Eagles' title was all for 'Dre'

Winthrop's players and coaches celebrate with the Big South trophy after defeating UNC Asheville on Saturday. The Eagles qualified for their eighth NCAA tournament in 10 years.
Winthrop's players and coaches celebrate with the Big South trophy after defeating UNC Asheville on Saturday. The Eagles qualified for their eighth NCAA tournament in 10 years.

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- There are rituals on Saturdays in early March that are written in cement.

The sun rises, husbands put off yard work and sneak beer, spring breakers plan debauchery. And Winthrop will win, in a 66-48 rout this time, the Big South basketball tournament and head to the NCAA Tournament.

But a new ritual started Saturday in a gym smaller than most high school gyms -- a chant for a dead man.

I have been to so many Winthrop basketball conference championships they are routine. I hungered for a new story. I've seen other championships in so many sports.

But I had never heard a chant for a dead man during the victory celebration. It happened Saturday.

It started as the demolition of favored UNC Asheville was nearly over. The 21-year-old man with the smile of a little kid named Michael Jenkins heard the crowd. He had scored 33 points, but he searched for his mother in the stands. This singular noise started with two mothers, Jenkins' mom, Sharon, and Leslie Gaynor. Gaynor stood near her husband, Al, with Sharon Jenkins next to her other shoulder. Sharon Jenkins pointed to the 24 stenciled on her shirt. Leslie Gaynor held out a wristband with 24 on it. Mothers united by a school, a basketball team, their sons and the man who wore Winthrop No. 24.

They called out the name of De'Andre Adams. Adams played with this Winthrop team until he died last spring in a car crash.

Fans waved signs in the tiny gym, signs that said, "Finish for 'Dre," and "This is for #24."

The crowd took up the chant, students such as George Carroll with his $9.99 Wal-Mart bought wrestling-type belt to signify the Winthrop dominance, and alumni and boosters. All the 110 who were lucky enough to get tickets.

"De-Andre!" "De-Andre! De-Andre!"

The chant stopped for the final buzzer, but then picked up again. The players now yelled it, Chris Gaynor, Michael Jenkins and the rest who had become men with Adams and now won again without him. The crowd chanted more.

Winthrop has advanced to the NCAA Tournament seven times in the past nine years. Anything less is a prom with no date. The fans brought other signs, including "The dynasty will continue." It did. With Winthrop, even this year with the loss of Adams and other star players, Winthrop won the Big South Tournament.

The mark of Adams on this season is incredible and permanent. The school president came onto the court and said to me, "What a tribute to De'Andre." The cheerleaders said it. The band members said it. A coach who hasn't smiled in four months during this up-and-down season, Paul Molinari, tied a piece of the cut-down basketball goal net around his wristband that had 24 on it.

The star players interrupted their celebration to make a cell phone call.

The call went to a woman named Louise Short Adams, De'Andre Adams' grandmother. It couldn't go to John Adams, the single father, because he is in Iraq fighting a war with the Marines. Player Taj McCullough told Adams' grandmother that he won not for himself or for his own mother in the stands Saturday, but for De'Andre. Then, Chris Gaynor said the same thing. Then Jenkins, the bubbly 6-foot, 3-inch star with the spirit of the fifth-grader, the MVP of the tournament who had the game of his life, said to the grandmother: "We did it for him. We did it for you. We did it."

Winthrop always does it. This time, it's a tribute to a man whose spirit lives on, and will again, in the NCAA Tournament.