Creighton coach Greg McDermott likes to kid around with one of the regular visitors to his team's practices.
“Dick, you can't see what's going on and you can't hear what I'm saying,'' McDermott said good-naturedly after a recent practice. “I don't even know why you show up.”
But 87-year-old Dick Upah keeps showing up, just as he has almost every time the Bluejays have practiced since McDermott took the job four seasons ago.
Thursday, McDermott decided to honor Upah's loyalty. The Bluejays were taking a team photo before Creighton's media day, and that turned into quite a production in trying to line up the 20 players and countless staff members.
Finally, everything was in place. McDermott took a seat in the middle of the players, rested a basketball on his lap and had the cameras click away.
The coach then got up and called for Upah. He handed Upah the basketball and had him sit in the coach's chair, with the team and staff still lined up. McDermott stepped away, and the cameras recorded a different type of team photo.
The coach's gesture overwhelmed Upah.
“I had no idea that was going to happen,” Upah said. “I had hoped someday to get a picture with them in private. Never in public like this.”
Upah, a retired businessman, used to be a regular at Nebraska football practices when Tom Osborne coached the Huskers. As Upah likes to say, he used to do a lot of things.
“I used to fish, hunt, gamble, everything,'' Upah said. “But when you get to be my age, you have to become a specialist. I boiled it down to Creighton basketball. I don't make any effort to know anything about anything other than Creighton basketball.”
That's led him to become a regular observer of practice.
“Haven't missed one this year that I know of,'' he said.
Upah has been following Creighton for years, and he counts former coaches Dana Altman, Tom Apke and the late John “Red” McManus among his friends.
“But I never had the rapport with those fellas that I have with coach Mac,” Upah said.
Sometimes a couple of friends will accompany Upah to a workout. Other times, he comes alone, sitting on the sideline and quietly observing the action.
Occasionally, McDermott will come by during practice and say something to Upah. The players know him, and they'll sometimes stop to chat after a workout.
It's this group of players, Upah said, that keeps him coming back.
“This is the greatest unification of a team that I've seen at Creighton,” Upah said. “I've seen a lot of Creighton teams. This group gets along so well. They have a common purpose and a one-for-all, all-for-one attitude.
“I enjoy watching this team play. They play hard, they bounce each other around hard at times, but they leave that on the court. You can just tell by watching that this group is really close.”
Creighton is wrapping up a series of two-a-day practices. Of course, Upah has been there daily for both workouts. He brought a friend, Richard Fangman, to Thursday morning's practice at the Vinardi Center.
Fangman, 93, played one year of basketball at Creighton before deciding to concentrate on his pre-med studies.
“The first time he was in this building was 1938,'' Upah said.
Upah brought Fangman to practice in part to make good on a challenge McDermott issued two weeks ago.
“I told him he's not coming unless he brings someone older than he is,” McDermott said, laughing. “And he did.”
* * *
Video: Q&A with Creighton men's basketball players:
Video: Q&A with Creighton women's basketball players: