Originally posted on Fox Sports Ohio  |  Last updated 2/27/13
ATHENS, Ohio Dan Lowe and D.J. Cooper never met. By all indications, they never were in the same place or had reason to believe their paths would cross. Still, there's little doubt that tonight, when Ohio University thinks it could set a new standard with more than 5,000 frenzied students in the Convocation Center for a Wednesday basketball game, would never have happened without the longtime efforts of both Lowe and Cooper. A 5'11, tattooed wizard with the ball, Cooper has gained national attention and acclaim during his four years as Ohio University's point guard because he sees things others don't see on the floor, creating openings that looked unlikely to open before. He's hit more than his share of big shots in a close game, he said he'd rather be losing than winning on the final possession starting with a few that knocked third-seeded Georgetown out of the NCAA Tournament when Cooper was a freshman. It was after that game that more visible, BCS-conference programs started calling Cooper, ignoring the rules and asking him to transfer to their school. It was after that game that Cooper started noticing fellow students looking at him on campus and started having people approach him for autographs in the grocery store. Judged too small by many larger, more-recognizable programs coming out of high school in Chicago, Cooper has carved out quite a legacy here in Athens. Maybe as early as this weekend, Cooper is going to become the first college basketball player ever to post 2,000 points, 1,000 assists, 600 rebounds and 300 steals in his career. He's become the face of a program that went to the Sweet 16 last year and has grown in visibility and relevance, locally, regionally and nationally. Fellow students looked up to Lowe during his time as an Ohio University student, too, at first in more of a literal sense. At 6'8 or 6'9, depending on who you ask, it was hard to miss him. But even after he unsuccessfully tried to make the Ohio basketball team as a walk-on as a freshman in 1999, Lowe threw himself into whatever other roles he was welcome and some that previously didn't exist as a volunteer in and volunteer ambassador to Ohio athletics. By the 2001-02 school year, a student section for home sporting events was officially rebranded as O-Zone. Lowe, the group's first president, became a wig-wearing, chant-leading staple of the organization. Students at first stood in line to get in and get the guaranteed best seats. The O-Zone has since evolved into an organized, structured and well-known group. "It's almost become an institution," Ohio athletics director of marketing Drake Bolon said. "It's a vocal army, 3,000 deep. We have students start asking as early as freshman orientation how they can join. It's become a big deal." ---Watch tonight's Ohio-Akron game on SportsTime Ohio - see the full STO schedule here--- After graduating in 2003, Lowe worked an internship of sorts in the Ohio athletic department for a year, then landed a full-time gig not a lot of money, all the perks of loving every second of his job working in promotions and marketing. After spending four years in the student section, he had an official role in helping to grow it. On June 24, 2005, Lowe died while playing in a pickup basketball game in the Convocation Center. Lowe's legacy lives on not only in the plaque affixed to the bleachers front and center, row one in the Ohio student section, but in what the O-Zone has become. And how Cooper and a talented group of teammates have raised the profile of Ohio basketball and sports in general. In Athens, ultra-successful quarterback Tyler Tettleton can stroll through Uptown unnoticed. But when Cooper goes out, "sometimes people go a little crazy," Cooper said. "It's a really cool thing." Fittingly, that plaque dedicated to Lowe is smudged and a little dirty at this time of year. Those bleachers are getting a lot of traffic as Ohio enters tonight's game with No. 24 Akron having won 16 of 17 home games this season. Usually, Ohio would be hoping for 8,000 fans for a midweek game. But given the stakes, the circumstances and the amount of promotion that have gone into this one, there's optimism that not only will the student attendance be broken, but that the crowd will approach 11,000. At tonight's school-sanctioned pregame tailgate still scheduled to go on despite rain and temperatures in the high 30s the participating members of the O-Zone will receive free Taco Bell. Because college is the best. "Having your students involved and creating a real home-court or home-field advantage, that's absolutely essential," Ohio athletic director Jim Schaus said. "We're in a rural area here, so it takes work to get people to come to a weeknight game, or a game against an unfamiliar opponent. "The student crowd, we count on. Our staff spends a lot of time, energy and effort to get students to come, and those students really enhance the experience. We're a residential campus, and we wouldn't lead the league in attendance in football and men's basketball if our students didn't embrace it." Gates open 90 minutes before tip-off, but select O-Zone leaders are sometimes allowed in earlier. They'll distribute newspapers to be held up when Akron's starting lineup is introduced and hand out what they call "Bobcat Bulletins," basically dirt sheets with inside info on how to antagonize Akron's players and what chants should be ready for select times and situations. They've come a long way, baby. What would Dan Lowe think all of this, these organized chants and activities, select students being allowed in before the gates technically open, and as many as 5,000 students, dressed in green, trying to will the home team to a win? "If Dan knew that," his mother, Margaret Lowe said, "he'd probably think that was a lifelong goal achieved." Jeffrey Fitzwater met Lowe in the fall of 2002, when Fitzwater was a freshman. He'd "never been a big rah-rah spirit guy," but after Lowe encouraged him to come up to a couple games, he was hooked. By the time his last year as a student came, Fitzwater was serving as O-Zone president and leading the same chants Lowe led earlier in the decade. Fitzwater was in a leadership role as the O-Zone grew, both by numbers in being more formal. There were officers, more planned events, bus trips to the big games. In March 2005, a Leon Williams tip-in sealed the deal as Ohio rallied from 19 points down to beat Buffalo in the Mid-American Conference Tournament title game in Cleveland, sending the Bobcats to the NCAA Tournament. "That was kind of the perfect storm," said Michael Tricarichi, an Ohio student from 2003-07. "The team was having success, the O-Zone was made into a student organization and people really just got excited to get involved." Ohio has long been branded a party school, and Tricarichi admitted that he first went to a basketball game as a sophomore "because after a long night of partying, we wanted to do something active as opposed to just remaining curled up in a fetal position." It worked. "I was hooked, instantly," Tricarichi said. "I loved the atmosphere, the banter with the opposing team, how close the students were to the court. I didn't miss many games in the rest of my time there." Dan Lowe and his friends built it, and with wins and energy they came. "Dan told me once that he would just walk around and knock on dorm doors," Margaret Lowe said. "He wanted to make this thing grow, and he really went door-to-door, introducing himself, asking people to just come to one game, give it a try. "I always think fondly of that because he probably invited some kids who were struggling to make friends, or just maybe were a little shy, and he just kind of made an offer and I knew at least a few of them took him up on it. And when they came once and then came back, he was just so proud of that." They came from all over to tiny Canal Fulton, Ohio, for Dan Lowe's funeral, representing Ohio University in many different capacities current and former coaches, administrators, former players, O-Zone members, friends. "We had a lot of Ohio University people, people we'd never seen before, approach us at the calling hours or the funeral and tell us what an impression Dan had made on them," Margaret Lowe said. "No one will ever know how much that meant to us." Fitzwater said that after the funeral "at least 20, maybe 30 people" from the Ohio University contingent gathered at an IHOP near the highway "and just told stories. We laughed a lot. We were sad, of course. But everyone shared fond memories." One thing that struck them all was that when Lowe collapsed, it wasn't just on the floor of the Convocation Center. Because the bleachers were pushed back, he was actually in the student section. "Right there in the O-Zone," Fitzwater said. "That's forever his seat." Lowe's Facebook page remains active. Friends usually stop by to leave notes each August, on his birthday, and each March. In two of the last three years, D.J. Cooper's on-court heroics have made lots of people think about Dan. Social media has changed the game for athletes and for student sections. Years before Notre Dame linebacker Manti Teo's situation took the term "catfishing" mainstream, and before anybody could have imagined a Twitter battle between Ohio supporters and players and their counterparts from Akron, the O-Zone had a fake Facebook account. "It was basically us using a picture of an attractive female," Fitzwater said. "We would request players from upcoming opponents as friends. They would see the girl, accept the request, and we would have access to their information and pictures. In one game we distributed 300 pictures of (a Miami player) riding a tricycle." R.P. Kirtland has heard those stories, and now the Ohio University freshman takes his role in the O-Zone very seriously. Kirtland grew up in Greenville, Va., as a soccer fan. He was only 14 when he first attended a D.C. United Major League Soccer game, and soon he found himself involved in a D.C. United fan group. "That's where I cut my teeth on extreme fandom," he said. Kirtland is already one of those O-Zone leaders dedicating time and energy to growing the organization and helping the home team win. He goes to O-Zone meetings weekly, and when it's his turn to lead the research for those Bobcat Bulletins, he sometimes devotes hours to the cause. The O-Zone guys (and girls) play by the rules and between the lines, but they do their homework on opposing teams. If they see an opportunity to rattle an opposing player, they're going to find a way to do it. Kirtland and his O-Zone cohorts have "almost mastered" the Facebook search function, using an opposing player's hometown and other details to both make sure they're searching the proper person and securing the juiciest details. Kirtland said he has searched police reports to find if opposing players have ever been in trouble, and if so, to what extent. With social media and technology in general, this "extreme fandom" isn't like it was when Lowe was leading the O-Zone. The passion and the energy, however, are the same. And though Kirtland never met Lowe, he's heard plenty in his seven months on Ohio's campus. "Dan, from what I've been told, was basically the model O-Zone leader," Kirtland said. In a freshman running the O-Zone Twitter account and searching police records, Lowe's legacy lives on. Cooper cares about his legacy. Speaking reflectively and candidly after a recent practice, he nodded towards the upper reaches of the Convocation Center when he said he hopes his jersey "is going to hang up there, some day." He knew "nothing" about Athens, Ohio or even the Mid-American Conference when now-Illinois coach John Groce recruited him to come here, but now Cooper sees this as home. "Honestly, I want to be known as one of the best who ever played here," Cooper said. "Hopefully people remember that I was a good guy to root for, a guy who helped win a lot of games. I want to remembered as friendly and I want to win another championship. "I know people here appreciate good basketball and the work we've done. I always wanted to take this to a higher level." Last March, the Bobcats beat Michigan in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. With a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line in a Sunday night game in Nashville against South Florida, Fitzwater donned the green wig and the face-paint. D.J. Cooper got him out of retirement. When that game ended Cooper had 19 points, Walter Offutt scored 21 and Ohio won, 62-56 Fitzwater hugged other people dressed in green, friends and strangers alike. The Ohio section did the "winning team, losing team" chant it's been doing for years, and folks hurried to make travel plans for the Sweet 16. Fitzwater took a minute to think about Dan Lowe. He knew his buddy was watching.
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