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Steps, stairs, elevators and escalators take almost all of us to the top. Except for Super Man and Wonder Woman, no one leaps tall buildings in a single bound.
Conventional wisdom tells you the same must be true in getting to the top of the college basketball talent pool. Single bounds are rare, if not non-existent. Everyone who's anyone, it seems, traces his or her roots to AAU and club teams that travel from one coast to the other and make stops everywhere in between. Elite players go through more than one pair of sneakers because they compete in 60 to 110 games a year, and that's not counting their own high school seasons.
Jordan Hooper, Nebraska's Super Sophomore and Big Ten Player of the Week three times in the last month, is taking a different road to stardom. She chose her path carefully, unselfishly, masterfully and, well, even somewhat luckily because she found the perfect combination to jump-start the raw talent she brought to Lincoln. Hooper has a double combo that triggers every competitive bone in her body. She has a hard-driving head coach who has taught her and grounded her every day since she arrived on campus. She also has a point guard who counsels her, motivates her, laughs with her, cries with her, rooms with her and even travels with her to visit what most might consider one of the loneliest places on the planet to grow up.
Hooper is a unique recruiting story, and it makes you wonder how many sophomores lead their conference in rebounding and rank second in scoring at a BCS school? Better yet, how many freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors are in the top 10 of any BCS-related individual statistical category without playing a meaningful season of AAU or club basketball first?
Yori Barks Orders, Moore Directs Traffic
Connie Yori, Nebraska's unrelenting head coach who recruited Hooper, can't answer that question. Neither can Lindsey Moore, the Washington State High School Player of the Year that now encourages Hooper non-stop and seems to find her 6-foot-2 teammate wherever she might be on the court.
Yori and Moore wouldn't be surprised if NO major BCS statistical leaders went straight from the family ranch to bundles of points and batches of rebounds without playing club ball. To them, Hooper's journey is the basketball equivalent of winning Monopoly without acquiring any hotels.
"You know it's weird. Not playing AAU is why Jordan didn't have a big name coming out of high school," Moore said. "The people in Nebraska knew how special she was, and I honestly think if Jordan would have played AAU, more coaches would have seen her, and she would have been one of the very top recruits in the nation."
Yori does not dismiss that premise. "Most all of the highly recruited kids in the country played on club teams," she said. "Jordan didn't do that, so she didn't maximize her ability and for that reason, she came here with all kinds of room to grow. We knew watching her play in high school, though, that she was going to be really, really good because of her natural physical talents, her size and her ability to shoot the ball. She just needed to develop in some primary areas, and she has and continues to do so because of her work ethic."
Unusual Rivals for This Basketball Recruit
Recruiting Hooper was a bit odd for Yori. "Honest to god, I thought it would come down to us and Chadron State," she said. "I mean, it would not have surprised me at all if Jordan had ended up somewhere really close to where she grew up. She didn't want all the recruiting attention. It wasn't important to her. She just wanted to do her thing in her hometown. She wanted to play volleyball, compete in track and play basketball. She didn't really want anyone to pay much attention to her."
Yori walked that delicate balance recruiting Hooper. The 2010 National Coach of the Year made her share of 730-mile round trips to watch Hooper play in Nebraska's Panhandle. Yori developed a good relationship with Hooper early on and knew when to back off, which in Jordan's case, was almost all the time. "She's a kid that didn't want any of that," Yori said. "It just wasn't her thing."
Hooper grew up on a Sheridan County ranch 36 miles northeast of Alliance, a town of 9,000 in Box Butte County. She has a younger brother, Kyle, a senior starter in both football and basketball at Alliance High School. He helped fuel, then sharpen his older sister's competitive nature. Growing up, Hooper would help load hay. She would take her lambs for a walk, feed her steers and show them around at county fairs. Mostly, she enjoyed sitting down at the table because her mother is the best cook she's ever been around. "I like everything my mom cooks ... everything ... meat balls, steak, pork chops, anything," Jordan said. "She makes it all, and I love every dessert she's ever made."
Jordan Hooper was a diligent, hard-working little girl that was perfectly content to live in the moment, roam the ranch and do whatever she had to do for the family and whatever she got to do with her friends.
Result Would be the Same with a Do Over
To this day, knowing everything she knows and realizing how different she was in terms of wanting to play more basketball, Hooper would not change a single thing. "I would do exactly what I did," she said. "Nothing would be different ... nothing. I would not play AAU, even if I had the chance to do it over."
Dabbling in lower-level club ball one year and thinking it was fun, Hooper enjoyed both the low-key competition and the girls she played with. "But I would never do that for four years," she said. "I had other things I wanted to do, like be on the ranch with my family and friends. For me, basketball was more fun when I got older. I don't know why. I guess I just knew I had the rest of my life to play basketball."
And that's the point of this discussion. Hooper is growing by leaps and bounds because she's completely fallen in love with the game, and that includes long practices where "I get yelled at a zillion times every practice," she said. "Coach Yori gets me down to earth every day. She brings me down from the media and everyone, including my whole family, who thinks I'm so good. I tell myself every day that there are a lot of people out there that are better than me, and I have to work harder than ever to get to where they are."
That ultra-competitive mindset describes how a sophomore, who had that "deer in the headlights" look through a good part of her freshman season, leads the Big Ten in rebounding (9.4 rpg) and ranks second in the nation's oldest conference in scoring (21.2 ppg). Hooper also ranks No. 11 nationally in scoring and No. 14 nationally in double-doubles with seven.
A Great Learner Soaks Up the Game
"Jordan is a great learner," Yori said. "She has a really good mind and picks things up quickly, and I said that from the day she walked on campus. I mean, everything happened so fast for her, and the game was so much faster than what she had played in high school. She didn't have the advantage of playing club basketball and knowing how much faster the game would be played, so she was a little overwhelmed when she first got here.
"At the same time," Yori said, "Jordan wants to be great. She wants to do the right thing. She's extremely coachable. If you tell her something, she's going to try to do it. She's done everything she can in the offseason to develop her strength, get more physical and become a greater scoring threat on the block. She's learned how to dribble and penetrate to the basket, and she works hard every day to become a better passer and a better defender."
Thursday night, in Nebraska's 62-48 win over Indiana at the Devaney Sports Center, Hooper tumbled to the floor at least three times while hustling. Even though she became only the second player in Nebraska history to produce three 30-point games in a four-game stretch, she was making unselfish passes towards the end, showcasing the well-honed skills she improves on every day.
Who was the only other Husker to produce three 30-point games in a four-game stretch? Would you believe Amy Stephens, another Alliance native that achieved the same feat in February of 1989?
Stephens' Picture a Daily Motivation Tool
"I looked at her picture every day when I came into high school, and I always thought to myself: 'I want to be just like her,'" Hooper said of Stephens. So now is as good a time as any to reveal that as much as Stephens, now the head women's basketball coach at Drake University, would have loved to recruit and coach Hooper, she always felt that Jordan should play at her home state university. Growing up in Nebraska's remote Sandhills herself, Stephens, too, was tempted to stay closer to home. She thought seriously about accepting offers from either Colorado or Wyoming. "I will never regret my decision to move 365 miles and play in Lincoln," Stephens said, acknowledging that she and her parents piled up big miles every weekend in the off-season, so she could sharpen her skills in club games across the state.
Even though a more athletic Hooper chose a different path, Stephens thought she had college superstar potential, ironically, because Jordan didn't play club basketball and therefore would profit immeasurably from Yori's constant focus on fundamentals.
One of five players named to Nebraska's All-Century Team in 2000 and an assistant coach on Yori's first Husker staff, Stephens still follows her alma mater. "Holy cow, Jordan's stats are amazing," she said. "Who puts up 30 points like she does?" Stephens said in a telephone interview. When told that Amy herself once scored 30 or more points in three out of four games, she replied: "Holy Toledo! Maybe I did, but it had to be as a senior, not a sophomore. I thought Jordan would be great, but not this soon. I mean, we as coaches are well aware of what we call sophomore syndrome. That's when freshmen put up good numbers and are satisfied with those numbers. They don't understand how defenses will take away what they do best a year later.
"It's pretty obvious that complacency is not in Jordan's vocabulary," Stephens said. "Her numbers are all the more impressive because they reflect her commitment to self-improvement. To me, that's what separates Jordan from the rest of the country. Those high numbers have come so fast and so soon, and everyone knows she will never be satisfied with where she is. She is an amazing athlete."
At Alliance, Hooper placed three times in the long jump at the state track meet, including a state championship and a runner-up finish. She was also all-state in volleyball. "She had the most gorgeous spike you've ever seen," said Kevin Horn of Alliance radio station KCOW. "A lot of people here wanted Jordan to play basketball in college, but I would say that more than half of Alliance wanted to see her play volleyball because they thought she would become an All-American in that sport."
Well guess what? That high honor has to be somewhere on the radar of a sophomore who's enjoying basketball like she never has, maybe, just maybe because she didn't play those extra 300 or so games in high school ... games that might have burned her out, wore her down or worst of all, took the excitement out of the game she loves so dearly.
Yori's Career Average Against Cook Now .333
Yori was the keynote speaker Thursday at a Huskers Athletic Fund luncheon in downtown Lincoln, and she told Husker fans that she was 0-for-2 the first two times she recruited directly against John Cook, Nebraska's legendary volleyball coach.
When Hooper's recruitment came down to two sports at one school instead of two schools for one sport, Yori may have come up with the line that persuaded Hooper to play basketball. When she was recruiting Hooper, Yori told her she better play basketball unless she changes her name to Susie Net. With a last name like Hooper, "that means she was born to play basketball," Yori said.
Yes, Jordan lovesthe solitude of the ranch in the Sandhills, where nearby Cherry County is larger than the states of Connecticut, Delaware or Rhode Island, yet has less than 6,000 residents. It's hard to describe the beauty of a region that is the end result of the last Ice Age. Still, Hooper left those sand dunes, native grasses, clean lakes and all those marshes scattered in between to become a Nebraska Cornhusker.
No offense to Chadron State, the launching pad for Danny Woodhead to the NFL, but Hooper arrived at Nebraska at just the right time. She's already taking the Big Ten by storm, and it would be interesting to know how many residents in that sparsely populated Nebraska Panhandle subscribe to the Big Ten Network just to watch Jordan Hooper.
Every native of the Sandhills, including me, a proud Alliance High School graduate and an equally proud uncle of Amy Stephens, is proud of Jordan Hooper. We know how long and winding that road is from the family ranch to all those family living rooms across the state and around the country. We would love it if someday Jordan becomes an All-American, but we know her goals always have and always will revolve around the team, not herself. Even though she takes the path less traveled, she just might wind up at the top of the heap anyway.
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Voices from Husker Nation
Nice job on Hooper piece. I grew up in Hemingford and have lived on both coasts, but Western Nebraska never leaves your blood. David Yardley, Edenton, North Carolina
Well written article on the "Hoopster"! Clay Friis, Omaha, Nebraska
The Jordan Hooper story is now linked to our KCOW website and facebook page, and Alliance folks are posting on their facebook pages as well. Kevin Horn, Alliance, Nebraska
Awesome article on Hooper. Loved it. Lonnie Sherlock, North Texans for Nebraska, Fort Worth, Texas
Another Alliance alum sent me the article about Jordan Hooper. It was great! We are all so proud of her and so happy for her. She's truly one of a kind. Thanks for writing such a nice article. I also watched Amy Stephens. In fact, she graduated with one of my sons. Keep promoting Alliance and its natives. We like it. Cheryl (Edwards) Harris, Alliance, Nebraska