Other than love, there may not be another word in the English language that means so much. The word home conjures up a menagerie of images in the mind. Some people revere their picture of home, thinking of family, friends, and good memories. Others loathe it for reasons that are often too terrible to mention.
Our language is filled with sayings about home. “There’s no place like home,” “Home is where the heart is,” “You can’t go home again,” and so on. If you’re human, you have a place in your heart for home. One way or another, it’s there.
Home is an important part of sports also. Teams like to have the home court advantage. There’s nothing like playing in front of the home fans. Every baseball player loves to hit a home run and step on home plate to score. And players love to come home after a road trip.
Coming home is a whole subset of the concept of home itself. Not only does it apply in baseball and after away games, but coming home after a championship win to a parade is a moment most athletes won’t forget. And coming home to your old stomping grounds, the old ball field, your hometown, is yet another whole experience.
Earlier this year, my wife got to come home to play again, taking part in an alumni basketball game at her alma mater Hale High School. She was on the court with old teammates, friends, and even one of her sisters, which was nostalgic enough. She grabbed a few rebounds and scored some buckets just like the old days. But the special moment came as she was bringing the ball up the court. Her old high school coach, standing on the sideline, yelled at her to go behind her back. She instantly complied. He followed that up by telling her to dribble between her legs. Again, she did it almost without thinking. Despite the years that have passed, how could she not have been taken back to her high school days?
For many, coming home includes returning to coach at your old school. For Ash Grove boys basketball coach Jeremy Nicholson, it was what he wanted early on. “My sophomore year in college, I decided that I wanted to be a basketball coach,” said Nicholson. “I would have taken a job anywhere, but in the back of my mind I knew that I wanted to go back to Ash Grove.”
Nicholson was a standout for the Pirates as a player, but wanted to avoid dwelling on the past. “When I got the job at AG, I did my best to try not to compare it to ‘the good ole days,’” he said. “I just tried to coach in the present and not say to myself ‘well this is how it was when I went to school here.’ Having said that, things have obviously changed since I left, as it has in every town and in every school district.”
Cassville boys basketball coach Danny Powers took coming home a step further. A year after returning to coach in his home town of Carl Junction, Powers took the job at Cassville and had to return to CJ last year to coach against the Bulldogs. “I was very excited to go down to CJ to coach last year,” said Powers. “First of all, I had been Ryan Odaffer's assistant, and I was excited for the opportunity to compete against somebody who had mentored me for a year. I have some very good friends that are coaches at Carl Junction, and they contacted multiple times to talk a little trash and see if we were prepared to play. And I also had formed some quality relationships with the players and the student body, so I was excited to see how the players had developed and how some of my previous students were doing.”
Powers’ former students made sure the evening was memorable. “A lot of students turned out to give me some grief about changing schools,” he said. “In fact, they even made a giant picture portrait of my head to shake up and down in the student section. They were very respectful, but at the time they rooted very hard for their Bulldogs.”
The game ended up having a good effect for the Wildcats. “I was very touched that the student sections reaction toward me got our players to rally around each other and compete at a very high level for the entire game,” said Powers. “Unfortunately, we fell a little short that game, but I believe it gave my team and I a great bonding experience.”
I’ve had my own coming home experience. After staying away from dear old Richland High a number of years, I decided it was time to finally go back. My family and I headed up I-44 to catch a homecoming matchup with Frisco League rival Licking. We were able to find seats before the full crush of the standing room only crowd arrived. My son and daughter were amazed at the passion of the home crowd, the full student bleachers and their organized cheers, the pregame introductions, the whole atmosphere. It blew them away.
My wife already understood my passion for basketball. Her high school was part of a basketball crazy conference also so she got it. But as the Bears hit a last second shot to win the game and the crowd went bonkers, I think my children finally grasped why basketball will always be at the top of my sport pyramid. They took a short walk in my shoes and found it more exhilarating than they thought.
As for me, even though I only played one season of basketball myself, I had spent so much time in that gym that I couldn’t help but be swept away by memories and emotions. As a young boy, I watched my first high school hero, Kenny Schmitz, play there. Saw the girls team win district titles there. Played myself and cheered on my teammates through thick and thin, and watched my younger brother become one of the stars of the team in his junior and senior years. So much of my childhood is tied up inside those four walls.
Now, a piece of my adult life is going to be placed there. Through a happy chance, my son’s team ended up a game short on their schedule for this season and Richland happened to have an open date. So, on February 2, my son will get his chance to play in the building that holds so much of my youth. We’ve talked and he’s excited to be able to do it. My parents will be there. It’s hard for them to travel anymore and they’re happy to be able to watch him.
And I will certainly be there. I can’t say for certain what my emotions will be. I may feel like a traitor rooting against Richland. The past may try to return my allegiance to its roots. But I know for sure that I will be enjoying a game in the place where I will always feel at home.
Originally published in the Fall II (December) issue of Ozark Preps Illustrated.