'Like diamonds': OSU basketball captains endure series of unfortunate events
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Throughout a trying season, Mike Boynton has repeatedly joked he could write a book. Thomas Dziagwa considered the same, figuring the past three years have provided enough material that he could contort it into his senior thesis on philosophy and religion.
Dziagwa is not alone in having that bank of knowledge, that which can only come when enduring such experiences firsthand. His fellow Oklahoma State basketball captains, Cam McGriff and Lindy Waters III, can claim the same series of unfortunate events.
Signed with one coach they never played for. Played for two coaches they never signed with. Thirteen teammates who transferred, prematurely left or were dismissed. Another who died.
The program’s longest conference skid. A narrow NCAA Tournament miss. An assistant coach fired amid an FBI investigation.
As the three juniors prepare for their third Big 12 Tournament as Cowboys, it would be easy to understand a downtrodden attitude weighing on them and the young team they captain. But ask Boynton, their coach the past two years, and the opposite is true: They have lifted OSU up.
“There's very little chance those guys won't be really successful in their lives,” Boynton said. “This hardens you. This gives you a great perspective on, ‘Bad things happen, and if you still control the things you can and you work as hard as you are capable of doing, then eventually you'll have the success that you're trying to achieve.’
“They inspire me. I don't always have to tell them what to do to get through this stuff. I don't always have to bring them into my office and play the psychological 'get your teammates ready to play' deal. They handle a lot of that stuff on their own.”
This string of calamities could’ve doomed Dziagwa, McGriff and Waters. Instead, it’s why they and those around them still believe in their future.
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“Diamonds are in a rough environment,” said Octavia Goodman, McGriff’s mother. “I think they’re going to come out just like diamonds.”
Dziagwa and his father recognized the possibility. Every day that passed in the 2015-16 season was another day closer to the end of Travis Ford’s tenure as the program’s coach.
Amid what finished as a 12-20 campaign, attendance in Gallagher-Iba Arena dwindled as rancor toward Ford built. After eight seasons, Ford and OSU parted ways, leaving three signees in limbo.
Goodman and McGriff agreed the coach wouldn’t matter, that basketball was basketball. Waters and his family reached the same conclusion, savoring the family atmosphere OSU and Stillwater provided only a brief drive from their Norman home. Even as a Tampa Bay area native, Dziagwa felt that way, too.
When Stephen F. Austin’s Brad Underwood was named Ford’s replacement, there was a sense of relief. Underwood had sat in the Dziagwas’ living room, trying to pitch Thomas to join the Lumberjacks. Waters, too, was an Underwood recruiting target at SFA.
For the most part, Dziagwa’s approach to a new hire was the same as that of his future co-captains.
“I think they could’ve brought in just about anybody,” Don Dziagwa said, “and he still would’ve said, ‘I’m going to Oklahoma State.’”
In Waters’ early days in Stillwater, it wasn’t typical for him reach out to home. If the family wanted to hear from him, they had to be the ones to call.
July 21, 2016, was different. He returned to Norman that night, crying.
During a summer workout running stairs in Boone Pickens Stadium, Tyrek Coger, a transfer forward on his 17th day in Stillwater, collapsed. Efforts to resuscitate him failed. Waters was the one pumping air into Coger with a CPR mask.
Coger, 21, was pronounced dead at Stillwater Medical Center at 6:23 that night with what was eventually revealed as an enlarged heart. Lindy Waters II said his son felt his teammate was gone before that.
“I saw him die,” Waters told his dad. “I saw him take his last breath.”
Dziagwa was absent from that practice. He was in St. Augustine, Florida, for his sister’s wedding the next day. He and Don decided it was best to avoid telling Annie. A groomsman, he enjoyed himself, but occasionally, he turned to look at his dad, wondering what he could’ve done for Coger had he been there.
“Every once in a while, there'll be a gloomy day where I'm thinking about Tyrek or I'm thinking about something that happened with one of my teammates,” Waters said. “Just sometimes, I think about what could've been, but I try not to dwell on that too long.”
An 0-6 start to Big 12 play didn’t derail McGriff, Dziagwa and Waters’ first season in Stillwater. They were role players on a team that rallied to make the NCAA Tournament, but a competitive first-round loss to Michigan ended their freshman season.
Afterward, Underwood gathered his team and provided an end-of-the-year speech filled with belief. The message carried a theme: This is just the start. Instead, it was just another ending.
The next day, Underwood called a team meeting back in Stillwater. The tone changed. He told the players he enjoyed coaching them. He informed them he was leaving for Illinois. He walked out, leaving the room in shock.
“I thought he was joking,” Dziagwa said. “I thought he was just trying to mess with us, lighten the mood.”
Within the month, Boynton, an Underwood assistant the previous four seasons, was named his replacement. Again, familiarity provided a solvent, but Lindy Waters II had three schools reach out about whether his son might be interested in a transfer. He asked Waters how he should handle schools reaching out.
“I’m a Cowboy” was all Waters texted back.
With pockets of fans doubting him as a first-time head coach, Boynton’s job did not get any easier. That September, before any games were played, his top assistant, Lamont Evans, was charged in an FBI investigation into corruption into college basketball for funneling players toward certain financial advisers. He pleaded guilty in January.
Goodman worked to remind McGriff that although the series of changes affected him, none were his fault. She certainly couldn’t imagine her son’s first 13 months as a college student going the way they had.
“I pictured a little bit more stable environment for him, but it’s been everything but that,” Goodman said. “Every year, it’s something different.”
An ominous start to Boynton’s tenure grew darker when he dismissed two players, Davon Dillard and Zack Dawson, in December. But despite a prediction of a last-place finish in the Big 12, Boynton and OSU surprised. Waters and McGriff were both starting lineup locks by the end of the year, while Dziagwa was a shooter off the bench. The Cowboys had four top-10 victories, a program record, while becoming the first team to sweep Kansas in OSU alum Bill Self’s 15-season tenure as the Jayhawks’ coach.
But it was not enough to make the NCAA Tournament, a weak nonconference schedule used to validate the Cowboys’ exclusion.
Waters and his father often repeat two key words of the Scripture passage Philippians 3:13-14 — “press on.” After wins and losses, the phrase litters their conversations and texts. Waters has even had “Phil 3:13” stitched inside shoes, and his father has the passage in entirety on the wall of his gym.
At times, that “press on” motto has taken on alternative meaning: drop it. When Lindy Waters II wanted to talk about the apparent snub, Waters had no interest in the topic.
In terms of talking with Dziagwa and McGriff about all they’ve endured, he’s handled that the same way.
“We don't talk hardly at all about what's happened,” Waters said. “We just have that internal connection that we've been together, we're not gonna splinter out from each other. I love those two guys like they're my closest brothers. They've been through what I've been through.
"It's a bond that'll never be broken.”
With two players each transferring, going pro and being dismissed from the previous season’s roster, Waters, Dziagwa and McGriff entered 2018-19 as OSU’s only three returning scholarship players. Their teammates voted them as team captains.
All three have started every game this season while averaging over 30 minutes a game. Part of that is necessity. In January, graduate transfer Mike Cunningham, the Cowboys’ only senior, elected to leave the program. Eight days later, Boynton dismissed Michael Weathers, Kentrevious Jones and Maurice Calloo for a reported vandalism incident.
That left OSU with seven recruited scholarship players. Although the Cowboys lost their first seven conference games after the dismissals, they did not lose their fight. Boynton credits his captains.
“Their leadership is the reason we’re able to get through the last month,” he said. “They're about the right things, they show up every day and just work their tails off, and what you do is you start to really understand that really does work. Just show up and do your job. Things aren't always gonna go your way. Bad things are gonna happen. If we haven't learned that yet, we are not paying attention, but you've gotta still show up tomorrow.
“I'm thankful they're all here. I didn't recruit any of them here. But I haven't recruited anybody here that are more important than they are.”
OSU enters its Big 12 Tournament opening-round matchup with TCU having won consecutive games for the first time since the dismissals. The two games prior, the Cowboys lost by a combined nine points to conference contenders Texas Tech and Kansas.
With the seven scholarship players all expected to return next year and a top-25 recruiting class on the way, there is belief in the future. But McGriff knows well there are no guarantees.
“We can’t just lean on thinking just because we’ve been through what we’ve been through, good things are just automatically gonna happen to us,” he said. “We have to make them happen.”
McGriff and Waters earned Big 12 honorable mention recognition this season, while Dziagwa went from playing 10 minutes a game as a sophomore to becoming the program’s sixth player with 100 3-pointers in a season. He made nearly 26,000 3-pointers over the summer to prepare for an increased role.
“In today's society, it's like a microwave; you want instant success,” Dziagwa said. “And things don't come like that."
Their continued growth will be instrumental to shedding a series of unfortunate events. Like everything else, they will go through it together.
“When any of them have thought about being down, you’ve always had someone else that won’t allow you to do that,” Don Dziagwa said. “Those three guys, they’ll be brothers forever because of what they’ve all had to go through. They’re the three who have stayed.
“How can they not be prepared for just about anything that might happen to them?”