Florida women’s basketball assistant David Lowery sat in his office, typing at his desk.
Behind him, Vicky McIntyre crept in. At 6 feet, 6 inches, she towered over him, and before he could sense what was coming, she wrapped her arms around his neck and put him in a playful chokehold.
“Her arms are so freaking long,” Lowery said. “All I saw was this arm, and I was like ‘Oh, God!’ I got up and almost ran out of the room.”
McIntyre, from Omaha, Neb., just laughed. “Coach, I got you,” she crowed in her Midwestern accent.
The two have developed a special relationship, one that has helped ease McIntyre’s pain since she transferred to Florida last May. Lowery, known for his perpetual jumpiness, is often on the receiving end of McIntyre’s pranks.
“I’ve caught on to her game,” Lowery said. “I’ve got my ears listening, because I’m not trying to play that no more.”
As he said it, he began to smile. It’s clear how important she is to him. It’s clear how important having her smile again is.
He knows how difficult her situation has been. He knows what she has endured.
Nov. 17, 2011, was a Thursday.
Four days earlier, Oklahoma State won its first game of the season, beating Rice. The team was preparing for a game against Grambling State that Saturday.
They never played the game. Tragedy changed everything.
The team was scheduled for a normal Friday. Practice at 3 p.m. and a film session to prepare for the weekend’s games.
Instead, McIntyre awoke early in the morning to the sound of her roommate telling her they had been called in.
The players gathered in the locker room, anxious to learn why the coaches called the impromptu meeting. An assistant, Jim Littell, was waiting for them.
It was about coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna. The two were on a recruiting trip.
They never made it to their destination.
Both were killed when their single-engine plane went down about 45 miles west of Little Rock, Ark. Pilot and former Oklahoma state senator Olin Branstetter and his wife, Paula, also died in the crash.
Budke was 50. Serna was 36.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of speaking,” McIntyre said, remembering back to the few minutes she spent in the locker room that felt like eternity. “There was mostly crying.”
McIntyre had never experienced a loss like that. Budke was a father figure. As the lone female on the coaching staff, Serna had a unique connection with the players.
Suddenly, they were gone.
“It didn’t really sink in all too much,” McIntyre said. “There were just moments when I was like ‘This isn’t real.’ Then you come home and it’s on ESPN.”
The coaches held a special place in McIntyre's heart. The losses were catastrophic.
“It was total trauma,” said Pamela McIntyre, Vicky’s mother. “We were in disbelief. She was pretty much an emotional wreck.”
Although Vicky flashed a smile when she returned to the court nine days later, the reprieve from anguish was fleeting. She struggled with her emotions the rest of the season.
“It was weird, especially when we got back into the swing of really playing,” she said. “There’s some times in practice when you just can’t help but cry.”
She thought back to her first days at Oklahoma State and the two people who believed in her even when she didn’t believe in herself.
Vicky’s path to major college basketball started one night in Stillwater, Okla. She was in the car with her dad at a gas station that some of the locals called Cowboy Corner, waiting for a member of the Oklahoma State coaching staff to pick them up and show them around the campus.
After waiting a few minutes, Vicky saw a white car pull up. Miranda Serna jumped out, rushed over and gave her a hug.
Coming out of Omaha, Neb., Marian High, Vicky garnered interest from some northern Big 12 schools, but Oklahoma State was a step above. She was nervous, wanting to make a good impression.
Seeing Vicky’s size, Serna envisioned her potential dominance. The two got along from the beginning.
After spending the evening visiting the campus, the two stopped to chat before Vicky returned home. Right then, Serna won her over.
Vicky wasn’t confident she was talented enough to play for Oklahoma State. After more than an hour, Serna gave it to her straight.
“Coach has this trust in you, this belief in you,” Serna told her. “You can do this. We can help you.”
Later in the recruiting process, Budke and Serna traveled to the McIntyres’ home in Omaha.
Pamela remembers cooking a barbecue dinner with fried potatoes and green beans. She saved a homemade apple pie for dessert.
“This is how my mom used to make them,” Budke told Pamela. “This is the best recruiting dinner I have ever had.”
The dinner marked Pamela’s first meeting with the coach who would become an integral part of her daughter’s life.
“He was like family to us,” Pamela said. “He always made the time to come over and talk to us privately. He would kind of report to us how she was doing. That’s the kind of man he was.”
Family has always come first for Vicky, whether it is her biological family or her coaches and teammates. She once had one at Oklahoma State, but it was no longer there. The situation had become too difficult. She had to transfer.
Gators coach Amanda Butler did not know much about Vicky, but she was immediately intrigued.
“Wait a minute, this cat is 6-foot-6,” Butler thought. “This is worth investigating.”
The Florida coaching staff quickly reached out to Vicky.
Shortly afterward, she was traveling to Gainesville. Her visit went so well that before she left town, she had already canceled her other trips. This was her new family.
“I just knew I was supposed to be at Florida,” she said.
She talked it over with her parents and Jim Seward — her personal coach since her sophomore year of high school. Vicky signed with the Gators in May.
“It is a perfect situation for Vicky,” Seward said. “They really care for their players.
The Gators begin the season at home against Fairfield on Nov. 9. When Vicky steps onto the floor, the 6-foot-6 center who Florida lists at 6 feet, 7 inches will be the tallest woman to ever play for UF.
Though she has been adopted into the Florida family, she still has a place in her heart for the family she lost. Budke and Serna were the ones who first gave her a chance. She will never forget that.
“It’s always going to be trying to live out their legacy and make them proud and prove to the world what they thought was true,” McIntyre said. “I can do this.”