If you’ve spent an afternoon or evening in a high school gym during an off day for the Nebraska men’s basketball team this winter, there’s a good chance you might have seen Bryce McGowens in the building with you.
The freshman wing has been popping up at gyms all over the state, and standing at 6-foot-7, it’s hard to miss him.
McGowens grew up in a basketball family. His father, Bobby, played both hoops and football in college and was a high school basketball coach when Bryce was a kid. He and his brother Trey spent a lot of time around their dad’s teams in their formative years. His mother, Pamela, is the head coach of the Wren (S.C.) girls team where the youngest McGowens child, Raina, is already starring as a sophomore.
As Bryce blossomed into a 5-star recruit in Pendleton, South Carolina, he was spending his off days at other games, taking in as much basketball as much as he could.
“Just growing up and growing into the person I am today, my life is basketball,” McGowens said. “I love basketball. It keeps me going. So, just being able to show love to the younger ones that I would say look up to me or are fans of me, just be able to show my face and show that it’s bigger than me, bigger than basketball, just give them somebody to look up to and feel happy for and just show a lot of love. I love basketball, so any chance, any free time I get, I would try to make a game.”
McGowens arrived in Lincoln with one-and-done aspirations, and in all likelihood his stay in Nebraska will be a short one. Even so, immersing himself in the community in his new home was something that was important to him from the beginning.
“Embracing the community is what I grew up on,” McGowens said. “Having guys come to my games, a lot of Clemson players showed up at my games back home. It was an amazing experience. My father, really my family, my grandparents, my cousins, aunts, uncles, my pops, my mom, they’re just great, well-grounded people, amazing people. Just show a lot of support and just be nice to everybody. So just me having a chance to show support in another community, I feel it’s amazing and God blessed me to do it.”
The desire to get out into the community and watch other games didn’t leave him when he departed for Lincoln, so back in November he asked his Twitter followers for some help.
When does HS and Middle School 🏀 start in NE👀?? Trying to watch the youngins!!
— Bryce McGowens (@BryceMcgowens5) November 24, 2021
The tweet wasn’t idle talk. Since then, he’s tried to make it to at least one high school game a week when his schedule has allowed for it. He’s checked out games in Lincoln, he’s made the drive up I-80 to Omaha and he’s even swung through Ashland. Omaha Central senior Jayden Dawson (a Loyola-Chicago commit), Ashland-Greenwood senior Cale Jacobsen and Wahoo sophomore Marcus Glock are among the players that have impressed him this winter. So too has Lincoln Southwest freshman Chuck Love, the son of Nebraska women’s basketball associate head coach Chuck Love.
“‘Lil Chuck, he has a bright future ahead of him,” McGowens said. “He’s built a lot like me in high school, so there are similarities there.”
McGowens has also popped up at other local college games. He’s spent time at Pinnacle Bank Arena as a fan supporting Amy Williams’ squad. He sat behind the Butler bench when the Bulldogs played at Creighton on Feb. 8, to support Myles Tate, a friend from back home. McGowens and a few teammates also checked out D.J. Sokol Arena in Omaha when the UConn women played against Creighton. One of those teammates was Trey, who has been accompanying him to games since recovering from his broken foot, making those gym visits even more enjoyable.
“He’s the one I’ve always rocked with since day one,” Bryce said. “So just being able to connect every day, have fun, laugh and just have a great time. We always have a great time.”
Padyn Borders, a team manager at Nebraska, has been Bryce’s constant companion during his gym visits as well. McGowens called him his “main man.” Borders was a standout point guard at Broken Bow High School who played at Central Community College and Peru State before transferring to Nebraska.
McGowens’ interest in the local hoops scene extends beyond just being a spectator, however. He’s taken an even more direct hand in helping build up the next generation of basketball players in Nebraska.
Back in the spring of 2021, Bryce visited Lincoln to spend a week or two with Trey, but since he wasn’t yet enrolled at Nebraska he was not allowed to use the team facilities. Instead, Trey directed him to Thomas Viglianco, a former pro and current skills trainer in Lincoln. Viglianco has worked closely with a number of Huskers including Trey and Isaiah Roby.
“He was one of the first people I met here,” Bryce said. “He took me on. I would say he welcomed me with open arms. He told me just continue to work and everything’s going to take care of itself. He’s been like another mentor to me. We’re able to talk every day. He’s been a great mentor to me.”
Viglianco works with players of all ages and skill levels, and that has provided Bryce an opportunity to connect with young players with big dreams. Viglianco said he has seen McGowens really come out of his shell over the last few months, and McGowens said Viglianco has played a big role in his ability to connect with the community.
“There’s a group of like six, eight kids that come in all the time that are eighth graders, and the first time, I had Bryce kind of just stick around after a workout with me and him,” Viglianco said. “The boys came in and obviously they were all starstruck and all that and Bryce was just kind of kind of shy, didn’t want to say too much, just kind of watched and so forth.
“Fast-forward almost a year now, he goes to a lot of those kids’ games. I have workouts with those boys and Bryce is able to come up … and help with the workout and he’ll step in and say ‘Hey T, can I say something?’ I’m like ‘Of course, man, say whatever you want.’ And he’ll get in there, like, ‘Hey, why don’t you come off the screen this way?’ ‘Hey, when you drive, you’ve got to see this.’ It’s just been really cool to see his maturation with young kids and even the parents when they’re in, he’ll say hello to them and he remembers who they are and all that kind of stuff. That matters. It’s more than basketball. Like I always try to tell people with Viglianco Hoops, it’s more than basketball.”
McGowens doesn’t take his high-profile status in Lincoln for granted, nor does he let it get to his head. He feels an obligation to give back and is more than willing to take pictures or sign autographs whenever asked.
“It’s amazing,” McGowens said. “I’m blessed enough to be in this position to just show my love and show my support to the younger ones, hopefully give them a little bit more motivation to come in and just work every day and feel happy, never get down on themselves. There are a lot of hard days in this; I wish I could like actually tell them that, just tell them to keep working, keep striving for greatness. Whatever you do, go 110% at it.”
Coach Fred Hoiberg called McGowens’ involvement in the community “phenomenal” and said the actions he’s taken during his time in Lincoln should serve him well far into the future.
“You look at a kid that has as much attention on him just based on everything that he accomplished in his prep career and now to go in as a very high-profile player and to embrace the community, it’s great to see … Our guys, they do a good job getting out there and trying to be positive role models in the community,” Hoiberg said. “That’s part of being an athlete and part of being a high-profile person. So Bryce and Trey, those guys go out and they watch a lot of games and they’re visible in the community, and I think that’s very important. It’s going to benefit him as he moves on up in his career and it’s an important part of, eventually, when the time is right, of being a pro, of going out and being active and visible in your community.”
Though the Huskers have struggled mightily to win games in the Big Ten, McGowens has still made a big impact on the court, leading all conference freshmen in scoring and capturing six Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors. It’s his work off the court, however, that could have a long-lasting impact in Lincoln.
“It can alter the course of their life, not only from the sport perspective, but life perspective,” Viglianco said about community interaction by high-profile athletes. “I’ve had so many experiences. My dad played big-time ball at St. Bonaventure, but there was a time I remember when I was like in fifth grade. Being in Alabama, we went to Georgia Tech in the early ‘90s and St. Bonaventure was playing Georgia Tech and the head coach is my dad’s former teammate. He pretty much had us come to the team dinner the night before, and we didn’t know what we were doing, but we walked in and there’s all the players and I lost my mind. I was like ‘Oh my gosh, this is the coolest thing of my life.’ And that was one of those sparks that happened to me where I got even more dedicated. Like, this is what I want to be in life. I want to be a college basketball player. That was so cool and I got to sit front row and all that kind of stuff at the game. But it impacted me and the people that know me really well, that’s why I always try to have all these players that I trained involved with the younger kids, because it means so much to these young kids.
“I truly believe Bryce is the kind of guy that he’ll stay friends with these kids as they get into high school and grow. They want to go watch an NBA game, Bryce is the kind of guy to be like ‘Hey, I left tickets for you.’ Stuff like that. I mean, are you kidding me? That doesn’t happen too often in life and Bryce is the kind of guy that will do that stuff.”
The 2021-22 season is nearing its end, and with that will come a decision for McGowens. However, regardless of whenever he chooses to move on from Nebraska, he’s already planning return trips. He’s talked with Viglianco about hosting camps in Lincoln down the line similar to what Roby did this past summer.
That’s in the future, though. For the time being, don’t be surprised if you see him pop up at a gym during the postseason.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.