I have a new role model for my daughters. Her name is Jordan Hooper.
And it's not just because this young lady is full of small-town Nebraska values and followed her passion to become a basketball All-American at Nebraska.
Mostly, because she has no idea who Hannah Montana is.
“I didn't really have a role model in basketball,” Hooper said this week. “I didn't watch TV. I was always outside, up in this treehouse we had, or playing ball. I wasn't one to spend any time inside. I didn't sit around and watch TV at all.”
The Hooper story is a fun story, one that should resonate at every dinner table from here to Alliance — or the ranch outside Alliance where Hooper grew up.
And it all comes back to one question. How?
How does a tall and athletic girl growing up in Nebraska choose basketball over volleyball?
How does one perfect a jump shot out on a western Nebraska ranch?
Easy. Take one dream. Add some cows.
Jordan had pursued that dream since she picked up a basketball in third grade. She was a tomgirl who hung out with the local boys, playing basketball, baseball and, yes, football.
A local youth coach saw her play and put her on a girls team in Alliance called the Crusaders. Her parents drove her 45 minutes to Alliance for practice each day so she could “make some friends.”
What she found, in a state dominated by girls volleyball, was a new best friend: a basketball.
But how could she spend time with her new best friend? Dribbling on a gravel road makes for a nice Rockwell painting. But it doesn't do much for the game.
Jordan had an idea. With the help of her brother, Kyle, they raised enough money to build a basketball court in their backyard.
“We were in 4-H,” Hooper said. “We raised the money by selling the cows we had raised.”
That's probably not how LeBron James started. But it was effective, nevertheless. They had enough money to build a court to the 3-point line. Alas, it was over Grandma Dorothy's famous garden.
But something beautiful grew out of that concrete.
It will be on display Sunday, when Nebraska plays Duke in an NCAA Sweet 16 game on ESPN2. This is the second Sweet 16 trip for Connie Yori's program in four years. NU women's hoops has never been better and never been more in the spotlight.
The Huskers are trying to get where Nebraska volleyball has been. The Final Four. Playing for national titles. They're closer than they've been, thanks to a growing number of girls in Nebraska who have chosen jump shot over jump serve. None of them bigger than Hooper, who actually chose Nebraska basketball over Nebraska volleyball.
“I told her she had to play basketball — just look at your name,” NU coach Connie Yori said. “I mean, your name isn't Susie Net.”
Good line. But not necessary. Hooper's passion was always basketball, in an old-school way. Her drive to the hoop came in a state where there were always more club volleyball teams than basketball, more opportunities to learn how to set and spike.
But that's changing. Look at the number of Nebraska players at both NU and Creighton, as well as the assortment of out-of-state coaches coming over the border to recruit. The level of competition and talent are both rising.
“Absolutely,” Yori said. “I've been in this state over 20 years, and I think you've seen a dramatic improvement. The high school coaching is better. And there are more club teams now to play for in the offseason, teams that play in national tournaments. You can play 50 games in a summer now. That's huge.”
Back when Tom Tvrdy was coaching girls hoops in Gothenburg in the mid-1990s, there was one club team in the state, called Daubert-Woodmen (now called Pinnacle). Several more have popped up, including the Cornhusker Shooting Stars, who have a national reputation.
“It's becoming more like volleyball in the state,” said Tvrdy, who recently retired as coach of Seward High School after winning four straight state titles. “It's to the point now that, if you want to get to that high level, you have to choose (between basketball and volleyball) what you want to do in the summer. That's where Division I coaches see you, not during the season.”
Once upon a time, in the 1970s, a visionary named Terry Pettit created an outlet for the top female athletes in the state to compete and win at a high level for dear ol' Nebraska U. Pettit created a monster that still thrives today under John Cook.
Are we witnessing the creation of another outlet, another monster? Tvrdy, who has coached girls basketball in Nebraska for 24 years, thinks so. And he says the state has a poster girl in the 6-foot-2 girl from Alliance who can take it to the hoop or step back and drain a 3.
“Jordan Hooper is the perfect icon for the sport in this state,” Tvrdy said. “She's the perfect person to raise the bar. Connie Yori is, too. Her personality is the perfect fit for Nebraska, much like Terry Pettit. She's a good person and coach, and she knows how to develop players. The future of the sport in the state is very bright.”
Nebraska volleyball isn't going away. Cook's machine rolls on. But Hooper, and her teammates, showed that there's another game in town.
“I love football and I love volleyball,” Hooper said. “I love John Cook, too. But there was just something about basketball. I can't explain it. It's my first love. I hope I can be a role model for girls who like the game. It's just so awesome to play basketball and represent your school.”
That passion should be obvious Sunday on the TV screen. Yes, girls of Nebraska, you can watch the game. You have Jordan's permission.
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