‘There was a joy to even be able to be playing’

    Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. She previously wrote for The Kansas City Star and The Omaha World-Herald.

IN THE MIDDLE of America, 14 teenage boys practiced late last week. Everything was quiet except for the sound of basketballs thumping against the wood floor, a rare Zen moment for Bellevue West boys’ basketball coach Doug Woodard.

Everything would be fine as long as the cellphone in Woodard’s pocket didn’t buzz.

It had been a long and frightening 36 hours for the country. Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus, and so did actor Tom Hanks. The stock market plummeted. Food was being hoarded, and government officials were hastily calling news conferences to announce new rules, only to amend those rules 12 hours later. People were dying. Eight miles from Bellevue West’s shootaround Friday morning, a 14-story building in midtown Omaha was shut down when a worker tested positive for the coronavirus.

Concerts, sporting events and seasons were being canceled. No March Madness. No College World Series, which had been a June staple in Omaha for 70 years through wars and tornadoes and floods.

Surely, Woodard thought, the Nebraska boys’ state basketball tournament would be next. Illinois and Colorado already had pulled the plug on their championships, and many others followed.

In 10 hours, the Thunderbirds were scheduled to play Omaha Westside in a state semifinal game in Lincoln.

Woodard usually keeps his cellphone in his pocket during practice but never checks it. Can’t expect his kids to be focused if he isn’t, he says. If the games were off and their season was over, Jon Mauro, Bellevue West’s activities director, would probably be the one to deliver the news.

Mauro never buzzed. And so for one weekend, a group of Nebraskans with boy-band haircuts and an affinity for Jersey Mike’s subs were one of the last teams playing in America.

For 48 hours, they didn’t have to ponder safe distances or the harsh realities ahead of them. They did not take for granted how lucky they were to get a chance to finish something that hundreds of other teams couldn’t.

“I’ve never seen anything remotely like it,” said Woodard, who’s been coaching high school basketball for nearly four decades. “Simply, to be honest, there was a joy to even be able to be playing. It was like we were a small slice of normalcy in a very abnormal time.”

BASKETBALL IN NEBRASKA is often a quaint and very temporary distraction in the 12-month churn of football. But the winter of 2019-20 was captivatingly different.

A 6-foot-3 point guard named Hunter Sallis emerged as a multigenerational talent, a five-star recruit. That might not seem like a big deal in most places, but Sallis is the state’s first five-star recruit. Watching Sallis is like finding a rare piece of art in the sandhills: The junior is so athletic and smooth that he doesn’t so much jump as glide, perpetually, in the air. Most high school point guards don’t have a 6-8 wingspan, a soaring basketball IQ and the ability to slice through the lane and effortlessly dunk over larger people. Sallis, who weighs just 165 pounds, has all of it.

He plays for Millard North, which is a high school on the west side of Omaha, and people from all over the city would come just to watch him, and to count all the big-time college coaches who were there to watch him too. Millard North coach Tim Cannon made a giant poster in September titled “College Coaches Visiting Millard North.” The poster got so full he had to make another.

And they weren’t coming just to watch Sallis. The Millard North Mustangs were loaded with four potential Division I recruits, which is also unheard of in Nebraska. Talent oozed throughout the Omaha metro area. Bellevue West’s Chucky Hepburn committed to Wisconsin; Millard North’s Max Murrell pledged to Stanford.

For three glorious months, previously unused bleachers were pulled out and gyms all around Omaha were packed. Fans — students, even — occasionally had to be turned away. Cannon was at a Subway ordering a sandwich one day when a guy told him he’d watched seven of the Mustangs’ games. The guy was a fan from rival school Omaha Central, not Millard North.

But basketball wasn’t the only thing in the Nebraska headlines in February. While the coronavirus was raging in China, 57 American evacuees from Wuhan arrived in the state to be quarantined for 14 days at Camp Ashland, a Nebraska Army National Guard site about halfway between Omaha and Lincoln. A week later, 13 people — eventually a total of 15 — from a cruise ship docked off the coast of Japan were flown to Omaha to be monitored at the National Quarantine Unit on the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s campus, and a few were treated at the nearby Nebraska Biocontainment Unit.

The events dominated the local news and prompted tiny ripples of fear — what if the virus somehow spread from Ashland or the hospital? — but for the most part, the coronavirus seemed to be a faraway disease.

It certainly wasn’t anything a bunch of teenage basketball players were thinking about. No, they were all aiming for Pinnacle Bank Arena, the shiny home of the Class A state boys’ basketball tournament in Lincoln, and dreaming of the packed crowds that would follow them.

On the morning of March 9, a 16-year-old boy from Crofton, Nebraska, presumptively tested positive for the coronavirus. He had attended the Nebraska girls’ state tournament, which had been played at a different site a few days earlier. The Nebraska School Activities Association announced that the boys’ tournament, scheduled to start March 12, would go on but that it would be held without spectators, save for the immediate families of players and coaches, plus school administrators.

Millard North’s players were in class on Wednesday when word came down about the NSAA’s decision to limit the crowds. Sallis stopped by Cannon’s classroom. “Is it true?” he asked his coach. “No fans?”

That night, Gobert tested positive before the Jazz-Thunder game, and the NBA suspended its season. The dominoes fell.

In a cavernous arena with a few hundred people, Millard North and Bellevue West won their respective quarterfinal games on Thursday. And then they waited.

LYNDA HEPBURN DESPERATELY wanted the state tournament to play on. She’s one of Bellevue West’s biggest fans. She works full time as a nurse at the Douglas County Health Center in Omaha. She’s 70 years old. Hepburn’s cancer came back last fall, and she went through months of grueling chemotherapy. But she would not quit her job. She got into nursing because she wanted to help people, and everyone she knows says she almost always has a smile on her face.

That is, when she’s not yelling at a referee.

Hepburn is passionate about basketball because her grandsons, Chucky and Trey, started for Bellevue West. She saw nearly every one of their games. Trey, a senior, hasn’t gotten nearly as much ink as Chucky. But Trey doesn’t care.

“Not at all,” Trey said. “He deserves [the attention], for sure. He puts a lot of time into it.”

Trey and Chucky adore their grandma, and they worried about her traveling to Lincoln for the state tournament. The coronavirus is particularly dangerous for people with compromised immune systems. Though she was declared cancer-free in her last scan, she is less than two months removed from her last chemo treatment.

She had to work on Thursday and hoped to watch the game on a livestream that was provided by local businessman Mike Flood, who paid $150,000 so Nebraskans wouldn’t miss the first two rounds of the tournament. But Lynda couldn’t figure out how to get the livestream to work.

The games went on Friday, and Bellevue West put together one of its best performances of the season, crushing Omaha Westside 89-70 and setting up a highly anticipated title game against Millard North.

Lynda knew the risks of going to the game Saturday. She also knew she couldn’t stay away.

“You know, if I die today or tomorrow, I want to die happy,” she said. “And going to the game and watching my grandsons makes me happy. So if God takes me tomorrow, I did what I wanted to do. My faith so far has kept me strong.

“If it’s to be, it’s to be. But positiveness is what I prefer.”

THE THUNDERBIRDS WERE not as tall or as athletic as Millard North, but they prided themselves on chemistry. When they said they were family, it was no cliché. Four brothers made up the starting five — the Hepburns and Louis and Frankie Fidler.

One of the first players off the bench was Owen Woodard, Doug’s grandson. It isn’t a sports season in Nebraska if a Woodard doesn’t appear in some sort of box score. Doug’s son Ryan went on to be a quarterback at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, then Ryan married Creighton softball star Heidi Geier, and genetics and a sports obsession took over.

The Woodards have three kids — two boys and a girl. And the 11-year-old girl is probably the fiercest competitor. Jaycee loves sour candy, softball, TikTok and, of course, basketball. But most of all, she loves Thunderbirds basketball. She’s the boys’ biggest critic and believer. It was not uncommon, in the midst of one of those rare Bellevue West losses, for the waterworks to flow for Jaycee. Her mom would tell her to be careful about that. She might wind up as one of those crying fan GIFs. “I think she’s on the cusp of — I remember myself growing up,” Heidi Woodard said. “At this age, she thinks she can compete with any boy in school on the playground.”

The Woodards’ middle child, Austin, is a sophomore with broad shoulders who plays football, like his dad. Owen is a senior, and that’s why the family was especially worried about how the weekend would play out.

On Saturday, the team gathered at Jersey Mike’s, a sandwich shop next door to Bellevue West, for lunch. They had to go to Jersey Mike’s because they ate there Friday and played lights-out and won. They also had to order the exact same thing so as not to mess with superstition.

For the second straight day, Trey Hepburn ordered the ham and provolone sub with Sun Chips. He said it was the coaches who suggested that they not deviate from routine.

“They said it in a joking manner,” Hepburn said. “But they were serious.”

Because of the coronavirus, there were other rules. No sharing of drinks or food. Elbow bumps instead of hugs and high-fives. And always, repeatedly, slather on hand sanitizer.

NEBRASKA WASN’T THE last state playing basketball on Saturday. Omaha World-Herald prep sports coordinator Stu Pospisil, who’s the unofficial state high school sports historian, said that Missouri, New Mexico and Louisiana also continued their state tournaments with fan limits in place.

The Nebraska School Activities Association did not return messages to ESPN, but Pospisil said that the NSAA said it was going to continue the tournament until the governor or some federal, state or local government or health entity told it not to.

About 400 people were allowed in for the Class A state championship game, which was played in a 15,000-seat arena. In the pregame talk in Bellevue West’s locker room, Doug Woodard told his players to appreciate the moment. They were getting to play. So many others didn’t.

Lynda Hepburn made it to Lincoln and wore a mask on her face. She gets nervous when the Thunderbirds are losing, and when this happens, she plays solitaire on her cellphone or gets up out of her seat and walks around.

Bellevue West trailed most of the game and fell behind by 14 with 3:58 to play. Woodard, who earlier in the season notched his 600th win, had seen a few games unfold like this. And they generally didn’t turn out well.

Lynda Hepburn couldn’t watch, so she went to the restroom and prayed. Little Jaycee Woodard sobbed. She knew it was over.

But then freshman Josiah Dotzler came off the bench and hit a 3-pointer with 3:47 to go. Dotzler played part of the season on junior varsity because he’s young and weighs 140 pounds and would get eaten up against a team like Millard North. But Dotzler is going to be a star, and he can shoot. Thirty seconds later, he swished another 3. 62-56.

Then Trey Hepburn, the brother who played most of his career behind the scenes, dove on the floor, grabbed a loose ball and tossed it to Louis Fidler, whose layup drew the Thunderbirds to within four.

John Shanklin tied the score with 1:07 on a layup. In any other year, the arena would have erupted. The Thunderbirds didn’t care. They’d never forget this. After Frankie Fidler hit two free throws with 22.9 seconds left, Bellevue West led 64-62. A 16-0 run. Millard North’s final shot grazed off the iron, and the Thunderbirds celebrated.

Lynda Hepburn emerged from the bathroom when she heard, “Bellevue West, champions.” She started running from the bathroom to the celebration. She found her grandsons and hugged them. She knew the risks. She didn’t care.

Doug Woodard knew he was supposed to elbow-bump his players.

“It ain’t happening,” he said. “I mean, you can’t cease being human.”

He hugged each player as he placed a gold medal around each of their necks.

THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC is now in 50 states, with more than 13,000 known U.S. cases and more than 188 deaths. Professional athletes and politicians and actors and doctors are testing positive. Experts predict the numbers will explode in the coming weeks.

In Middle America, and every corner of the U.S., nobody knows what will happen next. Will there be baseball, prom or graduation? When, if ever, will things be normal?

On Thursday, Heidi Woodard was working from home while her three kids and Bernedoodle dog named CoCo tried to navigate their new normal. Owen wanted to go play basketball with his friends; his mom said no because of the need for social distancing. She took the kids on a walk instead. It did not go over well.

“I keep telling them they have to learn how to be bored a little bit,” she said. “Grow up as a kid in the ’80s and they’ll know.”

She told them each to write a short essay on gratitude. That also didn’t go over well. But deep down, they are thankful. They got to finish the season. Bellevue West is the 2019-20 state champion. In a world that keeps changing, that won’t change.

“I am worried about what comes next,” Woodard said. “I kept thinking about how lucky we all were to be able to hold on to such a happy memory when so many people already knew how life would be drastically changing for all of us.”

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