CARY — L.J. Hepp watched through a window of the gymnasium as the Panther Creek junior varsity boys basketball squad wrapped up a comfortable win against Lee County.
As the Catamounts varsity squad charged onto the court for pregame warm-ups, its coach remained in the hallway for a few more minutes, holding his 1-year-old daughter while his wife stood next to him. He watched his team prepare for what would be another tense affair.
After three seasons away from Panther Creek, everything has changed for Hepp, and nothing has changed at all.
When Hepp last worked the sidelines, he was at the helm of one of the best 4-A teams in North Carolina. Panther Creeks banner year was 2008-09. Everything went according to script as the team posted 28 wins.
But a late-season, off-the-court incident led to suspensions of several players, and the teams destiny was derailed.
Hepp soon left Panther Creek and joined the staff at the University of South Carolina.
During the last three seasons, the Catamounts went 36-35. Today, no player was at the school during Hepps first tenure. The team has one returning starter from last season.
Panther Creek opened the season with three straight losses. The players know what the team has accomplished in the past, and they went to get back to that level.
A lot of people doubted us, said forward Nubian Spann, the only returning starter. We want to prove people wrong. Were young, but we can go out and win a lot of games.
A teacher at heart
When Tri-9 Conference play got going, Panther Creek raced out to a 4-0 start and was at the top of the league.
But the team came back down to earth after a two-point loss at Middle Creek on Dec. 18. Two days later, it suffered a three-point defeat at home to Lee County.
Despite a 4-6 overall record, and 4-2 in the league, the Catamounts are just one and a half games behind Apex in a four-way logjam at the top of the Tri-9 standings.
My high school coach was here tonight, Hepp said. And he said, If you said in October youd be 4-2 in the league going into the holiday break, would you take that? In October, absolutely. But once you get to 4-0, all you want is 6-0.
Hepp continued: Its not all about winning, but its all about trying to win. At the end, if we win or lose, its not as big a deal as what our effort was, that our preparation was to do the best that we could do. Thats an important point for our kids to understand, too.
That notion is what makes Hepp most comfortable about returning to high school after pursuing coaching at higher levels.
Though a basketball coach, Hepp is a teacher at heart, something crystallized by two years inside a virtual basketball bubble. With college and professional players, the relationship is centered on basketball, and the depth of the relationship is related to players and coaches abilities to extract enough out of the each other to win games and keep everyone employed.
Whereas with a 16-year-old, there is just so much to learn, not just about basketball, but work ethic, discipline, teamwork, unselfishness, integrity, Hepp said. Theres so many things a 14- to 17-year-old human being needs to grow into, understand and learn. Thats one thing I missed those relationships, helping people grow.
Hepps connection to his players was on display that night against Lee County. About a half dozen former players sat behind the Panther Creek bench, and Hepp said he received text messages from several more.
Step back to the end of the 2009 season, the one that didnt end as it should have. In his postgame comments, Hepp talked about how their time together as a basketball team was over, but their time together was really just beginning.
I want to be a part of their lives from here until the end,Hepp said. I hope our relationships have grown to that point.
The journey back
Its hardly remarkable that Hepp finds himself back at Panther Creek. But how he got here is certainly remarkable.
When he was talking to South Carolina in 2009, he was also discussing an opportunity at Virginia Commonwealth, which became the darling of the 2011 NCAA tournament with its surprise run to the Final Four.
If Id gone there, Id probably be in a different place, Hepp said.
But after one year in Columbia, S.C., Hepp took over as the head coach of the Oita HeatDevils in Japans professional basketball league. He was fired after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, when team officials said Hepp didnt do enough to retain several American players who left the country.
Without all that, Id still be there, Hepp said.
Hepp and his wife, Sondra, returned to the Triangle.
Sondra was pregnant, and I didnt know what my next step was, Hepp said. We gave the higher-level thing a shot, but is that the stability were looking for? If I take another swing, where does that lead us? So we came back here and lets just see what happens.
This is what happened: Former athletic director Todd Schuler left Panther Creek for the same role at Cardinal Gibbons. A month later, Mark Adams stepped away as the Panther Creek basketball coach.
Within 90 days of leaving Japan, Hepp found himself right back where he started.
A lot kind of came together for me to be here right now, Hepp said, his daughter Colby bouncing on his lap. I always felt a connection to this place. ... It felt like I was coming back home not just to Raleigh, but Panther Creek.