If I Never Get Back

I am in a motel (hotel by Gentry Dietz’s definition), sitting on a bed that’s a little too hard.  It’s late morning and my son, Sam, is in the room with me.  He is watching re-runs of Storage Wars on A & E, a cable network.   He’s anxious to call his mom so she will record the new episode that airs at 9 pm tonight.  What 12-year old kid likes Storage Wars?  Maybe that’s a good time for father and son to bond.

There’s nothing significant about this room.  It’s a nice room and the pillows are great.  Michele, my wife, wouldn’t like it since the drapes allow in too much light and the fan isn’t loud enough.  Sleep for my wife would be short and restless.  I guess its good she stayed home.

Over 28 years of college basketball, I must have stayed in hundreds of motel/hotel rooms.  This is nicer than the rooms I reserved for my teams in the early days.  Smoking restrictions were less and the rooms tended to smell like a Lucky Strike cigarette factory.  I think the rooms are cleaner now and there seems to be competition for the best shower heads.  What makes this room special enough to write about?

The room is in a Holiday Inn Express and this establishment is located on the eastern edge of Tahlequah, Oklahoma.   Last March, we spent five nights in this very hotel.  Northeastern State University, the host of last year’s NCAA II Regional Tournament, is found right in the middle of Tahlequah.   The gym on campus is where last year’s women’s basketball team won probably the most important game in the program history.  The Bearcats beat Central Oklahoma to advance to the Elite Eight.

Last year is a distant memory and this year is a new team, minus four important players.  Last spring, the grass was just starting to green up from the long winter months.  The leaves were still off the trees.  Even though it was warm enough that I took a couple of long walks, Tahlequah was just as bland as Missouri during the winter.

Oklahoma is really pretty this fall.  The grass is still a depressing brown from the very hot and dry summer months.  The leaves are just turning colors.  They are much thicker in Oklahoma than in Maryville courtesy of the August hail storm.  Tahlequah is near some very impressive, tree covered hills.  You can’t even see the red dirt because it’s so thick with trees.

I guess last spring I didn’t have time to notice the trees, the hills, or even the red dirt.  What I do remember is the five nights in that Holiday Inn Express.  I remember how the staff went out of their way to provide a separate room so we could watch videos of our opposition any time we wanted.

I remember setting up two vaporizers so Sam and my grandson, Jacob, who had gone with us, could get over their nasty cough and cold.  Dr. Harr, our team doctor, personally watched over the pair as they healed.  Having Dr. Harr travel with us to Tahlequah was a life saver.  Sam and Jacob came out just as happy and healthy as was possible.

As I entered the lobby last night, I remember asking the staff if they could upgrade my family to a suite.  Michele was on her way down to Tahlequah and I already told you the problems she has with motel/hotel rooms.  At least last year, she could suffer in privacy while I broke down videos and the boys caught up on their Teen Disney viewing.

Last spring, as we packed the bus before the championship game, I had one, final request for the manager of the Holiday Inn Express.  I knew it wouldn’t be the last time we would need lodging in Tahlequah.  I had scheduled Northeastern State University as our first game of the 2011-2012 basketball season.  Actually, it turned out to be our second game.  In March, I booked eight rooms for November.  When we got home, we sent the Holiday Inn Express staff Bearcat T-shirts.

Now was the time to claim those eight rooms.  It’s amazing how fast time flies.  The leaves have come back to the trees and are ready to take another winter nap.  The restaurant, Katfish Kitchen, is still open and really busy in the back side of the Holiday Inn Express.  Northeastern still plays in the old barn on campus.  Sam is several inches taller according to the locals that remember him.  I hope they’re right.

After everyone was securely in their rooms, charging up their cell phones, computers, e-books, iPods, and cordless screw drivers, I went for a little walk.  I really don’t think anyone had a cordless screw driver, but who knows.  My walk took me past Katfish Kitchen to check when it opened for business.  We would eat our pregame meal there.  How could we resist when the owner gives us complimentary strawberry dumplings, warm up, of course.  He remembers us, too.  I better send him a T-shirt this year.

It was then that I came back into a deserted lobby.  I guess it wasn’t quite deserted.  Candace or Alexis Boeh, our twin post players, was on the motel/hotel computer.  I want to believe it was all about school work, but I bet Facebook probably had something to do with the internet time.  I should know which twin it was, but I still can’t tell them apart unless they have their uniforms on.  Maybe it’s my advanced age.

When I got to the hall where our room was located, it all kind of hit me what a big deal it was to come away with the Regional Championship last year.  The memory of butterflies before each game came flooding back.  The insecurity of not knowing if I had the right game plan or had evaluated each opposing player correctly hit me like a snowball.

The relief of each win was still thick in that hall way.  The joy of winning our first two games, knowing the pressure was off while we enjoyed a deserved day off.  The organization of planning each meal and each practice still seemed to be present in that hall.  The thought of failing was so great that we worked ourselves into some kind of frenzy so that couldn’t possible happen.  The entire 5-day experience seemed to be in that hall way last night.  I think I felt every emotion.

When I was a kid, I used to have a reoccurring dream.  It was more of a nightmare.  I was in my early teens, but I must have known what profession I would purse.  The dream had nothing to do with basketball, though, but I hope you can see the analogies.   The settings changed with each dream, but the message and nightmare was always the same.

I would be given a job to deliver a letter or message to a distant location.  The journey with the letter or message was to take four years of my life.  Considering I was only 14, that was over a quarter of my life.  The dream somehow fast forwards to the two-year point in the journey.  I have no idea how I got that far, but here I was halfway through my journey when something terrible hits me.  I had forgotten the letter back at the starting point.

That was absolutely devastating to my very youthful brain.  Instead of a four-year journey, I now had to go back two years to get the forgotten letter, then set out again on the four-year trip.  I would now be gone eight years or over half my present life.  The dream quickly turned into a nightmare as I tried to find a solution to an impossible problem.  I always woke up before the letter could be delivered.  I woke up feeling like a total failure.

That’s an exact blue print of a basketball season.  The September to March is like I am delivering an unknown message.  When the trip begins, I have no idea if I’ll be successful or not.  The fear of failure is great, like a nightmare.  Last year, the nightmare turned into a fairy tale.  Everything fell into place.  We may have come up one game short of perfection but that didn’t really ruin the fairy tale.

Now it’s September again.  The message has been given to my team and me.  We have no idea of our chances of success.  Gone are some great players.  Back are some gritty players.  New, talented players fill the gaps left by the departing players.  It’ll seem like the journey is four years long.  I hope I don’t forget the letter.

I once read a book about baseball called If I Never Get Back.  It was a fantasy about a down and out man thrust back into time after a hard hit to the head at a train station.  He goes back to years after the Civil War and joins the Cincinnati Reds as they begin their season.  They are to become the only undefeated major league baseball team in history.  That is a historical fact.

In the book, he has the unforgettable experience of traveling with his teammates and all the great experiences of the mid to late 1800’s.  Then he has another hit to the head and back to the present he goes.  I feel like that guy in that train station as we are packing to leave Tahlequah this fall.  I wander if I’ll ever get back, fearing I’ll never get back.

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Gene Steinmeyer

About Gene Steinmeyer

Gene Steinmeyer coached the Northwest Missouri State women’s basketball team for 13 seasons before retiring after 26 years as a collegiate head coach after the 2011-12 season. He retired as the second winningest women’s basketball coach at Northwest as his 2010-11 team won both the MIAA Regular Season and Tournament Championship advancing to the NCAA National Semifinals one game shy of the national championship game.