Lori and Chris Holtmann give Ohio State basketball team a Christmas away from home

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
The gift bags each member of the Ohio State's men's basketball team was to receive on Christmas Eve.

As soon as she learned of the possibility, Lori Holtmann’s mind started to race.

The 2020-21 college basketball season was slowly taking shape, and in an effort to play as many games as possible while campuses would be empty, the Big Ten was discussing holding games on and around Christmas Day.

That’s usually a dead period in the calendar, often the first chance in months for players to visit their families, but this year COVID-19 would take away that opportunity, too.

So as plans came together and Ohio State’s players spoke with their coach and Lori's husband, Chris, and voted on their desire to play the games, she started to work on some ideas of her own.

This year, the Holtmanns hosted the players for a low-key, compliance-approved Christmas Eve party put together in conjunction with the players' families.

There were presents, plenty of food, a slideshow featuring photos of everyone from Christmases long, long ago and the hope that it made up for missing out on the holidays at home.

“It’s hard to be away from family,” Lori told The Dispatch. “It’s hard for all of us in this pandemic to be away from our families at Christmas, but this is at another level. Just doing the very best that I can to make it feel homey and try and make them feel special.”

For that, she enlisted help. On Tuesday morning, Lori said that the Postal Service-willing, every player would have one present sent from home to unwrap at the Holtmann home. Those that didn't arrive wrapped were to be finished off by the Holtmanns' 10-year-old daughter, Nora.

The conversations have helped strengthen relationships with the parents normally forged while traveling to road games and tournaments or on visits, opportunities that have been curtailed significantly this year. In addition, the men’s basketball program was able to work with Ohio State’s compliance office and give each player a Buckeyes warm-up and a copy of a Kobe Bryant book.

Downstairs, where the players often congregate to watch television and play video games, a Christmas tree was decorated with a bag for each player filled with their favorite type of candy. Initially, the hope had been to make one special dish for each player until the logistics of doing so for a roster with 16 players proved insurmountable. The menu included some of the players' favorite foods, as well as Italian meatballs from Chris' grandmother's cookbook

“I keep telling all of these moms it’s an honor to be able to stand in for them this year,” Lori said. “I know those momma hearts are sad, so as we talk we try to figure out what we can do here that would be special for them. They’re all gonna be missing their sons, but I think they’re appreciative that we’re trying to do something here for that.”

Ohio State's players have been on campus since August. Families have not been allowed to attend home games, and save for a few minutes after a road win against Notre Dame, which allowed family members to attend, the Buckeyes have not seen their families in months as they attempt to avoid COVID-19.

The players were scheduled to head to the Holtmann’s house after Thursday’s practice. On Christmas, they were to wake up, practice and travel to Northwestern for Saturday afternoon’s game, three days after Ohio State hosted Rutgers at Value City Arena.

“We would all enjoy a day or two off around the holidays, but obviously in a year like this when you’re trying to play in a pandemic it’s not possible,” Chris Holtmann said. “I think our guys understand that and they’ve come to grips with it now.”

Sophomore forward E.J. Liddell said this will be the first time he won’t be with his family in Belleville, Illinois, for Christmas.

“Obviously everybody wants to be with their family on Christmas because that’s what this time of year is about, but in these circumstances I know everybody’s families are supporting them,” he said. “I’ll have my Buckeye family to be with so I won’t be alone at all or anything. It’s a great time of the year, and what’s better than playing basketball on Christmas or around Christmas?”

Still, Lori Holtmann said there’s the realization that regardless of how much they were able to do on Christmas Eve, the next morning had the potential to be jarring for the players. In a year when COVID has taken so much, the hope is that Thursday night’s festivities could help lessen the homesickness.

“When they come over on Christmas Eve, I would be spoiling the heck out of them if I could but there’s so many limits to what we can do for them personally and even within the program,” she said. “I’m thankful we were able to have a couple things for them to unwrap here. They’ll have a celebration with their families at some point and we’ll get through it, but I wanted it to feel like Christmas to them.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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