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.