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Coronavirus in Oklahoma: Here's a story we all need — friendships built around basketball enduring despite distance

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Edmond resident Ryan Rust, right, and his buddy Nate Ribbens have traveled many years to Las Vegas for the first weekend of March Madness. Even though the trip is off this year because of the coronavirus outbreak, the bonds built remain strong. [PHOTO PROVIDED]
Edmond resident Ryan Rust, right, and his buddy Nate Ribbens have traveled many years to Las Vegas for the first weekend of March Madness. Even though the trip is off this year because of the coronavirus outbreak, the bonds built remain strong. [PHOTO PROVIDED]

Ryan Rust knows the whole what-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas motto.

But really, that catchphrase is meant to give cover to the dubious and the shady — and he doesn’t see anything particularly untoward about his Vegas story. Sure, it involves some drinking and gambling and even a few hangovers.

Doesn’t every Vegas tale?

But at the heart, Rust’s story is about friendship, bonds built around basketball, connections maintained even when people were apart.

Isn't that a story we could all stand to hear right now?

For more than a decade, Rust, an Edmond resident, has been going to Vegas for the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Even though the coronavirus has scuttled this year's trip, plans are already under way for next year, a return of March Madness and a return to Las Vegas.

“The trip has ... survived marriages and divorces, babies being born and chemo being arranged around it,” Rust said.

He knows it will survive this, too.

Rust's first journey to Las Vegas was during simpler times. Senior year of college, Rust and three buddies roadtripped from Iowa to Nevada. They loved college basketball — Iowa State is Rust’s team — and in 2005, they decided to go to one of the sportsbooks and soak up another side of March Madness.

They got hooked watching one game after another on the big screens, feeling an energy that was different than anything they’d experienced before.

They went back the next year, then as some of them fell off, other friends joined in. So did girlfriends on occasion. The trip even served as a bachelor party for a couple years.

Eventually, the trip winnowed down to Rust and buddy Nate Ribbens. They learned to get a table at the Lexor’s sportsbook, they had to arrive early. Reserved tables could be purchased, but to avoid paying, Rust and Ribbens just arrived several hours before the games started at 8 a.m. Vegas time.

One Sunday a few years ago, however, they were late. No tables. No chairs.

As Rust and Ribbens leaned on a table and talked about what they should do, they heard a voice.

“Hey,” someone yelled, “this is for VIP only.”

The Iowa guys were Iowa nice.

“Oh, we’re sorry,” they said.

“Oh, no, we’re just messing with you,” the stranger said with a chuckle. “Come in here.”

Rust and Ribbens were invited into the VIP area by a group of men. They had been coming to Vegas on the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament for nearly two decades.

Eventually, they met the group's leader, Howard Miller. He asked Rust and Ribbens for their email addresses and told them he’d add them to the group. Rust and Ribbens obliged but figured they’d never hear from Miller.

But on their way home, they got an email from Miller.

“You’re part of the group,” he wrote. “I send out regular emails all the time, and I’ll see you next year.”

Over the next few years, Rust got to know Miller’s eclectic group. There was an MIT grad, a Notre Dame professor, a Baltimore businessman. Some were basketball fans, but some spent more time lounging at the pool than watching games.

But they loved getting together — and no one enjoyed it more than Miller.

The group’s leader had already beaten cancer several times by the time Rust met him. When the disease came back, Miller had always scheduled his chemo around the March Madness trips to Vegas.

He’d send the group photos from chemo wearing T-shirts they'd given him. In turn, they would send him pictures of things they were doing wearing the T-shirt the group had gotten that year. Rust wore the shirt the day he brought his infant daughter home from the hospital.

Even though the group was scattered far and wide, there was an unbelievable bond and irrepressible support for Miller.

A couple years ago, the group sensed he was really struggling with his chemo. More than a 100 guys made the trip to Vegas in March 2018.

“Because we all kind of knew there might not be another year,” Rust said.

Miller died later that year.

But on his last trip, he repeatedly told the guys they had to keep going to Vegas.

Last March, they did.

And this week, about 40 members of the group were set to get together again.

Ryan Rust is bummed the trip had to be canceled — but he knows this isn’t the end. Not of the tradition. Or the group. Or even his streak.

“We have decided that if there is no March Madness, we did not miss anything,” said Rust, 36. “So I feel like my streak is still alive because I have not missed the opening weekend of March Madness yet.

“And we don’t intend to either.”

Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or jcarlson@oklahoman.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.

Related Photos
<strong>A few years ago on his annual trip to Las Vegas for the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament , Edmond resident Ryan Rust was welcomed into a large group of friends that also made a similar sojourn every March. No one enjoyed the trips more than Howard Miller, front row middle with the long-sleeve gray shirt under his yellow shirt. [PHOTO PROVIDED]</strong>

A few years ago on his annual trip to Las Vegas for the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament , Edmond resident Ryan Rust was welcomed into a large group of friends that also made a similar sojourn every March. No one enjoyed the trips more than Howard Miller, front row middle with the...

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-adfa8f45cbd193816595c1ca1054c5f1.jpg" alt="Photo - A few years ago on his annual trip to Las Vegas for the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament , Edmond resident Ryan Rust was welcomed into a large group of friends that also made a similar sojourn every March. No one enjoyed the trips more than Howard Miller, front row middle with the long-sleeve gray shirt under his yellow shirt. [PHOTO PROVIDED] " title=" A few years ago on his annual trip to Las Vegas for the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament , Edmond resident Ryan Rust was welcomed into a large group of friends that also made a similar sojourn every March. No one enjoyed the trips more than Howard Miller, front row middle with the long-sleeve gray shirt under his yellow shirt. [PHOTO PROVIDED] "><figcaption> A few years ago on his annual trip to Las Vegas for the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament , Edmond resident Ryan Rust was welcomed into a large group of friends that also made a similar sojourn every March. No one enjoyed the trips more than Howard Miller, front row middle with the long-sleeve gray shirt under his yellow shirt. [PHOTO PROVIDED] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-b57f43735492d3c5d0cdf9e97b5b92ed.jpg" alt="Photo - Edmond resident Ryan Rust, right, and his buddy Nate Ribbens have traveled many years to Las Vegas for the first weekend of March Madness. Even though the trip is off this year because of the coronavirus outbreak, the bonds built remain strong. [PHOTO PROVIDED] " title=" Edmond resident Ryan Rust, right, and his buddy Nate Ribbens have traveled many years to Las Vegas for the first weekend of March Madness. Even though the trip is off this year because of the coronavirus outbreak, the bonds built remain strong. [PHOTO PROVIDED] "><figcaption> Edmond resident Ryan Rust, right, and his buddy Nate Ribbens have traveled many years to Las Vegas for the first weekend of March Madness. Even though the trip is off this year because of the coronavirus outbreak, the bonds built remain strong. [PHOTO PROVIDED] </figcaption></figure>
Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›

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