One after another, the boys streamed into the gym on Weisner Street and started firing up jump shots on one end of the basketball court, well ahead of their scheduled practice time.
On the other end, Coach Jeff Watson was trying to wrap up a segment on how to move the ball against a zone defense.
They’ve all come from different places for different reasons, but ultimately, basketball brought them together as the Forsyth Home Educators Hawks.
For some, home schooling is a mystery shrouded by stereotypes and misconceptions, even though 98,172 children were home-schooled in the 2013-14 school year, according to the N.C. Division of Non-Public Education. That included 3,173 in Forsyth County.
Some of those misconceptions extend to athletics.
The FHE Hawks play at Konnoak Hills United Methodist Church, with a single row of folding chairs surrounding the court’s perimeter. It is a modest setting, but Watson said the Hawks play some pretty solid basketball, and sometimes they do it in front of a packed house.
“We may not look like much, but they’re pretty good,” he said. “The kids work hard; they play hard.”
Watson would know a little about talent — he played basketball at UNC Greensboro from 1985-89.
His son, Noah Watson, played at Calvary Baptist last season before returning to FHE. At Calvary, he played against a wide range of talent, from High Point Wesleyan and UNC recruit Theo Pinson to smaller Christian schools.
“The quality of basketball is not a lot different from a lot of (North Carolina High School Athletic Association Class) 1-A and 2-A schools; we’re not all that different,” Noah Watson said.
Jeff Watson said he thinks he has two or three guys that could play at the NCAA Division II or III level eventually. To get them there, however, FHE coaches have to be proactive in contacting college coaches and sending players to camp.
Even at camps, Noah Watson gets the same questions from coaches.
“They have it on their sheets and they’re like, ‘You’re home-schooled?’”
Different reasons for that path
The reasons these athletes ended up on the home-school path are as varied as their interests.
John Holleman — a senior captain and stock-car driving phenom who has been a fixture at Bowman Gray Stadium the past few summers — chose home schooling to be able to maintain the schedule he needs to chase his dream of making it to NASCAR. He will take another step closer this season as he makes his debut on the K&N Pro Series.
Dave Moser, an assistant coach, said his family prefers home school because the children can pursue a wide variety of experiences, whether through studies or trips. The family once took a 10-week road trip while the children stuck to their home-school study regimen.
Tyler Cox, a senior captain, has never known anything besides home schooling and enjoys the responsibility that comes with it. He rises before 7 a.m. daily, reading his Bible before getting into his studies for a few hours and then taking a break to take his younger brothers outside to play. After that, he goes back to the books until basketball practice, and then reads his Bible again before going to bed.
He said that the most common question he gets is about his work ethic.
“A lot of my friends think, ‘You’re home-schooled; you don’t do any school,’ but in reality I do just as much … if not more,” he said.
Friendship is another topic that frequently arises when the subject of home schooling comes up with someone who isn’t familiar with it.
Someone’s vision of home schooling where a child sits with a parent all day reading from a book is largely a myth. Students usually meet with others during the day for college-style classes called co-ops, where a parent with experience in a certain field takes the teaching lead.
The FHE players pointed out they make friends from many different places — public schools, church, other activities and from their co-op classes.
Through home schooling, Jeff Watson said, parents exercise greater control over who those friends are.
“The key is that they’re getting the socialization that we want them to have, and not the stuff we want to keep them away from,” he said. “They’re around kids — hopefully, not always, but hopefully — that aren’t into gangs, that aren’t doing the drugs, that aren’t sleeping around and all the other kind of stuff.
“Hopefully … that’s what we’re trying to provide.”
Forming a special bond
Basketball can be a big part of that socialization, but it’s not the only part. There are dances, monthly skating outings and a prom.
Holleman admitted that seeing friends at school on a daily basis would be nice, but through the shared experience of home schooling, the players form a special bond.
“We don’t have the number of friends that public-school people have,” he said. “We’re a close-knit group and I think that helps it.”
Although there are many reasons for choosing home schooling, Christian faith is a common theme with many of the players.
Moser was quick to point out that all are welcome in the 22 sports that FHE sponsors, from soccer to fencing, with about 120 children participating.
“Most home-school sports teams are Christian-oriented,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you have to be a believer to play, but we try to practice and play the game in such a way that we bring glory to God — treat each other well, treat each other kindly and have fun, and get better.”
FHE has won 22 North Carolinians for Home Education Athletic Commission state championships in various sports since 2011, including the boys basketball title in 2007. FHE has also won titles in cross country, soccer and swimming, and its girls basketball program had a run of five straight championships.
The FHE boys took the Class 5-A title at the East Coast Homeschool Basketball Championships in 2007, featuring teams from New York to Georgia.
On the court this season, the Hawks have found enough chemistry, rebounding from 3-5 to push their record to 16-8. They’ve done it without some of the advantages that public-school teams have; they rent the gym at Konnoak to practice and play about three times a week.
Jeff Watson said that, just like with their academic studies, players are asked to find time to do skill work on their own.
“A lot of self-study, a lot of self-discipline … there’s no doubt about it, and we try to carry that over to the basketball program.”
Trouble getting games
Now, his focus is on finding a way for FHE to raise its profile because it can’t get games against public schools.
“It’s a no-win proposition for those schools because if they play us and they win, they’re supposed to,” he said. “If they play us and lose, they’re embarrassed.”
A few schools have stepped forward — Walkertown did a few years ago and the Forsyth Country Day junior varsity team has. FHE’s schedule consists of other home school teams like Cabarrus, Greensboro, High Point and Surry, as well as private schools.
“That’s the challenge. We try to play anybody — private schools, public schools — we’ll play anybody. We can’t get anybody to play us,” Jeff Watson said.
The students might have different reasons for choosing a different lifestyle, a different education. But, Jeff Watson said, the Hawks play basketball just the same as everyone else when the referee tosses the ball up.
“We try to stress to them that while parents are teaching them to be nice and gentle at home, when we get on the court we want them to be physical and aggressive like anybody else,” he said. “If somebody falls down, we’re going to pick them up — but hopefully, we’ll beat them again.”