College stars given special homecomings

Jimmer Fredette received quite a welcome from his hometown of Glens Falls, N.Y., back in 2010. AP Photo/Mike Groll

In college basketball, it’s sometimes called a homecoming game -- but it’s got nothing to do with crowning a queen or filling the bleachers with a gaggle of graying alums. It’s simply the term for a game scheduled in the hometown (or area) of a player to give him or her a chance to play in front of friends and family.

All-American Christian Laettner played one in 1991 when Duke traveled to Canisius; Connecticut star Maya Moore had one in 2010 when the Huskies played at Georgia Tech; and Gonzaga went across the border into Canada last season to play Hawaii in Vancouver, British Columbia, the hometown of standout Robert Sacre.

Each season, scores of these homecoming games are played as coaches such as Dave Rose of BYU, Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, Ted Woodward of Maine and Geno Auriemma of UConn (among many) make them a priority.

In its own way, each can be special for a returning player.

When Laettner and Duke played Canisius 21 years ago, 16,279 turned out to see the former Angola, N.Y., star at Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, the largest basketball crowd in the city’s history.

When Moore played in Atlanta two seasons ago, the former Lawrenceville, Ga., standout scored 30 points and could look into the stands and see friends and family decked out in matching blue shirts with her name on them.

And when Gonzaga’s Sacre last season had the chance to play at Rogers Arena, the former home of the Vancouver Grizzlies, he told reporters he was thrilled.

“I was just happy to be on my dream court, where I’ve always wanted to play,” he said after scoring 16 points in a Zags win. “When I was a little kid, this is where I’ve always wanted to be and this is where I’ve always wanted to play.”

But to BYU’s Rose, whose Cougars have been playing these homecoming games since he arrived as an assistant in 1997, nothing can match the game played in Glens Falls, N.Y., on Dec. 8, 2010.

That night, a crowd of 6,300 jammed the Glens Falls Civic Center to watch the Cougars and Glens Falls’ own Jimmer Fredette beat Vermont 86-58 in what was billed the Hometown Classic.

“I’ve never really seen anything like it in my career,” Rose says. “I think I’ve seen some things on TV that might compare to it, but for us and our staff to experience going to the community … the whole community embraced our team. There were signs in all the restaurants and banners at community events promoting the game.

“It was a packed house and Vermont, I think, drove a couple hours to come to the game and the fans were probably 25-1 [pro-Fredette and BYU] -- maybe more than that -- because there were only a couple hundred for Vermont.”

When Rose recruited Fredette, he told him he’d work to schedule a game near his home.

But when attempts to set up a game in Albany, Syracuse or Buffalo failed, the mayor of Glens Falls offered up his town (pop: 14,728) and it created a special atmosphere.

At most homecoming games, tickets for friends and family can sometimes be limited because of season tickets. Not so in Glens Falls.

“With the whole arena available, from the time we announced the game it kind of filled up with BYU and Jimmer fans really fast,” Rose says.

Fans roared every time Fredette did something -- and he did a lot, scoring 26 points with five assists.

Although it took a bit of extra effort by Rose and BYU to set up the game, it meant a lot to Fredette.

With about two minutes left, he was replaced and walked to the sideline to embrace Rose and take a seat on the bench as fans -- many of whom had watched him play in high school on the same floor -- stood and applauded.

“I just told him, ‘Thanks,’ ” Fredette told the Glens Falls Post-Star after the game. “‘Thanks a lot for doing this.’ ”

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For Rose and other coaches, however, homecoming games aren’t just for stars such as Fredette.

“We try to do it for all of our guys, if it’s at all possible, during their four years here,” Rose says. “[To] get a game somewhere close to their hometown so their parents, their high school coach, their AAU coach, all their teammates still in the area can come by and watch them play.”

At Duke, Krzyzewski not only has gone to Canisius for Laettner, but played in Portland in 2000 for Mike Dunleavy, at Oregon for Kyle Singler and in Chicago for Jon Scheyer (both in 2010) and played in the Great Alaska Shootout in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Alaskans Trajan Langdon and Carlos Boozer were Blue Devils.

The UConn women’s team has traveled all over the country, setting up games for its standout seniors near their homes, including Moore in Atlanta, Diana Taurasi at Pepperdine and Charde Houston in San Diego.

Tucked as they are into the upper northeast corner of the U.S., the Maine Black Bears need to cast their net for talent far from New England, filling out their roster with players from distant area codes and Europe.

While Maine hasn’t yet played a homecoming game in Serbia or Bulgaria, it has played games on a summer tour in Canada (to accommodate two Canadians on the team) and taken trips to San Diego; Clemson, S.C.; Reno, Nev.; Chicago; and a couple of places in Florida for players on its roster.

Woodward, who has coached at Maine since 1996, says he doesn’t promise his recruits they’ll get a homecoming game, “But we certainly do our best to make that happen for each of our guys.”

He says the practice is a benefit not only to the players going home, but also for their teammates who get to see a different part of the country and learn about it from the returning player.

Woodward says one of his former player, Jon Sheets -- now an assistant coach -- is from the small town of Grass Valley, Calif., not far from Lake Tahoe. So one season Maine made the trip to play at the University of Nevada in Reno.

“During his senior banquet, he talked extensively about the opportunity go back and play at Nevada in front of his friends and family,” Woodward says. “It was one of his key experiences in playing at the University of Maine. [Players] have always been really excited about it.”

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At Baylor, Johnny Derrick is the assistant athletic director of women’s basketball operations and has been in charge of putting together the Bears’ schedules since Kim Mulkey became head coach in 2000.

He says he tries to do everything he can to arrange a game for players in their home areas, but it can be a challenge. There are only so many games available each season, especially once conference contests are accounted for, plus home-and-home series and the fact every program wants a balance of home and away games. And, as a national power, Baylor also wants to set up games against top programs, such as Stanford, Notre Dame, UConn and Tennessee -- all on its 2012-13 schedule.

This season, Baylor has a non-conference game at Rice on Tuesday to allow All-American and national Player of the Year Brittney Griner an opportunity to play in her hometown -- her last chance, because this is her senior season. Even though Baylor is in Texas, the Bears haven’t played in Houston her first three seasons.

“[It’s] a tough thing at times to play where you’d like to play, and to be able to get all the opponents you would like on your schedule,” Derrick says. “But it just did work out.”

Derrick says setting up home games for players isn’t guaranteed, but it almost always happens. The Bears have played out west (California), back east (New York) and in the middle (Southeast Missouri State in 2007-08 for former standout Rachel Allison from nearby Jonesboro, Ark.)

In a lot of ways, scheduling these homecoming games is a win-win situation. It’s good for the player, but it’s also good for the team, allowing it to keep its recruiting path open to the area.

Some coaches like to honor their players with a game back home during their senior season, but Woodward says he’s wary of that. He prefers it be in a player’s junior or senior season, but he doesn’t want to leave things to chance.

“Anytime you can fit it in,” he says. “Sometimes, you think [a game] is going to work, but all of a sudden the team has a change of heart in regard to scheduling. … I think when the opportunity arises, you’ve got to grasp it.”

When BYU returned to Glens Falls for Fredette’s game in 2010, though, it was his senior season and the timing couldn’t have been better.

“We were having such a hard time getting back [east],” Rose recalls. “It’s a long way to travel and logistically it’s a tough trip, but it couldn’t have worked out any better for waiting until his senior year.

“It was the year that kind of catapulted him onto the map, as far as the player of the year award that he ended up winning at the end of the year. So I think sometimes you hit a home run, and this was a good one.”