SUMMERSIDE — For Greg Plummer, it didn’t matter what was on the menu.
What the Summerside Storm’s 205-pound shooting guard looked forward to most when breaking bread with Marilyn, Tim, Taylor and Brett Poirier was a chance to unwind and talk about something other than basketball.
“It was just being able to have a change of scenery and being around a family setting. That’s important. We don’t get that,” said the Brooklyn, New York, native.
“Our days are pretty much the same. It’s all work all the time. Everything revolves around basketball. To be perfectly honest, not having the opportunity to come home and hang out with your family and reset it’s really not healthy, at all.”
Plummer and point guard Al Stewart recently sat with the Poiriers, one of six families that agreed to regularly open their homes and share a meal with Summerside Storm players.
It was an initiative started by Three Oaks Senior High principal Nicole Haire.
“I’m a mom and I thought what if my kids were far from home. I would love to think that they could have a home-cooked meal every once in a while,” said Nicole. “This is Summerside. We look after people.”
After a half hour on the phone, six families agreed to host two players for supper.
Her own parents, Basil and Mary, last week opened up their home to shooting guards Avery Smith and Antonio Ballard.
“My mom’s a nurse and Avery has a sore ankle and Antonio had a sore finger. She was getting them ice packs and tucking them in on the couch with an afghan to watch ‘Big Bang Theory’ and fed them a beautiful meal,” she said about that first supper. “Now, they are like part of the family.”
In November, the athletic council at Three Oaks hosted Storm players for lunch, which Nicole said had a huge impact on the players and students.
“One of the little girls with special needs was really partial to Al and he picked up his tray and went over and sat with her. Her smile lit up the whole cafeteria,” she added. “They are just really good guys. They are away from home. It just seemed like a good way to connect them in the community so they felt like they were home.”
Being part of a family — even if it’s just for a few hours a week — means a lot to Plummer.
Coming from a large family, he misses home, his seven siblings, friends and, of course, home-cooked food.
“Of course, you make new friends here but being away from people that you care about the most is tough,” said Plummer. “We don’t get the chance to go home. We are here from Day 1 of training camp.”
For Stewart and Plummer, turkey and all the trimmings was on the menu for their meal at the Poiriers’ home.
The hoopsters talked about life, home and family with their newly adopted family.
“It’s better when you can talk about things that have absolutely nothing to do with basketball and it’s not basketball 24-7,” said Plummer. “As much as we love it, when practice is over and the day is over, I don’t want to still have to think about basketball and be consumed in it. At some point you are going to be worn out from just talking about it all the time.”
Brett, a Grade 12 student and basketball fanatic who blogs for the Storm and does online play-by-play, showed off his Toronto Raptors collection to the players.
“I thought I knew everything about Al and Greg from watching them play in the league but that wasn’t the case,” said the 17-year-old. “I learned more about them in one evening then I did working with them all year.”
“It’s cool to say professional basketball players are over for dinner but it’s a lot cooler to know them as people not players. Speaking for my family, we all had a great time and we are looking forward to having them over again.”
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It’s Thursday night. Mary and Basil Haire’s candlelit dining room table is filled with dirty dishes and chatter and laughter fills the air as Ballard is at the stove, helping himself to a second plate of spaghetti.
Mary comes up behind him and gives him a big hug. Instantly, Ballard leans back and smiles before wrapping his free arm around her.
Ballard sits down and digs in, still managing to talk and joke between bites with the Haires as Smith, who doesn’t have room for another bite, plays on his iPad.
They share stories and tease each other, what families do around the table, a nice break from sitting in a hotel rooms watching TV or surfing the net.
Already, they have orders in for next week’s supper — whole-wheat fajitas loaded with lean meat and lots of veggies — Ballard’s pick.
“Spaghetti today is one of my favourites,” quipped Smith, who got to choose this night’s meal.
“It’s great to break away, to get outside of that fast food and to sit down at a table and have a nice comfortable meal in a home, not in a restaurant or your hotel room,” said Ballard. “When we finish eating here we literally go downstairs and hang out like a family would.”
“Big Bang Theory” is coming on soon and Mary has afghans ready for ‘her boys’ to snuggle up in.
“They would be like our granddaughters who are away at college and they’ve got nobody,” she said. “These guys are here and have nobody and how nice would it be to bring them in and make them feel part of a family.”
Nicole added, “These are our boys. We’re not allowed to share.”
* * *
Al has a three-year-old daughter back home in Chicago who he misses dearly.
Being away from her has been the hardest part of playing basketball in Summerside with the National Basketball League (NBL) of Canada.
“She’s not taking it well. She has her days. It’s definitely tough,” said the 29-year-old. “I’m going to try and go home next month. Six months is a long time.”
Summerside holds few, if any, similarities to the west side of the Windy City.
Stewart said even the food is different.
One thing that does stand out about Summerside is the kindness of its people.
“We do need these things, these family things to get our head outside of basketball and be able to relax and not think about it,” said Stewart. “It’s been a tremendous change from last year. This is definitely keeping us busy.”
When Plummer, now 29, started playing pro-ball at 21 it was easier to be away from home and on the road.
“Now, every year it gets harder and harder to leave home. When you get to a place where you are going to spend six, seven, eight months you at least want to be in a setting from time to time where you don’t have to think about basketball.”
He and Stewart haven’t seen much of the Island. They’ve been in schools and interacted with the fans but, in their down time, they’d like to go bowling, head out to a movie or just hang out with a family.
Thanks to the Poiriers, it’s something they’ll now get to do.
“We can contact them even if it is just to come over and get away from the hotel a little while. It is definitely a great feeling,” said Stewart. “Even though it’s our job we still need to have some fun.”