Joe Horne Christmas Classic set for this weekend

December 18, 2013 10:36:41 PM

Adam Minichino - [email protected]


The knock on the door rousted Sammy Smith from his seat. 


The Columbus High School boys basketball coach wasn't surprised someone was looking for him. After all, Smith has come to expect people knocking on his door, blowing up his phone, and packing his gymnasium at this time of the year.  


Now, though, less than two days from the start of the 17th annual Joe Horne Columbus Christmas Invitational boys and girls basketball tournament at Columbus High, Smith was talking about how blessed he was to have so many people supporting him in so many roles. When you have as many friends as Smith has made in more than 18 years as Columbus High's coach, you can take time away from preparing for a showcase basketball tournament to coach your players on the finer points of boxing out.  


Nestled away in his office, the knock beckoned Smith to the door. He smiled when he opened it and saw Margie Brown, the school's main office receptionist. Brown, who Smith affectionately refers to as "Grandma," came bearing gifts in the form of three multi-packs of soda, cups, plates, and other items Smith could use to stock the hospitality room for the upcoming tournament. 


Smith smiled as he closed the door because he said he had asked Brown for the goodies earlier in the day but he hadn't had a chance to go to the office to get them from Brown. The fact that Brown remembered to bring them to Smith drove home a point he made earlier in the conversation. 


"Without other people helping me, my life would have been crazy," Smith said when asked what he was thankful for. "I have had too many people do things for me and help me in life, which is why it is so easy for giving my last, and I pride myself in giving my last. I think I am kind of like Superman because I can fix a lot of things because suffering is tough." 


That's when the conversation turned back to basketball, specifically Joe Horne. The former Columbus High scorekeeper was a fixture at the school's athletic events until he died in 2003. Smith, who is in his second stint at the school, started the tournament as a way to honor his memory. Horne would be proud how the event has grown to become one of the state's premier annual events. This season, 24 teams from the states of Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee will be featured. 


Local fans also will get their fix, as Columbus, Starkville, and West Lowndes will have their boys and girls teams participating. The West Point and New Hope boys also will compete Saturday. New Hope and Columbus will wrap up the 18-game event with a scheduled 8 p.m. tip Saturday. 


For Smith, whose team is 9-3 and 1-1 in the district, the game will be a showcase of a Lowndes County rivalry that hasn't always had a chance to shine. Smith said it is time for the teams to play again, which is why he is excited to see the matchup come in the school's signature event. 


With all of the details just about squared away for another year, Smith could take a few minutes to talk about being thankful for people like Horne, assistant coach Gary Griffin, and longtime scorekeeper Wash Stewart. Those people allow Smith to get down with his players in drills and sweat and work hard with them. In addition to imparting fundamental lessons, Smith takes pride in helping prepare young men for life after high school. He did that subtly Wednesday when he stopped practice and looked across the court to Griffin and made a point about how his players were dressed. A few seconds earlier, Smith had noticed a player with his jersey untucked. Instead of singling him out, Smith's words allowed that player and a few other to correct their oversight and get back to work. 


"In the past, I would walk the halls and say, 'Pull your pants up young man. You come to class, pull your pants up,' " Smith said. "Fortunately, with my basketball guys, I would say 99.9 percent of them, when they hit this door their pants are up, they are respectful. I try to do that with all kids, but I have my hands on these kids. That is a pride thing for me. Now I can work on an extra play or do an extra drill that maybe helps us win a game. They are helping me. That is when we are giving back. I am giving them an opportunity to let them know how young men are supposed to handle themselves and then for you to do it." 


Making sure your shirt is tucked in is one rule that is "non-negotiable" with Smith. It might seem inconsequential, but it gets back to doing things the right way and setting an example that will carry over to church or to a place of business where one of his players might work. Lessons like those are the ones Smith has been teaching for decades. While he enjoys the challenge of organizing the Joe Horne Columbus Christmas Invitational and sweating through his suit on game nights because he is working so hard, Smith is especially thankful for for all of the kids who have listened and taken his lessons to make an impact on the world once they leave high school. 


"Columbus has been good to Sammy Smith," Smith said. "I want to think in some small way I have contributed to Columbus and the Golden Triangle. People are good to me, and they know they can call me 24 hours a day." 


Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino in Twitter @ctsportseditor.

Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.