Basketball is a family affair in Hilmar

HILMAR -- Laura Jepson ruined her perfect attendance record about 14 years ago. Yes, there was that one night her oldest son Jade was playing basketball for Hilmar High when she was just too ill to leave the house.

So Laura sent her parents to the game in her place.

From 1991, when Jade Jepson was an eighth-grader, to last month, when senior Jordan Jepson played his final game for the Yellowjackets, there has been at least one Jepson playing basketball at the eighth-grade or higher level for Hilmar.

Jade, now 31, was followed by sister Erin (27) and brothers Jayce (22) and Jordan. Between the four, they suited up for more than 500 Hilmar basketball games. Mom and dad -- Dean Jepson -- were in the stands for most of the games, and in all that time, Mom missed just one.

"I always liked sports and liked watching them, and I've loved watching the kids play," said Laura Jepson, 58, a teacher at Livingston Middle School. "And through it all, I met four different groups of people, and that was wonderful -- a different basketball family with each kid. Hilmar really supports the kids, and that's one of the things that is really great about this and other small towns."

If you think sitting through 500 basketball games is tough, understand that for Jepson, watching her children was just the end of the spectator marathon. For 23 years, most of those when the kids were too young to play for their school teams, Dean Jepson was the head coach of the Modesto Junior College women's team.

And when the Pirates were playing, Laura was in the stands, usually with a child or three in tow. That adds another 400 or so games to the total, and when you figure in Erin's high school and MJC volleyball career, plus various track meets and baseball games, Laura Jepson's spectator tally grows to well more than 1,000 events.

"She's been a full-time teacher for 35 years, and when I was coaching she'd pack up the kids and away they went to Porterville or Visalia or wherever we were playing that night, in the van with the team," said Dean, 57, a teacher at Delhi Middle School. "Our kids were raised in the gyms of the area."

Dean, a Downey High graduate, was a standout player at MJC, where Laura was a cheerleader. They married in 1973. She's a 1968 Ripon High graduate, which means she went to high school at a time when there were few athletic opportunities for girls.

"We didn't have sports," Laura said. "We had GAA (Girls' Athletic Association) and we'd play at lunchtime in the gym, in our street clothes. I did compete in high school track on relay teams, but there were no other girls sports."

By the time Erin was born, girls sports were in full bloom. And after playing a year of volleyball at MJC, Erin decided to see what it would be like to play on a team coached by her father.

"It was interesting to play for my dad," said Erin, now a nurse at Doctors Medical Center. "We did have some differences of opinion, but I enjoyed playing for him and being a part of the team. I was better at volleyball, so between the two sports and school, it got to be too much."

Little kids and sporting events often make for strange moments, and the Jepsons have been through their share. Like the time Jade stole a pass and was on his way to a layup at the other end when the official blew his whistle to stop the play.

It seems 2-year-old Jordan chose that moment to fling a fistful of Skittles onto the floor.

Then there was the time MJC and Fresno City decided to brawl late in a Central California Conference game.

"I was nervous and ran out on the court," Laura said. "Not like I was going to be able to do anything -- but we saw the tape later and there I was, holding baby Jordan in my arms."

No harm, no foul.

In the middle of this most recent season, Jordan looked into the stands during warmups -- a family ritual -- and couldn't spot his parents. The game began, and he didn't have time to look for them while on the court, but he began to worry when he again checked the stands at the end of the first quarter and failed to see either parent.

"I was worried enough to have my coach make phone calls," Jordan said. "Then they walked in. It ended up that they thought the game started an hour later than it did."

With each high school graduation has come the end of a basketball career, and four sets of emotional moments. Since Erin was destined to play on in college, her final game perhaps was the easiest to handle emotionally.

"I do remember the last games of the boys," Laura said. "Jade lost in a playoff game at Bret Harte, and that was tough; that was emotional. In Jayce's last game, one of the boys just had to shoot a layup to win the game, and he froze. That was a heartbreaker.

"But Jordan's wasn't hard at all. I thought it would be, but he was OK with it. He knew that as soon as the season was over he could play city league basketball on the same team as Jayce and Jade, and by the next week he was ready."

So were Laura and Dean.

"Even when we have city league games, our parents are there," Jordan said. "The league's entire fan base consists of our parents."

City league fans?

"That's not sad, that's just what we do," Laura Jepson said. "By now, I think it's expected."