COLUMBIA CITY — “If she was in the gym, she was happy.”
Columbia City coaching legend Wayne Kreiger wasn’t talking about a former player. He wasn’t speaking of his wife, daughter or granddaughters.
The Indiana Hall of Fame coach was reminiscing on his mother, Helen Kreiger-Ziegler, of Huntington, the woman who has followed him throughout his entire basketball career.
His mom was there from the first time he picked up a basketball, through his high school and college careers and watched 33 years of girls basketball games at Columbia City as he reached 100, 200, 300, 400 and 500 wins. She was there when he took the Lady Eagles to the state finals and she was there when he made the move to Canterbury to coach under his son, her grandson, Scott Kreiger.
The only thing Helen Kreiger didn’t have the opportunity to see was her son win a state title.
This year marked the first season in 41 years that Helen missed tournament time.
At 92 years old and in deteriorating health, Helen was only able to go to one game all season.
“That really, really bothered her. Her health had started to decline. We were very concerned about her being out by herself or going to games,” Wayne said.
With her son in the running for his first state title and her grandson one game away from his fourth championship ribbon, Helen wanted to be nowhere but Terre Haute for the girls state basketball finals.
Last Thursday, with the game scheduled just two days away on Saturday, Helen’s health took a turn for the worse.
“Thursday the doctor called and said to come to the hospital because she wasn’t doing well,” Wayne said. “The doctor didn’t think she would make it through the night.”
Wayne said he was going to skip his first state title to stay home with his mother — but she wouldn’t let him.
“She made me promise that I would be with Scott on Saturday,” Kreiger said. “Before I left, I told her I was going to be gone for a couple days, but when I came back I would have a blue ribbon and a medal for her.
“She looked up at me and said ‘good luck.’”
And that’s how their earthly life together ended.
On Friday, Helen was still holding her own. Wayne said the doctor wrote on her chart that if she was still alive, the game needed to be on and she needed a speaker close to her so she could hear it.
On Saturday, Wayne said Helen’s hospice nurse spoke to him.
“I’m telling you, she has willed herself to hear this basketball game,” the nurse said.
As Helen had sat through numerous overtimes throughout her life, she put her own life into overtime.
She listened to the game as her grandson tied a state record with four state titles. She listened as her son was awarded the blue ribbon and medals he promised.
And 1.5 hours after the final buzzer, Helen passed away.
In a life encompassed with basketball, her final day on earth was only fitting.
Wayne’s father, Earl Kreiger, who died in 1990, was also a basketball coach.
While her health was still intact, Wayne said Helen went to most of his home games and a lot of the away games.
Even as she got older, she would do everything she could to be in the gym.
“She made it a priority to be there,” Wayne said. “I was uncomfortable with her being out at away games, so she’d find a friend or an acquaintance to take her.
“She even went to Huntington College and asked the athletic department if there was a student she could pay to take her to the games.”
Rain, sun or snow, Helen was Wayne’s biggest fan.
“Some nights when the weather was bad I’d call her and tell her to stay home and listen to it on the radio,” Wayne said. “Sometimes she’d listen. Sometimes she wouldn’t.”
And when she couldn’t make it, Helen always made sure her son had support after the game.
“She was very, very active in terms of the support,” Wayne said. “She would always make sure she was either there after the game or she would make sure that somebody was there.
“She always wanted to make sure there was a support staff. She was all about family. If I was to define her in the way that she wanted people to remember her, it would be that family was first.”
As the wife, mother and grandmother of three generations of high school basketball coaches, Helen’s work behind the scenes was astounding.
“She wanted to make sure everybody was taken care of,” Wayne said. “She wasn’t the one in the limelight, but she would always be there as the supporting role.”
While Wayne was coaching at Columbia City and Scott at Canterbury, Helen would try to make it to as many games as possible.
“She was a little disappointed when I retired from Columbia City. She said, ‘That’ll cut half of my ball games down,’” Wayne said.
Wayne said his mother was one of the reasons he was interested in basketball in the first place.
“She took me to games when I was very young,” he said. “I guess that’s one of the reasons I was interested in basketball.”
“Basketball has a real strong thread in our family,” Wayne said.
And Helen was the fabric the thread wove through.