Jordan Hooper finds home with Huskers
LINCOLN, Neb. -- It's an adjustment moving to your state's capital city when you're from Alliance, Neb. Well, not exactly rather, when you're from outside Alliance.
"Alliance is in Box Butte County," said Huskers freshman Jordan Hooper, who is quite used to giving geography details, yet still does so with textbook Midwestern politeness. "I lived in Sheridan County. It was 45 minutes to get to my high school in Alliance."
But what about after winter storms? Her family also has a house in Alliance, but if they were out on the ranch when the weather got bad
"My dad would have to either go the night before and take the tractor and clear a path, or he'd do it early the day of school," she said. "It was really tough when the snow would drift. Sometimes, there would be no getting out of there."
Alliance is in the northwestern part of Nebraska, in an area known as the Sand Hills. Near the city is something called "Carhenge," which is -- yes -- a copy of England's Stonehenge, except with real cars spray-painted gray. A man named Jim Reinders built "Carhenge" as a tribute to his father. Hey, why not? There's plenty of space for it.
Alliance is also a presence so strong that it's almost its own character in a really beautiful novel called "The Magician's Assistant" by Ann Patchett. The book is about different kinds of love, grief and loss, and keeping close those small things to repeatedly cherish about someone who'll always be missed.
The novel is fiction, but the place isn't. Alliance, in the book and in real life, can seem relentlessly gray, cold and bleak until springtime's warmth perks it up again, an annual renewal.
This is the part of America where Jordan Hooper grew up, playing on a slab of concrete with her younger brother, Kyle, both of them used to having to retrieve the basketball when it rolled away after misses and even sometimes after makes.
"We put up a fence so we wouldn't have to chase it as much," she said. "It didn't work all that well, really."
Her father manages the 7,000-acre ranch that has been in the family now for four generations, his people originally settling in the area in the 1880s.
"And my mom is from Ellsworth, which is unincorporated," Hooper said. "She's from a ranch out in the middle of nowhere."
Which is an arcane distinction to those who think the entire upper Great Plains qualifies as "middle of nowhere." To the eye of a native, though, there really are varying degrees of nowhere.
Hooper doesn't really consider Lincoln to be overwhelmingly big. It's just you really do have to pay attention when you're driving.
"It wasn't that weird to come here, but the traffic is weird," Hooper said. "In a small town, you don't even have to stop at the stop signs if you don't want to. Because there are almost never any other cars."
And, of course, the ones used in "Carhenge" just stay put right where they are.
Which is something Jordan simply couldn't do. Brian and Jodene Hooper's oldest child got so good at basketball, she knew that it would take her away from the family's land. She already has a sense she might not spend her adult years there, that her life path will lead her elsewhere.
"I'll probably go other places," she said, "and do other things."
Indeed, that has already begun.
Eight months after Nebraska's best campaign ever, marked by an undefeated regular season and an NCAA Sweet 16 appearance, women's basketball followers ask, "Who is this year's Nebraska?"
Which team will step forward in a way it never really had before and become part of the national conversation about the sport?
While that remains to be seen, it's worth considering that just like last season, these Huskers might surprise people. Not because they are breaking through a barrier of relevancy, since the 2009-10 crew already did that.
But, rather, by not being lightning in a bottle. Not being a program that reached a certain elevation because of a fortuitous mix of seniors, only to fall back to a thoroughly unremarkable state and stay there.
Coach Connie Yori refused to see last season as a brief open door that would inevitably shut. Yes, there would be rebuilding to do, lessons to be learned, lumps to take. But she viewed 2009-10 as another important piece of the foundation of what she is constructing at Nebraska, not just a scrapbook season to wistfully file away.
Plus, she knew she was getting Hooper.
"I'm never one to blow up kids in fact, I usually do the opposite," said the hyperbole-adverse Yori. "But Jordan is going to be a pretty special player in our program. She set an all-time record in our agility test this fall. And that includes every player that I have ever had. She's very, very skilled and a great shooter."
So far this season, the Huskers are 4-0. Hooper, who has started every game, is averaging 15.0 points and 5.0 rebounds. Because she's a 6-foot-2, dark-haired, all-hustle forward, naturally people might wonder how she compares to Kelsey Griffin, last season's senior star who is now in the WNBA.
They are very different types of players. Griffin was a pure post for the Huskers. Hooper is a guard in a forward's body who is learning how to be more effective on the low block. Hooper already has made as many 3-pointers (nine) in four games as Griffin did in her four seasons at Nebraska.
But they are alike in this way: they're extremely demanding of themselves. Griffin came into the program from high school in Alaska truly believing she would sit on the bench a lot because she wasn't good enough. Instead, she started all 127 games of her career.
Hooper even sounds like Griffin when she says, "I expect myself to be a lot better than I'm performing right now. If I'm getting the privilege to start, I should be performing at a higher level every game, every practice."
You can't help but ask: Could there possibly be a better basketball name than Jordan Hooper? But it almost didn't happen.
"I think they were going to name me Morgan at first," Hooper says of her parents. "They had a few others picked out, too. But Jordan ended up being the one."
Hooper began playing basketball in third grade, when she said she was still "shorter than pretty much everybody on the team, except for a couple of guards." Her coach from then until middle school, Steve Brew, stressed the same things her parents did.
"Hard work. We ran lines forever, because if you don't get in shape, you can't do anything," she said. "He taught discipline and self-motivation.
"He died the summer of my freshman year in high school. We were in [Washington] D.C. for AAU, and we got the phone call about it. We were gone at a tournament. I wasn't there for the funeral."
Hooper was a four-time all-state first-team selection at Alliance High, where she scored 2,078 points and had 1,337 rebounds. And she had that AAU experience. Still, a fairly significant part of her hoops development came on the concrete slab that she and Kyle pooled their savings to build. That's one of the many "Hooper folklore" stories that newspapers in Omaha and Lincoln -- in the eastern part of the state -- chronicled as her legend developed even before she arrived on campus.
"I would play with my brother until I would make him mad," Hooper recalled. "Then when we'd get into fights and he'd leave, I'd play by myself.
"I would pretend everyone was watching me. I wanted to show off, do all these tricks, go behind the back, make weird shots."
And she thought about Brew then, too.
"I wanted to show him I could be as good as he wanted me to be," she said. "He was a really good coach. I'm probably playing in college because of him."
There are other things that got Hooper here, as well. Her work ethic wasn't just developed in basketball. She lived on a cattle ranch, and if someone genuinely wants to know what that life was like, Hooper will take the time to explain.
"We would help Dad fix fences and clean out the [stock] tanks," she said. "And in the summer, we'd cut the hayfields. I was the mower, so I drove that tractor. And my brother was behind me with the rake tractor.
"It seemed like it would only take him like half an hour to do his part, and me like four days to do mine. With the bugs and the heat I really did not like hay baling. But it made me better as a person."
Hooper tells you most of her life details with either a full-fledged grin or at least a hint of one. You quickly get the idea that this is a very humorous and good-natured 18-year-old.
She does not sound at all like a bumpkin. She's like an already wise -- and gently wise-cracking -- young owl who knows when to keep her mouth closed and her eyes open.
"You don't complain," she says of being a ranch kid turned Division I student-athlete. "If the coach tells you to do something, you shut up and do it. Because complaining is dumb. If I complained to my dad about doing something, he'd say, 'I don't care. You need to do it anyway.'"
A hard life? No, that's not at all how she sees it. The hard part was leaving it: being six hours away from her family, friends and the land.
"It was tough to go, because there are just so many different things to see there," she said, referencing the subtle variety to the hills and ponds and vistas she came to appreciate. "The smells are different; it's peaceful. I get here, and it's not so peaceful.
"You just miss stuff when you get here. Like the sky. It's a different sky."
That other sky will always be there when she goes back home. But from here on, Jordan Hooper's horizons will continue to broaden.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.