Offering relief, normalcy, to Joplin, Mo.
JOPLIN, Mo. -- The corn dogs, that's the part Donna and Derek Stokes can't understand.
Donna made them on May 22 in honor of the family dog, Max. It was his first birthday and her 16-year-old son, Daniel, was on his way home from a basketball tournament, anxious to celebrate his puppy's big day.
Donna had just pulled the food out of the oven when the tornado siren sounded.
Grabbing a flashlight, she dashed down the steps with her older son, Derek, and the dog in tow.
"You could just hear it, the noise and it was like it had a pulse, almost like a heartbeat," Donna Stokes said. "And then you heard the house being ripped up. I kept saying, 'Our house is gone. Our house is gone.'"
When the noise subsided, Donna and Derek emerged from the blackness of the basement to look at the house Donna had called home for 21 years.
The front door, once bolted shut, blew open in the wind and Derek stepped outside. The Missouri Southern sophomore looked across the street. The houses there were damaged but not terribly.
"You think for a second, OK, it's not so bad," he said. "And then you turn around."
And there was Derek's home, or what was left of it.
The roof was gone, blown off entirely. The garage collapsed onto itself. The front porch had disappeared, carted to a destination that remains unknown. In the backyard, a neighborhood's worth of debris sat crumbled and collected into a pile as tall as the house.
Yet inside what was left of the kitchen, with the frightening smell of gas wafting through the house, there were the corn dogs, still waiting patiently on the stove for the party to begin.
"It didn't make any sense," Donna said.
Nothing has made sense in Joplin for five months now.
Normal lives around the corner from the unimaginable.
The everyday intersects the indescribable.
On a sunny Saturday at Cunningham Park, a big brother teaches his little brother how to ride a Ripstik while kids clamor on a jungle gym.
Across the street, the ghost of St. John's hospital looms, its facade a crumbling, twisted mess of wreckage. While sons and fathers toss a football, neighbors gather on a nearby roof, trying to close up a hole that had once been a second story.
On 20th Street, the Commerce Bank has reopened with a temporary building and a drive-up ATM. Down the street, Joplin High School is a shell, quiet except for the pieces of metal creaking in the blowing wind. Only the O and the P in Joplin remain on the school sign. Someone has sandwiched the letters with an H and an E, temporarily tagging it Hope High School.
And on Sunday, Missouri Southern kicks off its season with an exhibition game.
Only it isn't just an exhibition game. It's a benefit game, with the big brothers from Columbia driving downstate to serve as an opponent. Missouri, ranked 25th in the preseason, the visitor to the Division II school.
Upside down and right side up, normal and abnormal, this is Joplin almost six months after an F5 tornado turned an old mining town into a snapshot of nature's wrath.
"Things are back to normal in that we're practicing, back to school," said Missouri Southern sophomore Jordan Talbert, whose apartment was destroyed. "But normal is different. I guess normal isn't normal anymore."
Hell-bent on being a college basketball player for as long as his mother can remember, Derek Stokes' path started at Lincoln University, but after one season he made a detour. He decided to transfer prior to his sophomore season and enroll back home at Division II power Missouri Southern.
Living back home to save some money, Derek usually spent his Sundays at his alma mater, Joplin High School, lifting and working out.
Except on this Sunday he gave himself a break. Planning to play pickup that night, he decided to skip practice. So when his mother, Donna, came home she was pleasantly surprised to not only find her oldest son there but mowing the front lawn.
Things are back to normal in that we're practicing, back to school. But normal is different. I guess normal isn't normal anymore.
--Missouri Southern's Jordan Talbert
"I thought, 'Wow, isn't that a nice surprise?'" Donna said.
While Derek was outside, Donna went inside to make dinner.
"I saw a thunderstorm off in the north but I didn't think much of it," Derek said. "Then I heard the siren, but we hear them all the time. So I finished mowing and then I went inside and turned on the television."
The announcer said that the storm had hooked, turning left and putting the Stokes' home directly in its path.
Though not terribly worried -- tornado sirens go off routinely in the height of the season in Joplin -- Donna nonetheless shepherded her son downstairs when she heard the news.
Which begs the question, what if Derek hadn't been there?
If he hadn't decided to transfer, he could have still been at Lincoln. If he hadn't decided to bag a workout, he could have been at Joplin High School. If he hadn't come in to listen to the weather, his mother might never have turned the television on.
"I can't explain it," Derek said. "It's like there was something in my body telling me not to go work out that day."
Now Derek is home but it is not his home and he's in his hometown, but it's not the hometown as he remembers it.
He is here but where is here?
"It's still strange to drive around," he said. "Things aren't where they used to be."
Derek, a shooting guard, would love nothing more than to play basketball this season, to contribute even in the smallest way to Joplin's turnaround. But as a transfer, Derek is forced to sit out this season, to watch from the sidelines.
"It just, it just sucks," he said with a chuckle.
But if there is a purpose to the tornado, it lives in Derek.
Always serious-minded, he has become even more mature, more connected to his surroundings.
Clearing the debris of what used to be your home will do that to a person.
"I can't imagine not being here right now," he said.
After a recent practice, Derek grabbed a shower and leaned in to say goodbye to his mother, who was still chatting in a nearby office.
"I'm going home," he said to her.
Home isn't his house just yet, of course.
But home is Joplin.
Jordan Talbert's mother didn't want him to come home. Not yet, at least. Worried that her only child was too tired after a week's worth of finals studying to make the four-hour ride home to Little Rock, Ark., Faye Perry suggested he just wait until Monday to come home from college.
But Talbert wanted to surprise her and he wanted to go home, so when the rain abated, he hopped in the car, arriving on his mother's doorstep somewhere after midnight on May 22. He slept hard for the better part of the day and when he awoke, found a flurry of messages and texts on his phone.
"I had no idea what happened," Talbert said.
Once he heard news of the tornado, Talbert called a teammate who lived on the other side of town, asking him to drive by his apartment complex on Connecticut Avenue.
"He couldn't figure out where he was," Talbert said. "Everything was gone. He was on my street and didn't even know it. If I had stayed & if I had stayed, I wouldn't be here."
It would be weeks before Talbert came back to his apartment, or what was left of it.
He lost virtually everything save the handful of clothes he packed to go home. Most of it he's OK without.
Except for the trophy.
Three years ago, Talbert's friend and high school teammate, Anthony Hobbs, collapsed during a game. With no history of health issues, no warning, Hobbs was dead at the age of 16.
To remember him, Talbert corralled a trophy, one given to Hobbs during his own playing days.
And then in the whoosh of a second of a tornado, the trophy -- like Hobbs -- was unexpectedly gone.
So normal is the day when Talbert wakes up and goes to class and continues on to basketball practice.
It's the routine of the expected, interspersed with the hope of the future. Talbert dreams of doing something magical at Missouri Southern, of rewarding the people of the town that adopted him with a diversion wrapped in a basketball.
Yet a normal day never again will begin routinely.
"I used to look at that trophy every day and before every game," Talbert said. "Now it's gone."
There are other ways to get home from practice every day but the easiest and the shortest route is past Joplin High School.
So Sam Williams, fresh off a day full of classes in a converted retail store in the mall and a basketball practice held somewhere around town, drives past the place he should be spending his senior year.
It sits on the side of a treeless, barren road, across the street from what looks to be a one-time restaurant. Surrounded by a metal fence, Joplin High is at once the symbol of fate gone awry and faith restored.
"It's awful to look at," said Donna Stokes, whose son, Daniel, is a high school junior. "But what if the tornado had hit on a weekday? We would have lost our children."
Instead Joplin lost the building, leaving a scattered generation of students. Senior year is supposed to be about prom dates and pranks, not destruction and loss.
The town has tried to restore some order, some normal, for the students. Freshmen and sophomores are taking classes at Memorial, the old high school in town, while juniors and seniors are at what townspeople flippantly call Mall School.
The football stadium, on a separate piece of property, survived. There is no gym, no basketball facility. Consequently the team practices where it lands -- some days in Missouri Southern's auxiliary gym, some days at the middle school. The typically sacrosanct high school practice hour of 4 p.m. switches all the time. Sometimes the Eagles gather at 6 a.m., other times at 6 p.m.
"You know it's so weird," Williams said. "There's the obvious sense of normalcy in going to practice. We get together, joke and play hard just like always. That's normal. But then we never know where we're going to be. We don't have a gym."
Instead they have a skeleton, the bare bones frame of what used to be their high school.
"I take the guys home from practice so we drive by it every day," said Williams, whose dad, Jeff, is the head boys' coach. "Every time we drive we're quiet. We don't know what to say."
What can you say, really? There aren't words or adequate descriptions. All you can do is move forward, and so Williams and his teammates are putting everything they have into this season.
It's a hefty load for the small shoulders of teenagers to tote, but the players at Joplin believe it is almost their civic duty to succeed.
The football team tried. But somewhere between hope and reality, a 3-7 record emerged. Now basketball season is around the corner and hope is born again.
It comes in the form of Charlie Brown, a sophomore cursed with the name of the athletically hopeless yet blessed with the ability of the athletically gifted.
The team's leading scorer and assist man moved here only three years ago from Las Vegas. He and his brother rode out the storm in a bathtub while their parents huddled in a hallway. They all made it, emerging with just minimal damage to their home.
Now Brown, like Williams, believes it's his turn -- his turn to do more than give back.
It's his turn to deliver.
"We want to win for the town," Brown said. "We have something to play for now."
They drive through town and look out the windows, quiet at first as the path of the storm's rage unfolds in front of them.
As one destroyed block gives way to the next, with streets devoid of homes and people, they can't help but think aloud.
What was on that foundation? What happens if you were at work and you came home to no house? Who helps you when the police don't have houses? What if you're not safe in a hospital? The bank is gone. What happens to the money? How can a brick house crumble?
"It's like putting a face on it all," said Missouri senior Marcus Denmon. "You see the pictures and watch the videos but until you see it & until you see it, you can't appreciate it."
Denmon and Kim English are the Good Samaritans. In their 24 hours in Joplin, they and their Missouri teammates will visit a basketball clinic, play a basketball game and attempt to raise the spirits of an entire community.
Without the means to deliver money, they are donating what they have -- their talents. They will play basketball in a sold-out gym on Sunday, returning all the proceeds to tornado relief.
The idea was born when Frank Haith, a little more than a month on the job at Missouri, visited Joplin. Overwhelmed by what he saw and almost unable to process it, he immediately contacted Missouri Southern coach Robert Corn to figure out how his team could help. With the help of an NCAA waiver, clearing the path for the game, the One State, One Spirit Classic came to life.
Sold out almost immediately, the university went so far as to offer "virtual" tickets, $10 donations for people who wanted to help but couldn't attend the game.
"People keeping hitting me up on Twitter, saying 'thank you,' but we're not doing that much," English said.
Except they are.
They are delivering that rarest of commodities: they're delivering normal.
"I think people are tired," Donna Stokes said. "There's that adrenaline rush when things first happen. There were FEMA deadlines to meet. But now, now it's like fatigue. We need something to pick us up."
Donna Stokes has a target date for normalcy.
December 25, that's when she wants some semblance of her life back.
A single mother of two boys and a nurse, she lost the place she called home for 21 years and the hospital she called her office for 33 in a matter of seconds.
She has somehow made do, quickly shoring up a rental home that offers a roof if not space -- "We eat dinner at a card table in shifts," she said -- and adjusting to life in the modular offices of St. John's Hospital.
She's accepted living out of boxes and made do with minimalistic possessions, even finding the gallows humor to joke about her life. "I like to say we needed a remodel," she said of her destroyed home.
And while many of her neighbors have left, foregoing building materials in favor of for sale signs, Donna stood her ground. She is rebuilding on the foundation left behind in the tornado's wrath.
So in return, she's asking for Christmas.
"The holidays are a big deal to me," she said. "I want to be home for Christmas."
Maybe, she jokes, she'll make corn dogs.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.