There are many firsts in the year after someone close to you passes away - birthdays, holidays, anniversaries - and each one carries its own significance and heartache.

The holiday season, as everyone else bustles with faith and good cheer, can be especially hard. The world around you seems darker as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's come in quick succession.

For Kevin Collins' family and friends, count the start of basketball season as another tough first.

Collins died suddenly in July and left behind a wife, Lori, and five kids, but also a basketball team and a community at Southern Columbia.

On Monday, that unlikely streak of Tigers came together and kicked off the first home game without Kevin by remembering him and dedicating the girls basketball season to him.

Members of both basketball programs, including his girls team from junior high through players who graduated last year, put a carnation in a vase that was then presented to Lori. The number of carnations, easily approaching 100, were but a fraction of the lives Collins touched, and the gesture was not a singular one between his immediate and extended family.

Since July, Southern's girls basketball program has embraced the Collins family as they've grieved together.

"They have been fantastic from July onward. The girls sat at my table and wrote the obituary for me. They have just constantly showed their support," Lori Collins said following the Tigers' game.

Most recently, the girls team provided some much-needed Christmas spirit to the Collins family.

"They showed up at my house with a Christmas tree knowing it was going to be really tough for us," Lori said. "We were just going to let it pass by, but they wouldn't have any part of that. They wanted us to know that they were there for us and they've just been fantastic."

It had to be hard for Lori to look down at the Southern bench and not see Kevin's imposing figure, because as much as anywhere, it seemed to be a place he belonged.

"He loved Southern and I think he found his home. He loved helping the kids," she said. She acknowledged, however, as most coaches' spouses would, that it's tough being left home while the myriad practices, games, scouting trips, summer workouts and tape sessions call out for time.

"They were his second family and I called it his love affair because he was away a lot," Lori said jokingly. "At times it was upsetting, but I know he had a purpose and he wasn't just not home. He was helping make sure they became well-rounded kids. I'm very, very proud of what he's done."

Part of the players' education and experience now is how to form closer bonds, fueled in part by Kevin's passing. The results of the season pale in comparison to the Tigers' mission of playing as hard as their former coach would've demanded of them, and working through the hard times is a valuable lesson.

It's one Lori has learned, too.

She started our conversation with apprehension when the recorder appeared, but as we talked her courage and love for Kevin, and Southern, came shining through.

"I've had to become things I wasn't because Kevin took care of so much," she said. "I like sitting back and staying away from the attention, but there are things I can do because Kevin is helping me get through them."

And just like Kevin would've have wanted her to do, Lori is repaying Southern the best way she knows - with her support at games this year.

"They've taken us into the Southern family without blinking. Words can't say how much they mean to our family," Lori said.

"They're here missing him almost as much as we are and we're going to come to as many games that we can because I want to support the girls as much as they've been there for us."

For friends and family of Kevin Collins, let this start of the first basketball season without him be a tribute to his legacy - a first worth finding joy in.