On every game day, for longer than any of the Eliasons can remember, the smell of sweet batter, furiously frying, slowly wafted out of a single-story beige house on the edge of the middle of nowhere.
Just outside the city limits of Chadron — a one-stoplight town tucked in the corner of the Nebraska panhandle, blessed by blue skies and crowned by the cliffs of the Pine Ridge region, eight hours west of Lincoln — Jay and Lorna Eliason would take turns manning the large stove-top grill, churning them out. Blueberry pancakes. Chocolate chip. Plain if you got a bad draw and Lorna insisted that someone had to eat it.
When Elliott Eliason finished all the pastry and bacon and yogurt smoothies his parents could pass across the counter, he would slide on his high-tops and head to the tiny middle school gym, which the high school adopted after renovations went awry.
These days, a nod to Eliason’s youthful dominance hangs in that middle school gym, across from the exposed brick wall encasing the band’s velvet-curtained stage. Three posters depicting three state runner-up teams, from 2007, 2009 and 2010. A banner with his name boasting “State Boys Basketball Player of the Year,” from 2009. One celebrating his Gatorade Player of the Year honors in 2010. To the left, a sign ominously welcoming opponents to “The Bird Cage” — a venue nearly everyone in town claimed was the loudest in western Nebraska.
The legacy that most everyone in town can still detail — tales of dominant dunks, deflating blocks and the most intimidating beard around — was certainly helped by size. Entering high school at 6-9, the now-6-11 Eliason was by far the biggest high schooler in the area: a huge advantage for a player who otherwise wasn’t the most athletic.
But he pushed himself as though the odds were stacked the other way, said Craig Nobiling, his former high school coach.
“He put in all the hard work,” Lorna said. “He wanted to try to succeed at the highest level.”
He headed to the Big Ten with a chip on his shoulder. Chadron was 450 miles from basketball civilization, and many folks questioned Eliason’s chances at playing Division I basketball.
“A kid coming from a small place like this, there were doubters,” Nobiling said. “That he’s not good enough to play in the Big Ten. That he’ll never play in the Big Ten.
“I’m so happy that he’s proving those sorts of people wrong.”
Doug Grina leans over the counter, his white apron full of batter and grease stains, as if to reveal some secret.
“I really don’t get basketball,” the co-owner of Al’s Breakfast in Dinkytown says, peering at Eliason, the Gophers’ starting center. “But I can see effort, and yours is terrific.”
Eliason, suddenly shy, bows his head modestly and shrugs.
In many ways, he is the same player he was in Chadron, one known for his work ethic and fierce aversion to losing, still struggling with the feeling that he has not achieved his own lofty expectations.
After a strong start this season, recording six double-doubles in the first 18 games, Eliason has failed to find the same offensive and rebounding touch he displayed early on — a fact that clearly eats at him.
But at the same time, he’s found a way to channel those emotions, a change new coach Richard Pitino demanded. Eliason’s intensity has fed into huge defensive improvements — the big man has become one of the best shot-blockers in the nation — while his maturity has kept him on the court through his ups and downs.
“When we first got here, he was always down on himself,” Pitino said. “He had bad body language. He got frustrated so often. And now, his attitude has been so good, his work ethic has been great.”
At Al’s, the bottom half of his 6-11 frame stuffed under the 14-seat counter — one of the biggest bodies in Minneapolis crammed into its narrowest restaurant — Eliason is fine with his effort being his most noticeable quality.
“I think I’m doing pretty well,” he says.
But the emotions of the lanky kid from the middle of nowhere still burn, ever striving — demanding — to run a little faster, jump a little higher.
Be a little better.
Eliason glared at the parade of cameras as they descended, one by one.
A picture with his parents. With his brother, Spencer. With one of his best friends growing up, Zach Sandstrom. All of the folks who drove more than six hours to see him play.
But he had just played poorly, and the Gophers had lost at Nebraska, in his home state, in front of so many he’s long wanted to impress, in front of so many that have questioned him. It was all he could do to force his lips into neutral.
“He’s always been extremely hard on himself,” says Sandstrom, who played basketball with Eliason in AAU before wrestling in high school. “You could tell that he definitely wanted more of himself than what most people wanted.”
At times, Eliason’s self-critical tendencies hurt him. Last year, during Gophers games when Eliason would throw his hands up in the air and let his body language crumble into frustration, Nobiling would scream at the TV for him to “shut up and just play.”
But if it wasn’t for Eliason’s demanding inner voice, he might not be where he is. Coming from a small town, his competition was limited. There weren’t other 7-footers; there weren’t five-star recruits.
“I’m only so hard on myself because I want to be better — that’s what got me to be better,” Eliason says. “Honestly, there weren’t really that many kids that could push me. I could have coasted through high school a lot more than I did and not gotten any better, and just been tall.
“I had to be like that to have a chance to get better.”
For a second, the wheels of Sandstrom’s pickup truck get stuck climbing the steep, mud-caked terrain of King Canyon Road to its pine-crested peak.
“Dang it,” he grunts, as Zac Bargen — one of Eliason’s other best friends from high school — just laughs.
The route is one they’ve taken many times, parking and shooting clay pigeons against the dimpled backdrop of rolling hills and plains. Just south is the city dam, where the pair along with Eliason ice fished in the winter and, in the summer, catapulted into the water via a rope that was in perpetual dispute by the Forest Service.
Before any of them could drive, they’d head out there with a pair of four-wheelers and a golf cart — Bargen and Sandstrom often sticking the constantly competitive Eliason with the latter, just to watch him putt along behind and fume. They would hang out on the back roads and camp along the Gold Rush Byway, sharing the land with an outpouring of wildlife.
“There is deer, mountain lions, bobcats, some elk, antelopes all over — and Bigfoot, but we haven’t seen him since Elliott left,” Sandstrom snickers.
Since Eliason left, the town has witnessed other changes. Gophers T-shirts and sweatshirts have cropped up like new fashion. It’s a safe bet that Wild’s, the local bar on Main Street, will have the Gophers on TV anytime they play. The Eliasons get regular calls at their house from the older folks around town, wondering what time and channel the game is on.
“It’s wild,” Eliason says. “It’s just this random town in the western panhandle that is full of big Gopher fans.”
When he comes home now, he’s treated almost as a celebrity. He’ll often hide out at home or in Nobiling’s office to avoid the attention, something he’s never been too keen about, or else escape to the hills with his friends.
Over Christmas, Spencer went to Country Kitchen with his older brother, only to have their booth morph into a rotating greeting table.
“We had five people come over before we even got our breakfast,” Spencer says. “I think [people in town] have a lot of pride that Elliott is from here.”
For a young man who lives and loves the game so much that at times he tears himself up mentally over it, it’s difficult not to hope, not to want more, as he considers his future.
Inside of him is an extra push; he knows it. The ability to reach a little higher, past the ceiling of his 3.8-square-mile town, past the doubt.
“It’s a little bit of a love-hate, but you always love it at the end of the day,” Eliason says. “I wouldn’t do anything else. I don’t want to be playing another sport and I wouldn’t choose another route to go.”
At Al’s, the chime of silverware mixes with blurred voices and the indifferent jazz. It’s not home, but the pancakes are pretty darn good. Eliason shoves his fork into his “Smokey omelet” and lifts one eyebrow slyly.
“They’re better,” he says, nodding toward the flapjacks being fried just beyond arm’s reach. “But don’t tell them that.”
Almost 10 hours away from his old home in the middle of nowhere, he’s still the kid with the chip on his shoulder and something to prove, to the world and to himself.
Outside of the diner, where the smell of pancakes wafts powerfully into the street, there is still a world of unknown. Whether Eliason will work his way through his current rough patch; whether the Gophers will find a path to the NCAA tournament in the next few weeks; whether he will take the next step and make the next level and put, in a new way, his tiny town on the map.
Eliason pushes his plate toward the counter’s edge and stands, his frame overtaking the small entryway. He’s headed for the door.
The gym awaits.