Randy York's N-Sider
When the 12-team Women’s National Basketball Association drafts talented collegiate female athletes and invests in promising role models with celebrity potential, I am declaring that only one prospect ever has emerged from the Nebraska Sandhills. And I’m equally certain that Jordan Hooper would be the only WNBA or NBA player who learned the game that James Naismith invented from a longtime Nebraska Panhandle railroader who also happened to be an Elvis impersonator.
The late Steve Brew, who died in his sleep at age 54 nearly seven years ago, was the man behind Hooper’s amazing journey to the WNBA’s Tulsa Shock. He discovered her in first grade and taught Hooper the fundamentals of the game in the earliest stages of elementary school. If Brew had not come into Hooper’s life when he did, Jordan does not believe she would have reported to Tulsa last Thursday, taken her official physical last Friday and then established her first bit of WBNA notoriety at Sunday’s 2½-hour training camp session with the Tulsa Shock.
Before Hooper left Lincoln, I was curious to know if the Husker Elvis story was true or if certain people in Alliance were exaggerating. “Ask my mom. She gives Steve Brew all the credit for teaching me everything,” Jordan said with a big smile. Somehow, I read Nebraska’s legendary All-American wrong when she laughed at her own answer.
Hooper Gives Brew All the Credit in the World
So Brew must not have played that big a role, right?
Wrong. “I give Steve Brew all the credit in the world, too,” Hooper said. “He’s the one who discovered me. If he hadn’t gotten me going in basketball that early and had waited to ask me to play when I was in middle school, I would not have had the same skills. I definitely give him all the credit for asking me to play and teaching me the game as a little girl.”
Here’s an even bigger kicker: Hooper’s first exposure to basketball was in a one-room schoolhouse on a ranch where her parents lived, 36 miles from Alliance, Neb. “There were only four of us and that included Kyle, my younger brother,” she recalled. “We were at a graduation party, and I don’t even remember who was graduating. We were just playing basketball for a while and got bored. I was in first grade and wanted to play hide-and-seek. When we left the basketball court, Steve Brew came over to my mom and said he’d like me to come into town sometime, so he could coach me in and I could play on a traveling team in a little girls’ league called Wyo-Nebraska.
This Husker Elvis Had Keen Eye for Talent
Brew knew that Hooper’s mom would drive to Alliance and thought maybe Jordan could learn the game and play in a league with older kids because he could see some natural skill sets. Brew’s team included kids from Alliance St. Agnes Academy. “Steve worked for the railroad, so he had two jobs and loved to coach as a past time,” Hooper said. “He told my mom to bring me into town when I was just starting first grade so I could play with the fourth-graders. We didn’t have a house in town so we would drive to Alliance where I could practice after school. Mom or dad would take me into town. Kyle was two years younger so he would just go to mom’s work while I’d hang out for a while and play basketball.”
Hooper enjoyed showing up earlier than everyone else because her mom had to get back to work. Whenever practice started, she would be 10 to 15 minutes earlier than the older kids she played against. Brew would encourage her to shoot during that bonus time without specific instruction. “He encouraged me and just said I had a pretty good shot already, so keep working on it,” she recalled.
Brother Kyle showed little interest in basketball at that age, so even as a third-grader, Jordan found fun where her brother didn’t. “I’d go into town and shoot around and have fun doing it,” Jordan remembered. “Steve was always telling us how good it was to learn the game early so I could develop faster. I still remember one of the first things he said to my mom when she would drop me off early. He’d say: ‘We’ll have Jordan dunking in no time’ and we all laughed then and still laugh now because that still hasn’t happened.”
She Can Dunk a Tennis Ball and a Volleyball
Let the record show that a 6-foot-2 Jordan Hooper has dunked a tennis ball and a volleyball, but never has she slammed a basketball home, nor does she list that among her things to accomplish list. “I’ve kind of stopped trying,” she told me. “I came in just knowing how to shoot mostly and that’s all I knew. Steve Brew taught me footwork and hand positioning on the seams. He taught me quite a lot of what I know, actually.”
Hooper played for Brew through sixth grade, and that’s when she realized how advanced her skill sets were beyond her peers. “I played basketball all the time in grade school,” she said. “When I got to seventh-grade, it wasn’t as much fun because it just wasn’t challenging. It was really easy for me to score and to steal the ball and score. It was really no fun at all because Steve had coached me up so much, there wasn’t any competition.”
Now that Jordan Hooper is on a WNBA roster, she is in comfortable territory, thinking everyone is way ahead of her. Perhaps that’s why she put on a show Sunday when about 200 Tulsa Shock season ticket holders watched the team’s opening day of training camp. The Nebraska rookie “gave them something to cheer about,” Tulsa World sportswriter Mike Brown wrote in his lead paragraph after watching Coach Fred Williams put his team through its first workout.
Hooper Shared Spotlight wit Sims, Diggins
Tulsa fans stood and cheered when the Shock came out of the tunnel. While Hooper grabbed the biggest local headlines, rookie guard Odyssey Sims and second-year guard Skylar Diggins shared the spotlight. Sims, the 2014 No. 2 overall draft selection, was the Shock’s first-round choice. Hooper was the first pick in the second-round.
Joining Tulsa in the 17-year-old WNBA are the Atlanta Dream, Chicago Sky, Indiana Fever, Los Angeles Sparks, Connecticut Sun, Minnesota Lynx, New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury, Seattle Storm, San Antonio Stars, and Washington (D.C.) Mystics. Cities that tried the WNBA but failed to sustain success are Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit (which was prosperous from 1998-2007 but moved to Tulsa), Houston, Orlando (which moved to Connecticut), Miami, Portland, and Utah (which moved to San Antonio).
We provide that history lesson because Hooper herself still can’t quite grasp the professional life she’s pursuing because, well, how shall we put this? She never really thought much about the WNBA until her Nebraska career ended last month in the NCAA Tournament at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the home base for the Sparks.
What If Brew Never Saw Hooper as Hoopster?
Hooper, in fact, is just now seeing herself as a professional player. Even though it’s a far cry from a Wyo-Nebraska elementary league, she truly believes that if her mom hadn’t talked to Steve Brew, basketball probably never would have been a big deal to a girl growing up on a ranch in the Sandhills.
“My dad wanted me to get started in AAU and kind of pushed me a little bit more,” Hooper recalled, “but I put my foot down. I wanted my summers to be mine and wanted to enjoy my life. I decided if colleges don’t want me, they don’t want me, so I’ll just deal with that when I get older. That was kind of my attitude. Maybe that was the wrong attitude, but I think it worked out okay for me.”
Basketball has never burned out Jordan Hooper, and she admits she’s just now getting into the rhythm of envisioning herself as a pro player, so her level of excitement has soared with every sunup and sundown. After a bit of downer when she wasn’t drafted in the first round, “my mindset right now is I'm very excited,” she told me before leaving for Tulsa. “I’m just trying to stay in shape and work really hard so I can get on the team. I'm very grateful and really excited for the opportunity to try and make the roster.”
She Finally Can See Basketball Driving Her Life
Hooper was so focused at Nebraska, she refuses to look past college. “I enjoyed college a lot, but I didn’t want to miss out on anything,” she said. “I wanted to take in one game at a time and not really worry about my future or my life after basketball until I needed to. When college basketball was over and I finally looked at my future, I got excited because I could see it becoming my life, even though I didn’t give it much thought before that.”
Fortunately, Minnesota Lynx guard Lindsey Moore, Hooper’s former Husker teammate and close personal friend, helped ignite the spark, especially when Hooper was questioning her ability to make it in the WNBA. “Linds thinks I can be really good. She just thinks I need more confidence in myself,” Hooper said. “It’s true. I know I can do anything I want to do. I just need to go out there and prove it.”
Before she left Nebraska, Hooper said the WNBA is “very nerve wracking because you’re in a situation knowing that just because you got drafted doesn’t mean you make the team,” she said. “It’s not set in stone that I make this team. I’m going to Tulsa to try out. That's what makes it so nerve wracking. The USA experience I had last summer definitely helped because at least now I know what I’m getting into. There’s going to be a bunch of people trying to make the team and all I have to do is be myself and perform at my highest level and try my best.”
Steve Brew Was One Popular Man in Alliance
That’s all Jordan Hooper can ask for…and all she needed Sunday to steal the show on her very first day as a WNBA rookie. Somewhere, up there, over a glorious Sandhills sunset, is a very proud railroader/Elvis impersonator who had enough vision to launch a little ranch-girl/grade-schooler on a path that would enable her to play basketball against the best women players in the world. How do I know? Because Steve Brew was a close friend of my late father, and the two would exchange Christmas gifts, even though they were at least four decades apart in age. Many Alliance residents believe Brew’s funeral of 800 people in a church that could accommodate only 500, was the largest funeral in Alliance history. People actually stood in the aisles and tributes ranged from a 12-year-old basketball player he once coached to an 89-year-old man who was motivated by Brew, just like Hooper, her parents and my own father.
For years, three of Brew’s brothers – Larry, Ron and Gerry – joined Steve as a Husker Elvis at Nebraska games in Lincoln and on the road. They defined Steve’s life by his love, friendship, and heroic effort that saved the life of a 6-year-old girl who was the lone survivor of a train/car accident that claimed the lives of the rest of her family. Seventeen years later, the girl, still touched by a poem Brew wrote to honor her and her family, shared that poem at his funeral.
Like Larry the Cable Guy, Brew Got’R’Done
Dan Whitney, a.k.a. Larry the Cable Guy, loved to stop, talk, laugh, and pose for a photo with Steve and his fellow Elvis-impersonating brothers. So did Husker fans across the country. Steve Brew was loved as a husband, father, brother, coach, friend and Big Red fans everywhere. His brothers called him George Bailey because he loved his hometown so much, he never moved, just like the Jimmy Stewart character in It’s a Wonderful Life.
And isn’t it interesting how a little girl who grew up on a ranch deep in the Nebraska Sandhills and attended a one-room schoolhouse is the one extolling the virtues of an Alliance native who liked to live, love, laugh and leave a legacy, not to mention how he, too, could truly Git’R’Done?