LINCOLN — Nineteen banners adorn the east wall inside Nebraska’s practice gym. The middle one, inscribed with the team’s “we > me” slogan, is surrounded by player-specific pennants that remind the Huskers of home.
Each player is represented by their name in white block letters and hometown printed in black font on a scarlet backdrop.
For some, the banners are as close as they’ve been to their childhood homes in years.
Freshman center Eduardo Andre hasn’t been in London with his four siblings since the summer of 2019, when he left to play high school basketball in Arizona.
Luca Virgilio, NU’s director of basketball operations, misses Rome, Italy, where he hasn’t visited since the Huskers took a summer trip there in August 2019, along with his sister, parents, grandmother and most of his friends.
And forward Lat Mayen, the youngest of eight, said goodbye to his mom, six brothers and one sister in Adelaide, Australia, earlier that year, when he left to play for a junior college in Florida.
With few exceptions — Mayen’s brother spent two days in Lincoln when Mayen first arrived at Nebraska, and Virgilio’s parents visited him weeks before COVID-19 caused shutdowns across the country — this Husker trio hasn’t seen their families or homes since then. They miss home-cooked meals, sibling rivalries and warm embraces.
“(I miss) their faces, man,” Mayen said. “Their presence.”
Their teammates have helped them cope with the distance.
Kiesse Andre can’t watch his younger brother play without napping first.
In London, where Eduardo Andre’s parents and four siblings live, Husker basketball games start at 1, 2, 3 a.m. So Kiesse, who at 24 is the oldest sibling, spent last season setting alarms to keep pace with Nebraska’s schedule.
Elisa Andre, Eduardo’s sister and the family night owl, skewered her sleep schedule to watch the Huskers last year.
“I like being up in the night better than in the morning,” she said. Besides, what better way does she have to check on her brother?
Group FaceTime calls are “never really any productive conversations,” Kiesse said. “Just a lot of noise.” In the best-case scenario, Eduardo’s siblings remain silent while he provides updates.
Even then, Eduardo’s siblings miss important developments. They can’t see the 20-plus pounds of muscle he’s added through his camera's view, and they swear he’s grown since they last saw him two years ago. When neighbors and friends ask what Eduardo is up to, his siblings know one thing they can say for certain.
“We just tell them he’s at university playing basketball,” Elisa said.
Growing up, Elisa considered her and Eduardo the closest siblings. They attended the same school, prepared for track season together — Eduardo as a high jumper, Elisa a runner — and fought over which shows to watch or music to play.
Elisa claims Eduardo started the arguments, and he usually won them, too. Unless Kiesse intervened.
“He was bigger than me,” Elisa said.
Now the siblings don’t have the time or space to fight over trivial matters. Eduardo doesn’t call relatives after 5 p.m. Nebraska time because he knows they’re sleeping. And he usually can’t call them before then because he’s either practicing, lifting or studying.
The family group chat fills part of that void. Kiesse used it to reprimand Eduardo for “stupid” fouls last season. And Elisa sent videos of their parents shouting at the television during games.
But just like his siblings miss developments on FaceTime, Eduardo can’t keep up with everything that happens back home.
Elisa has graduated, found a job and moved out of their parents’ house since Eduardo last saw her. His 12-year-old sister, Joyce, has matured “a lot” in Eduardo’s absence, Kiesse said. And youngest brother Melchi, who Eduardo said was merely “tall for his age” two years ago, is pushing 6-foot-7 now and grown confident enough to think he can take Eduardo one-on-one.
“I know that ain’t happening,” Eduardo said.
In the meantime, Eduardo will have to flex his skills on TV. Kiesse still needs his naps, and Elisa has pivoted to DVR this season. Since the United Kingdom lifted its COVID-19 lockdown rules this summer, all-nighters carry consequences again.
Elisa can still see Eduardo’s face on the screen, but she can’t replicate his company.
“Talking to him whenever I want to,” Elisa said when asked what she missed most. “Spending time with him.”
News trickled across the Atlantic Ocean while Virgilio’s parents, Giuseppe and Monica, visited Luca and his wife, Caterina, in February of 2020. They read in newspapers about COVID-19 infiltrating Italy. They heard stories from friends. But they didn’t recognize the virus’ scale until the weekend of Feb. 22, 2020.
Giuseppe’s favorite team, Inter Milan, postponed its match against Sampdoria that Saturday. Before weekend’s end, matches across all tiers of Italian soccer were shelved.
“When you cancel soccer games in Italy, that means it’s really serious,” Luca said.
Luca’s parents left soon after, not realizing how long their goodbyes would last. Typically, Luca would come home to visit at least once per year since he began working in the U.S. in 2014.
He’d argue with Giuseppe about Inter vs. Juventus (Luca’s favorite team), a premier soccer rivalry and stuff his stomach with Monica’s cooking: cfhocolate cakes, marmalade tarts and a variety of pastas not common in America.
Nothing compared to his mom’s lasagna, though.
Luca said he could pick it out of 100 batches. And when she visited, she’d make enough for Luca to store in his freezer for months. After big wins, Luca said, he’d look forward to celebrating with a heaping plate. Over a year removed from his last bite, “I've been dreaming for a lasagna for a long time,” Luca said.
His mom and dad haven’t seen him since last February. Luca estimates that he hasn’t seen all his friends and family together since he got married in Brooklyn three years ago.
Luca estimates that he calls his parents once every couple of days. He and mom catch up; he and dad talk sports. Inter and Juventus drew Oct. 24. And Luca’s father, still training to play for Italy’s 60-and-over national team, “always” has strong opinions on Fred Hoiberg’s Huskers.
Luca joked that he avoids calls from home so he doesn’t have to hear his father ask, “Why the hell did you guys do that?”
It’s easy to trick themselves, especially on FaceTime, into thinking the family is together. But when the calls end, the smiles fade.
“After (my mom) hangs up, that’s really hard on her,” Luca said, translating for his mother during a Zoom interview. “She really wants to be here and see each other, but she can’t. So it's a double-edged sword with FaceTime because, yes, you can see each other, but then after that it's really hard to overcome that feeling.”
When Lat Mayen calls home, the children listen closest.
None of Mayen’s 15 nieces and nephews, all of whom are 13 or younger, have seen him since early 2019. Between the 16-hour time difference and Mayen’s student-athlete schedule, he can’t often call before bedtime. So when he catches them, they hush and heed his advice.
“All of our little nieces and nephews,” Mayen’s older brother Aciek says, “they want to be basketballers, too.”
Lat started out just like them, picturing lavish hoop dreams but lacking a plan to fulfill them until Aciek, the third oldest of six brothers, started pushing Lat. Aciek learned the game in 2003, soon after he and his brothers arrived in Australia from Kenya on humanitarian visas. The Mayens fled South Sudan amid civil war 11 years earlier, and from that experience came one of Aciek’s core beliefs.
“The only way out is for you to put work in.”
That same thesis governed Lat’s basketball career from an early age.
Aciek recalls an Australian youth coach who subbed Lat out of drills in favor of players who “knew what they were doing.” He also remembers confronting Lat — not the coach — about the incident.
“I'm like, ‘Dude, the reason why he’s doing that is not because you're messing up,”’ Aciek said. “It's because you're not pushing yourself. You look lazy when you're dribbling, you look lazy when you're running, you look lazy when you don’t have a drill.
“That can’t be right. You’ve got to show that you want it.”
Under Aciek’s guidance, Lat proved his dedication. Beginning around age 12, Lat practiced every day under his brother's watch. Aciek knew when he was lagging, and Lat knew when his brother knew.
“He wouldn’t say much, but you could see it,” Lat said. “You’d get that look, and you’d end up going harder than you ever did before.”
At 14, Lat left the house to play primary school basketball in Adelaide. At 19, he moved to the United States to attend TCU. Then Chipola (Fla.) College one year later. Then Nebraska the year after that.
Lat called family when he could, but they lived on opposite schedules. Check-in texts decreased after awhile, too.
“My whole life I’ve been moving,” Lat said. “It kind of just got to the point where I’m here now. Me not being around, it’s almost like it’s normal for them.”
That doesn’t mean they don’t miss him. At full strength, Aciek considers the Mayens “one of the great families.” If left under one roof, they’ll stay up all night talking, laughing and forgetting to take family photos. Too busy having fun.
But as the siblings mature, “we barely get that,” Aciek said.
Everyone’s married now. Most of the siblings have kids. And of course, Lat has been stuck in America.
Last year, he called Aciek feeling homesick. He’d been too far away from the laughter for too long. He wanted to visit.
Aciek couldn’t help. But he could remind Lat why he left in the first place.
“You have suffered for a very long time pursuing your dream,” Aciek said. “So please stick to it and stay positive. Whatever is happening right now is temporary.”
'Home is not a building'
Nebraska assistant Matt Abdelmassih doesn’t care whether the Huskers drop their turkey in a take-home box or sleep on his couch. He only cares that they know they’re welcome.
Come Thursday, Abdelmassih will host Nebraska’s roster for Thanksgiving. He’s always invited players to his home, but the invitations have never mattered more than they have the past 19 months. If the Huskers can’t spend the holiday with their relatives, he figures, they should at least spend it with people they enjoy.
“Does it replace the family? No,” Abdelmassih said. “But it certainly makes it better having people around that you love and appreciate.”
In Virgilio, Abdelmassih sees both.
After working together at St. John’s and Nebraska, Abdelmassih considers Luca and Caterina his family. That’s why he invited them over last Christmas Eve eight days after his son, Chance, was born. Abdelmassih’s wife, Kelly, cooked Italian food. Luca brought the Abdelmassihs’ oldest son, Shea, a Juventus jersey — No. 1 for the first born — with his first name on the back.
In players like Andre and Mayen, Abdelmassih sees his mission. He’s always strived to build rosters into families, which is why he invites players to play with his children and why Fred Hoiberg hosts players for dinner.
“When they're in your house, and they can feel comfortable and be themselves, I think that's when you really start seeing things take off,” Abdelmassih said.
The Huskers need more than chemistry to reach their goals, but their family focus has maintained morale during the pandemic.
Andre said teammates like Trevor Lakes, Chris McGraw, Trey McGowens and Mayen helped him feel less secluded during last season. Mayen said the support he feels in Lincoln fueled him through lonely moments. And Virgilio considers the Huskers his “family away from family.”
Virgilio’s real family won’t stay away much longer. America reopened its borders Nov. 8, and Virgilio’s parents hope to visit in December.
“I will have a smiling face all day,” his mother said, pointing to her dimples.
Aciek Mayen and Elisa Andre won’t be far behind. Elisa wants to see Eduardo play Kansas State, her alma mater, on Dec. 19. Aciek plans to hug his brother again soon.
“He’s our little baby,” Aciek said. “We miss him.”
Lat misses them, too. He plans to visit his laughing, chatting relatives as soon as he can. But until then, he’s comfortable surrounded by the people who have welcomed him into a different family. In a different home.
He’d miss them, too, if he left.
“Home is not a building,” Mayen said. “It’s not where you’re born or where you’re raised. It’s where you feel comfortable. It’s what surrounds you. I’ve got my teammates around me, my coaches, everyone here in Lincoln. That’s home.”