Randy Siske jumps off the hard wooden bench and hops hopefully to his feet, same as he did for teams coached by Danny Nee and Barry Collier and Doc Sadler.
He is clapping, and he is cheering, and for a moment at least the hoops funeral home known officially as the Bob Devaney Sports Center springs to life around him.
It is two days after Valentine's Day, and that most fickle of sweethearts, the Nebraska basketball team, has just pulled to within a single point of Michigan State, the eighth-ranked team in the country. There are 14 minutes left, and if you squint hard enough, you can see the upset in the distant haze.
But then I look at Randy, and he looks at me. That is all, one sideways glance, but in the moment we understand each other completely, like long-suffering prisoners in the same hoops prison. Like we're brothers from a different Devaney Center mother.
Several seconds later, junior Ray Gallegos pops open for a wide-open three. Randy and I and a crowd of 12,000 lean into the shot, twisting and turning our bodies and willing it home.
If it goes in, the Huskers have the lead. If it goes in, the Devaney Center will go insane. If it goes in, maybe this time it will happen, maybe this time things will be different, maybe, maybe, maybe ...
Off the back of the rim. Randy groans and slumps over like Herbie Husker has sprinted up to Section C-18, Row 20, Seat 19 and slugged him right in the solar plexus.
Randy Siske, a 33-year-old Papillion grade school teacher, has missed one home game at the Bob Devaney Sports Center this year. He has only missed four home games — four — in the past decade. He has been slugged in the solar plexus over and over and over.
He knows, and I do, too: It never ceases to hurt.
“The big shot, when they need it, they miss,” Randy says later. “You don't want to have that attitude, the attitude of, 'What's going to go wrong next?' But it's hard. It is hard. It's happened so many times.”
Welcome to the utterly depressing and wholly depraved world of the Nebraska basketball diehard.
Tonight is the Husker basketball team's final game in the Devaney Center, which in most cases would prompt your obligatory ode to the glorious triumphs and the hallowed history of this place. Eric Piatkowski raining threes. Tyronn Lue crossing over. Buzzer beaters. Toppling Kansas. Those sorts of wonderful things.
Except that anyone half-conscious inside this state knows that an ode to the Devaney Center would fit about as well as a Savile Row suit on a soybean farmer.
The Bob, as it's lovingly known, looks a bit like the aluminum shed you decided to build in your backyard. Fine place for a farm show. Not exactly the Fenway Park of college basketball.
These days the antiseptic arena is usually half-empty, and usually only a decibel or two louder than your average Applebee's.
Oh, and there is this: Since 1999, the Nebraska basketball team has won 78 conference games and lost 148. The Huskers have barely sniffed the NCAA Tournament in that time.
Lue, the last player to lead them into March Madness, has since enjoyed a long NBA career, retired, and now sits on the Boston Celtics sideline as an assistant coach.
It's been a while.
“Let's be honest, (since '99) we just aren't as good as the people we play,” Randy says. “There's no way around that.”
Which doesn't explain at all why, about 90 minutes before every weeknight home game, Randy puts on his lucky Husker T-shirt and jogging pants, kisses his wife and two kids goodbye, jumps in his car and drives west toward Lincoln.
On Saturdays, he loads his son Trey into the passenger seat — yes, of course his son is named after a three-pointer — and they make a day of it. Lunch and then a Nebraska basketball game.
I, too, have pulled on my red, carpooled down with a few fellow degenerates and wandered hopefully into the Devaney Center far more times than I care to admit. I sit in a different section than Randy, but we perch on the same hard wooden bench. We watch that hope turn to heartbreak again and again. There is something unidentifiably wrong with both of us.
He was here on Jan. 20, 2001, when Kimani Ffriend swatted away Iowa State star Jamaal Tinsley's layup attempt, and the ball bounced out of bounds, and — pandemonium! — the Huskers had just toppled the ranked Cyclones.
But not quite. The scoreboard still showed .8 of a second.
Still, this was over. Iowa State had to inbound the ball from near midcourt, and there wasn't enough time left for a Cyclone to catch and shoot, and the only way the Huskers could conceivably lose is if they somehow let Iowa State throw a lob pass over all five defenders and all the way to the rim.
Iowa State threw a lob pass over all five defenders to the rim. An oaf named Martin Rancik laid the ball in. But the buzzer had sounded! The game was over! The students rushed the court! The Huskers had toppled the ranked Cyclones!
But not quite. The officials were huddling around a TV monitor. Still, this was over. The only way the Huskers could lose is if Rancik had scored with one-tenth of one second left.
The officials broke their huddle. Rancik had scored with .1 of a second left.
“Worst loss ever,” Randy says.
But what about Feb. 25, 2009, when Nebraska built an insurmountable 18-point lead on Texas A&M and at long last seemed poised to end its NCAA Tournament drought?
Then A&M scored. And then scored again. And again. That 18-point lead became one. And then with two seconds left Aggie star Josh Carter caught the ball at the three-point line.
Swish. Buzzer. Nausea.
“That was the worst loss ever,” Randy agrees when I bring it up.
Then there was the time Nebraska made a rare national TV appearance, packed Devaney for ESPN's Big Monday ... and promptly fell behind 43-8. And all those times that Nebraska fell behind early, and then pulled to within a single bucket in the second half, and the Devaney Center buzzed and hoped and then … clang.
And yet, Randy drives nearly an hour each way through ice and sleet and dark Nebraska nights, enters the Bob and asks for more.
“I think Tim Miles is really going to turn this around,” he says about Nebraska's first-year head coach. “Of course, I thought Doc Sadler was going to, too.”
This allegiance has something to do with family. Randy's grandparents had season tickets, then his parents did, and then Randy, his two brothers and three friends bought these cheap seats near the rafters. It has something to do with loving basketball.
Randy played at Midland Lutheran College (now Midland University). But there is something beyond all that, something intangible, something important.
The truth is that, as I try to understand Randy, I'm also trying to understand myself. I, too, have spent way too many long, cold nights in the Devaney Center in the past decade.
I, too, have suffered through the near misses, the almost weres, the shots that needed to go home but instead bounced painfully off the back iron. I can look at Randy, and Randy at me, and we don't need anything except a sidelong glance, one that says: Here we go again.
After the Huskers have pulled to within one, Michigan State hits a free throw. A well-meaning Husker freshman named Benny Parker throws a pass directly to a Michigan State defender.
Michigan State comes down and nails a trey. (Sorry, Trey.) They score again, and again, and just like that it is 57-44.
The fair-weather fans start to stream for the exits with five minutes left.
Randy is sitting now. His legs are crossed at the ankles. His face looks serene, like he has accepted today's fate, but his feet are twitching like crazy.
“They are too big,” he says of Michigan State, and he is so very right.
So why? Why have we thrown in our lot with a college basketball program that's never won an NCAA Tournament basketball game? Why do we choose to spend every winter in a near-constant state of Devaney Depression?
I'm glad you asked, because Randy has a theory about this.
His theory is that we hardy few stick with the Nebraska basketball program because, somewhere in the hazy distance, we can see the payoff.
A new arena, one that doesn't look like your backyard shed. A new coach, Miles, who exudes a confidence we haven't seen in awhile. And if all else fails, the law of averages. One day, be it next year or next decade, the Huskers will field a good basketball team. They have to, right?
Their jump shots will be pure and their passes will be crisp and they will have two brutes in the middle who gobble rebounds like Pac-Man, and together they will make the Devaney Center a distant nightmare.
And that day, whenever it is, there will be thousands of new fans crammed into a new arena cheering for a new day.
Randy will be there, and I will be there, and we will glance at each other and know we never left.
“It's a little sick,” Randy admits. “But can you imagine how sweet it will be when they actually win?”
Yes I can, Randy. Yes I do.
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