I just told her that I loved her. I just told my family that I loved them. I Facetimed as soon as I could. At that point, it just puts a lot of things into perspective.”
The NTSB is investigating the incident, which meant everything in the cargo hold — equipment, clothes, balls, bags, toothbrushes — had to stay put. Long-set schedules were scrambled and rearranged on the fly.
Watson figured he’d picked up four hours of sleep, tops. Donnal got far less.
“You always have that kind of in the back of your mind, like people getting in a car accident, you don’t want to drive for a while after that,” the forward said. “Taking off, it’s in the back of our mind. But once we got in the air, I think everybody was kind of calm and knew that we were good.”
“I think my heart stopped when we were taking off,” Watson added. “And then anytime there was like a little turbulence in the air or something, your heart stopped a little bit.”
The Wolverines had secured another charter for a 6 a.m. wheels-up Thursday, this one courtesy of the Detroit Pistons, armed with only the clothes they’d saved in carry-ons or could scrounge up the night before.
‘I was more grateful this morning than I was the morning before about being alive. About all of us being alive.’
— Michigan forward Moe Wagner
“I really think it just brought us all closer,” Irvin said. “When anyone goes through something like that, it’s tough.
“Guys are thinking, ‘That could have been it right there. Never see your family again.’ It was basically like a brotherhood and we just wanted to come out and play ball.”
Forced to turn to gold practice tops and blue warm-up shorts against the Illini, they looked like an NBA Summer League outfit. Or the two-color Memphis Tams of the old ABA.
“After an experience like that, you’re grateful,” forward Moe Wagner said. “I was more grateful this morning than I was the morning before about being alive. About all of us being alive.”
And kicking. They played fast and free, too, almost with a lilt, racing to leads of 14-5 and 22-9, as if the weight of the world — and the weight of a tournament — had been lifted from their collective shoulders.
“I think that’s what’s going to bring this group that much closer,” said Walton Jr., who led the Wolverines in points (19), dimes (5) and 3-point makes (4).
“Not that we aren’t already close. Just going through something like that with your brothers, it’s one of those things you can talk about. It’s one of those things that binds you for life.”
Forever shaken, forever blessed. The Wolverines advanced. Better still, they survived.