Adams not far from thoughts

DENVER -- The questions were inevitable and understandable for Winthrop's players and coach Randy Peele.

One more time, they were asked about De'Andre Adams and his impact on their lives and the basketball program.

Writers from other states who had heard of the death of Adams in May following a car crash wanted to know the story, wanted to share it with readers in Seattle and Denver.

And in some way it seemed fitting, that Adams' name should come up again in March, because just about a year ago he was huge part of history for the Eagles, helping them beat Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

It was as if the story had come full circle, the best of times wrapped up in the worst, the biggest win of their lives balled up in the death of a friend and a teammate.

In a year, the Eagles have gone through losing a teammate, losing their coach, having people think the glory days of the program were over.

Yet, here they are back in the NCAA tournament believing they can and should win again.

"This is where we expected to be," Peele said. "This is where we belong."

The photo of Adams that hangs in the concourse of the Winthrop Coliseum is from that Notre Dame game.

It shows Adams -- wide-eyed and wired -- leaping for joy on the sidelines as the final seconds of that historic win ticked away. It is the lasting, fitting image of a kid who loved the game, especially the big ones.

No one could have imagined at the time, that weekend last March would be the last time Adams would pull on a Winthrop jersey and dance to the beat of the intro music before games or light up the room with a smile or challenge an assistant coach to a game of Horse or shake the hand of a little kid not much smaller than himself.

So, on a sunny afternoon in Denver, Chris Gaynor, Michael Jenkins and Taj McCullough handled the questions about De'Andre like they'd take a perfect bounce pass and lay the ball in with gentleness and grace.

The second question was this.

What are some of your favorite memories from Spokane you can share, having him there?

Gaynor talked about the picture in the Coliseum.

"Dre, when he won, jumping up and down, just the memory of that, the success we had last year, him being a big part of that," Gaynor said.

"That just symbolized what Dre was all about," Jenkins said. "The energy, the passion, the love of the game."

McCullough smiled. "What I remember is we had got these haircuts before the game that made coach upset a little bit," he said. "We said we were going to do it, me, him and Mantoris (Robinson). We did. It was fun."

When Peele got to the podium, he was asked about De'Andre too, and I thought back to last March in the minutes before the Notre Dame game. Peele, then an assistant to coach Gregg Marshall, was on the floor for pre-game warmups. He was loose and laughing and confident about the team's chances.

His smile that day was almost as big as De'Andre's.

He got the question, too.

"Coach, can you give me an idea of the challenges you faced coaching a team that had heavy hearts over the tragic death of a teammate?"

"Yeah," Peele said, searching for the words, "you know, it's ... it's really hard to talk about sometimes.

"The way it rocked our program, there's no words that can adequately express what it did to our heart."

He talked about getting the head coaching job on April 16 and a month later spending a week in an Atlanta hospital believing Adams would pull through.

"That kid had unbelievable heart," Peele said. "He played as hard as any young man I've had the pleasure of coaching. I never, ever, even when he was in that accident, I would never bet against him in a fight ... bless his heart."

For a few seconds, Peele couldn't speak. His lower lip trembled. The tears formed in the corners of his eyes.

"It's just tough," he finally said, voice cracking. Finally, the questions turned back to basketball and today's East Regional first-round game against Washington State.

But if the Eagles win today, you can bet they'll be more than happy to talk about De'Andre again.

You can also bet, before they walk out for the opening tip today, the players and coaches will think again about 'Dre. Some will have his name penned on their sneakers.

"Dre. RIP."

And they'll think back to last year.

Jenkins said he's glad they chose the picture from the Notre Dame game to hang in the coliseum.

"That image will always be in my head," Jenkins said. "It will be there forever."