Jul 5, 2012
A lot can happen in four years.
In July 2008, L.J. Hepp was conducting summer workouts with what many thought would be a state championship-caliber basketball team. He had no idea what the next four years would hold for him.
Earnest Ross, who later went on to play basketball at Auburn and now Missouri, was leading a Panther Creek High School senior class that was loaded with talent. Four of the five starters from the team ended up playing college basketball on scholarship; the other starter earned a football scholarship.
"We were blessed when we opened to have a high level of talent come through like that. I don't think that happens very often," Hepp said four years later. "We just had a group of guys who loved being the gym."
The Catamounts cruised through the regular season, posting a 25-2 record going into the state playoffs where they earned a No. 1 seed. Panther Creek spent much of the season ranked as the No. 1 4-A team in the state, and they backed that ranking up.
Panther Creek faced West Johnston and Millbrook in the first two games of the state playoffs, winning both with relative ease. But on Friday, Feb. 27, there were three noticeable absences when it was time for Panther Creek to host the east's Cinderella team, Southern Durham.
Three Panther Creek players, including two starters, were not dressed for the game. Ross, Brandon Oliver and Karim Sako did not play against Southern, and if it weren't for a late game back court violation by the Spartans, Panther Creek would have probably missed the Eastern Regional altogether.
After the game, Hepp told the media the three players were suspended for a violation of team rules.
Time would eventually reveal that Earnest Ross and Brandon Oliver had played their last basketball game in a Panther Creek uniform. Karim Sako returned the following season.
Panther Creek, one of the favorites to win the state championship that season, fell in the Eastern Regional semifinal to Jack Britt.
"At the high school level, it's not really about the wins and losses, it's about the process," Hepp said. "Those guys – where they are now and what they'll do with the rest of their lives – that's what they got out of their years here at Panther Creek."
The speculation about what could have been for the Catamounts began immediately.
"Would it be nice to have a banner up there that says state champions from that year? Sure it would, but it's not really about that," he said.
After the 2008-2009 season, Hepp started looking at his coaching career. The Catamounts had compiled a 50-10 record in two seasons, they had won two conference titles, and Hepp had been named the Tri-8 Coach of the Year.
An opportunity to move into the college ranks is one that is hard for an aspiring, young coach to pass up. So when Darrin Horn, the head basketball coach at the University of South Carolina, offered Hepp the Director of Basketball Operations position, he jumped on the opportunity.
"I had a drive, an itch to coach at a high level, the highest level really," said Hepp.
It happened quickly.
On the morning of Apr. 27, 2009, Horn called Hepp to offer him the job. He needed an answer immediately. Hepp resigned his position at Panther Creek the same day and was in Columbia, S.C., the next.
As the Director of Basketball Operations, Hepp had numerous responsibilities ranging from film obligations to checking on academics for the players.
"What really separated me from the other guys on the staff was that I was not on the road recruiting," he said. "I was able to focus on the guys we had there at the time, where most of the time assistant coaches have to focus on the future."
Hepp's stay at South Carolina only lasted one season. During the college basketball season in December 2009, a former player started recruiting Hepp to another job.
Matt Lottich played college basketball at Stanford when Hepp was a graduate assistant coach for The Cardinal. In 2009, Lottich was playing professional basketball in the Basketball Japan League, and he started asking Hepp if he would be interested in coaching in Japan.
"Initially I said I wasn't going to be moving to Japan," Hepp laughed, "but he kept talking to me and I started paying some attention to his team."
After the Gamecocks' season ended the next spring, Hepp traveled to Oita, Japan, to interview with the Oita Heat Devils management. He landed the job and he and his wife moved across the Pacific Ocean.
"You are really in their culture there," Hepp said of Japan. "I had an interpreter who kind of served as a personal assistant and translator."
Basketball in Japan was something Hepp had to get used to. Each team had five Americans, but no more than three Americans could be on the floor at one time.
"Most of our Japanese players were guards, and our threes, fours and fives were our American players," Hepp said. "If you could have a 6-7 Japanese players, those were hot commodities."
During the second quarter, only two Americans could play at the same time.
"There were a lot of game-within-the-game type times," Hepp said.
On Mar. 11, 2011, Hepp and his Oita Heat Devils were headed to Shiga, Japan, for the weekend's games. When they arrived at their hotel, players started receiving text messages about a massive earthquake that had hit the northern part of the country. The team went to practice, but when they finished they realized Japan was in a state of emergency.
After the earthquake, a 23-foot wall of water came rushing into parts of Japan. The tsunami caused thousands to lose their lives and millions of dollars in damage.
Hepp and his team were safe. They did not feel the earthquake, and the tsunami struck north of where he and his team were located.
One of the hardest hit areas was Sendai, a city that was home to one of the teams in the Basketball Japan League. Luckily, the Sendai team was traveling out of town when the earthquake and tsunami struck.
"The league could have had two teams in Sendai," said Hepp.
The BJL canceled games for the weekend, but from that point on there was not much leadership.
"No one really knew what was going to happen, so what ended up happening is teams and players started taking their own action," Hepp said, explaining that the team in Tokyo decided to stop playing all together.
After the immediate danger from the earthquake and tsunami passed, there was a nuclear crisis looming. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was severely damaged during the tsunami, and that sparked fears of a nuclear meltdown.
"At the time, no one really knew what was going to happen," said Hepp.
Still, the Basketball Japan League had not declared the season over, and team officials from the Oita organization wanted the American players to stay.
"It was really a difficult situation for me. I played a huge role in bringing those Americans over here, and I didn't feel it was my responsibility to make them stay," said Hepp. "If you're afraid, you're afraid. I can't change that, nor should I as the coach."
Three of the five American players left, and that meant Hepp was on the hot seat.
"There was a part of me that feared for my safety and my wife's safety," Hepp said. "Speaking honestly, they wanted to remove me as head coach because I could not keep the Americans there."
In the end, Hepp and Oita came to an agreement to part ways. One week after the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, Hepp and his wife were back in North Carolina.
They say you can't go home again, but for Hepp, he feels like he's been home all along.
“I feel like I never left in a sense, we followed Panther Creek very closely when we were gone," he said.
When Panther Creek's football team was making a run at the Eastern Regional in 2010, Hepp and his wife would follow the game on Twitter. Friday nights were Saturday mornings for Hepp, allowing him to keep up with his old school.
After arriving back in North Carolina though, Hepp wasn't sure where he would end up.
"I wasn't sure what direction I was going to take, but we were at a point where we had already moved a couple of times and we wanted to get back home," he said. "Home for us is Wake County."
Hepp became the coordinator of the Alternative Learning Center at Panther Creek, and also started to serve as the assistant athletic director under Todd Schuler. When Schuler announced earlier this year that he was leaving the school to go to Cardinal Gibbons, Hepp was named the athletic director.
With the additional responsibilities as athletic director, combined with his renewed responsibilities as the basketball coach, Hepp will stay busy.
"It does present some challenges in that I want to give my very best to the athletic department in my role as athletic director, but I also want to give my very best to the basketball program," he said.
"These kids have already missed all of May and June, which were always important months to me, so we're going to have to really get after it in July," said Hepp.
In the end, Hepp says he's just happy to be home.
"I think that it's nice to come back here and see what a great place Panther Creek continues to be," he said.
WRAL-TV's Ken Medlin contributed to this report.