My 4-year-old son recently put up a poster of the 2016-17 Nebraska Men’s basketball team in his bedroom. Tucked down near the foot of his puppy dog sheets and mere feet from the rim of his “hoopy hamper” laundry shoot, where he gleefully shoots long range jumpers with his Angry Birds underwear before laying down at night.
The poster, obtained through one of the myriad giveaways at the Husker’s palatial Pinnacle Bank Arena on some frost-bitten night when our thawing fingers could barely roll it into a proper tube, was still hung proudly upon that wall in spite of the team’s recent skid.
I don’t remember exactly when we got it, to be honest.
For Husker basketball fans, the February games in recent years have all kind of blended together; a blurry, edge-smeared collage of sameness that goes down with an acidity that tastes a little too familar. So we could have gotten the poster before the maddening 72-61 loss to a very vulnerable Michigan State or before the heartbreakingly close 70-69 game against Wisconsin.
Hell, it could have been some time in January, to be honest. With the Huskers swinging wildly from good to average to Medusa’s-face ugly, the fan base has oftentimes found themselves as off kilter as the team seems to be.
But it was only recently, with the pilot light flame under Tim Miles’ seat flickering higher and higher and many Husker fans preparing to turn that heat into a flame thrower, that I took another moment to look at the poster of the team.
At first glance, it was pretty standard fare.
A schedule. A corporate tie in. Dudes in super clean uniforms pretending they’re about to posterize some unwitting fool from Chadron State in the season opener. The edges had gotten frayed, damages sustained from the past few months of wear and tear after it had slipped down somewhere in the back seat of our Honda and been left there. It was business as usual.
The same old same old redundant redundancies. Nebraska with an “etball” surgically attached to it.
But then, when I was in my son’s room cleaning up a few of his undie airballs from the floor, I caught the poster at a different angle. In just the right light, the wick of 5:00 burning low.
That old slogan that lands so strangely on your tongue and calls to mind a different February and a different team that suddenly seems to be on the other side of the universe from our current planet.
It was there. Hidden, though. Not readily apparent, as it had been scrawled across in some marketing guru’s favorite font in the glow-in-the-dark script that I had noticed and dismissed when first jamming the poster into my hands before jamming ass into the seats in section 312.
That poster, that team, caught in a different light at just the right angle? Well, they looked a little different. Not a lot, mind you. That schedule was still in bold at the top and I’d be a fool to mentally white out the “L”s that the Huskers have been accruing.
But, looking past the tattered edges — past the creases scarring the paper — I could still see a sliver of something that caught my eye.
And maybe it was foolish or that undertow of homer naiveté that always pulls me out towards the waters of ignorance being sporting bliss or just pure blind idiocy, but I turned off the light.
I couldn’t see much of the poster as the light spilled out the blinds and into my driveway, day’s levee bursting, leaving just a fraction of a glow for my eyes to latch onto. It was dark. But there was a tiny bit of a glow left for me to see.
After 10 years of season tickets, countless crotch-kicks to my Husker-sports-soul, and an abiding patience that is never uninformed even if it is worn with a sardonic smile, I’ve learned to trust my eyes.
Still there. Fading, maybe. But with a chance to be reinvigorated with a little more light.
That’s where we’re at right now.
That’s us, as a fanbase. It’s dark right now. Very dark.
The sun set sometime back in 2014 when we were watching our tournament team from the year before crash and burn. Never mind busted brackets, our Renaissance had done a full 180 and we’d found ourselves back in the dark ages without a flashlight.
Our phoenix had risen and then napalmed back into a flaming pile of smoldering ashes so fast, that all we were left with were spots in our eyes and tickets in our pockets to a Wisconsin game that seems more infamous than famous with each passing year.
You’re not wrong if you want Tim Miles fired.
You’re also not wrong if you think he should stay.
What I’m advocating for is one last look.
Once more unto the breach-sketball.
The lights are off, the glow is dim, the edges are frayed, and well-worn doesn’t begin to describe the wear marks running all along the surface of Nebraska Basketball. But there is a reason to believe.
The talent will be as stacked as it has been in years, Tim Miles is not above introspection and – hopefully — reinvention, and there have been flickers of something there; flint-sparks trying to catch the dry kindling that have been stacked in dry storage for years.
I know that the words “one more year” stick in your throat like lukewarm bile. I know that seeing anyone type “next year” with all the frequency of a Ctrl C/Ctrl V combo is enough to make you snap the keyboard across your knee.
Seeing the big picture in 2017 is exceedingly hard. It’s asking a lot of anyone to lift their face up and put their Tweet hands down, to lift your own camera onto the dolly and zoom up past the selfie-stick-close view of this season. But I think we owe it to Tim to give him one more shot. His debut album was fire. The early stages of his tenure were True Detective, Season One and, yes, more recently the team has been a weird Vince Vaughn monologue that’s creepy and too long-winded. But, don’t let him be a victim of his own early success.
Husker fans are feeling that familiar, panic-riddled anxiety pulsing. But, before you chew off your leg to get it out of the bear trap, let’s wait. Just. A. Little. Longer.
We’ve taken some steps backward.
Let’s wait one more season to see if we’re aimlessly backpedaling or if maybe — just maybe — we were backing up so we could get a running start. Next season’s roster is the closest thing to a full house a Husker coach has ever been dealt and, through luck or fate or a God-given ability to land transfer players with big pedigrees, I don’t think we can afford to ask our basketball team to fold without going all in.
Tim knows he’s got one last chance. We know he’s got one more chance.
Make no mistake: the lights are off.
It’s either time for the program to glow, or it’s time to flip the switch and tear that poster down off the wall to start over again.