FENNVILLE, Mich. — One moment: a perfect shot to end a perfect season. The star player, 16, lifted off the floor in celebration.
The next: Wes Leonard on the gym floor, his enlarged heart failing, his life fading just a few moments after his victory layup. Packed bleachers suddenly stunned by a turn that made basketball seem a distant, unimportant memory.
A day after Leonard died from an enlarged heart, this small town near Lake Michigan remembered an “all-American kid” whose athletic heroics had been local legend since middle school.
“He was a good kid, a good friend to have and a good person to hang around with,” DeMarcus McGee, who played football and basketball with Leonard, said between sobs. “You never thought it could be him. He was so healthy. It shouldn’t happen.”
On Thursday evening, Leonard sank a layup with less than 30 seconds left in the game. The basket gave Fennville High a 57-55 victory over Bridgman High and a 20-0 regular season.
After the teams exchanged handshakes, Fennville players celebrated. Some began scrambling to organize a team photo that would commemorate their undefeated record. That’s when the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Leonard collapsed, with an estimated 1,400 fans watching.
Leonard was rushed to nearby Holland Hospital, where paramedics performed CPR before he was pronounced dead. An autopsy conducted Friday by the Ottawa County medical examiner showed Leonard died of cardiac arrest due to an enlarged heart.
“It shouldn’t have been like this,” teammate Adam Siegel said. “Too young.”
Medical examiner David Start said the stress Leonard placed on his heart through athletics could have played a role, but his death could not be easily explained.
“Why at this event as opposed to another basketball or football game, I don’t know,” Start told the Grand Rapids Press.
Many who knew Leonard said he was destined for athletic greatness from a young age. At Fennville High, Leonard was a starter for three years on the football team, first as a receiver, then as a quarterback and defensive end.
“He had a personality that, when people were around him, they played better,” said Tim Schipper, Leonard’s football coach. “Everybody around him played better, because he was a leader and the best athlete.”
Schipper had expected Leonard to take his talents into college athletics at some level.
The Fennville team was scheduled to compete in the district playoffs Monday, but school officials had not decided Friday whether to play the game.
“That’s way, way down the road,” coach Ryan Klingler said. “We’re going to make sure we’re all in a good, healthy place before we decide on anything.”