“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.