NCAA BASKETBALL: Feb 01 Penn St at Nebraska
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Nebraska Loves Charlie Easley Because He’s as Nebraska as it Gets

February 23, 2020

“I can’t relate to lazy people. We don’t speak the same language. I don’t understand you. I don’t want to understand you.” — Kobe Bryant

Has a “nobody cares, work harder” vibe to it, doesn’t it. Kobe didn’t come up with that one, but how many would be surprised if you tried to tell them he did? It’s in keeping with the whole Mamba Mentality. Work, work, and when it feels like your body is begging for rest, work a little bit harder because you know the guy on the other side of the line is stopping.

Bryant was Charlie Easley’s basketball idol. It takes 15 minutes of sitting in a room and talking with the Lincoln native turned walk-on turned scholarship/rotation player for Nebraska to hear that same kind of determination in his voice.

It’s in his DNA.

Can’t make a shot? Get in a gym and keep shooting until your arm falls off.

During his senior year at Pius X High School in Lincoln, Easley had a potential game-winning 3-pointer against Creighton Prep rim out. There was a school dance that same evening Easley was supposed to go to, but he didn’t have a date, so he called a friend up, skipped the party, and sat in a gym, in the same spot he had missed from against Creighton Prep, and shot the same exact shot for four hours.

Getting pushed around? Get in the weight room.

“He’s a grinder in (the weight room) too,” his high school coach, Brian Spicka, said. Easley has read Bryant’s books and read about how the Laker legend would lift hours before he’d play. He took that to heart. He showed up at Nebraska in better shape than some highly-touted scholarship freshmen show up. He can’t control his height, but he can control his strength. Pius would practice in the evening, get done around 5:45 p.m., and Easley would be in the weight room by 6 p.m. lifting with teammates. “I’m like, ‘Guys, we’ve got to get moving here, I’ve got a family I’ve got to go home and see,’” Spicka would tell them.

Don’t have a scholarship? Go take one.

On Jan. 10, Hoiberg told Easley he was placing him on scholarship. They shared the news with the team and Easley was mobbed. Samari Curtis elected to transfer away from Nebraska early in the year, opening a scholarship up for Nebraska to award a walk-on or seek to bring someone new in at semester break. “It really was a no-brainer for me,” Hoiberg said. Easley’s shooting 19% from range on the season, yet nothing else in his game has slipped. “It’s just easy to root for a guy like that who puts in the time.”

We had to reschedule our initial conversation in part because the freshman guard for the Huskers was in a gym shooting.

Head coach Fred Hoiberg couldn’t cook up a more perfect story in a lab.

“You hear the energy pick up in the building any time he takes his warm-up off to check in at the scorer’s table,” Hoiberg says. “He’s a guy who’s going to go out there and have an impact on the game, whether he’s making shots or not.”

What Easley is to this Nebraska fanbase is unique. He’s not a fan favorite, he is the fan-favorite. He is Nebraska, down to his unassuming stature and work-until-his-legs-give-out attitude. He is absolutely and unequivocally adored by this Husker fanbase, even though the basket sprouts a lid every time he lets the ball fly.

(He calls his shooting slump “annoying.” It gives off this air of “No, I know this isn’t going to last much longer, it’s just a pain in the ass that it is happening right now.” It’s endearing and intimidating at the same time. But that in and of itself might be the best way to describe this young man.)

And he hears that love. His teammates hear that love. Jervay Green, a junior guard who began the year as a starter, but briefly lost his rotation spot to none other than Easley, always ribs him and tells him the Nebraska fanbase “loooves him.” Starting his first career game at home against Penn State on Feb. 1 and hearing a new kind of crowd roar, that’s something Easley won’t ever forget.

He says the right thing. “I try not to focus on it in the game,” but, yes, when he dives on the floor for a loose ball, he hears the PBA crowd lose its collective mind.

But that’s just who Charlie Easley is. I asked him to describe his game.

“I’m going to do anything to win,” Easley said. “Whether it’s scoring, defense, little things, rebounding, just anything to win. Just being tough and outworking people.”

He understands why you love him.

“Obviously I’m not the most physically gifted, whether it’s height or anything like that, but that doesn’t matter if you go out and out-hustle other people. People like that. Especially in Nebraska.”

John S. Peterson

“It’s just the only way I’ve ever known how to play. It’s just the logic I have. If you outwork people, then good things are going to come to you. How are you supposed to get better than other people if you don’t (work)?” — Charlie Easley

He does not want to be called a walk-on.

Not that there’s anything wrong with being one, and not that he has that problem moving forward, but Easley did not want to be a walk-on. His dream scenario was not to walk on at Nebraska. Of course, he wanted to play at the school he grew up rooting for, but Easley felt he was a Division 1 player.

“That was a motivating, driving voice in my head,” he said. “I never liked being called a walk-on. I wanted to get rid of it, basically.”

There’s a somewhat romanticized view of walk-ons in sports. Even more so at Nebraska. When a local kid rises through the program and becomes a contributor, there’s so much pride felt around the state. But it’s hard. It’s very hard.

They don’t get the same access scholarship players do, the same meal plans. Playing for Hoiberg, Easley had to learn his own offensive system and run the scout team for a new opponent each week.

“And they have to go out and execute it, and if they don’t run it right the coach that’s in charge of the scout chews their ass,” Hoiberg says.

Easley did it without any guff. “You’re all on the same court playing the same game,” he said, “so just keep working hard.” His high school coach, though, was a little disappointed that’s how he had to begin his career.

“He was someone that we felt and he felt had, through his work and his season with us and through his summer stuff with OSA, earned a right to be a Division 1 player,” Spicka said. “For whatever reason, there were some schools that sniffed around and looked at him quite a bit for that but never were able to pull the trigger.”

Maybe a checkered injury history in high school factored in, but Easley had the goods on the court to back up his ask.

He was a three-year starter for Spicka and set a program record with 1,412 points. He put up 13 a game as a sophomore, with three boards, three assists and three steals a night, then upped his scoring to 18 a game as a junior. As a senior, he scored 23 a game and topped 30 points four times while shooting 45% from outside the arc.

“People jumped him, they’d Triangle-and-Two him, they’d Box-and-One him, they’d deny him, and he’s still able to find ways to get shots,” Spicka said. “And even in those kinds of games where people were completely trying to take him away, he’d find ways to go and make plays on defense.

“He’s just an impactful player in so many aspects of the game. It was just disappointing that other Division 1 programs weren’t able to recognize what he was able to bring. He’s probably not going to be a program-changer as far as a guy who’s going to go out there and score 25, 30 points a game, but he’s going to find ways to help your team win.”

Easley took pride in going up against teams loaded with five-star, blue-chip talent on the AAU circuit. His team, Omaha Sports Academy, took Compton Magic to the wire one summer.

“Just being the team from Nebraska that nobody knows and going and beating big name teams with 5-stars was always fun for us,” he said.

Can’t question the young man’s will to win.

And when Nebraska decided to change course and go with Hoiberg as its new coach, the ensuing roster overhaul presented an opportunity. The Easley family debated walking on at Nebraska or taking a chance elsewhere. Nebraska was a gamble Easley wanted to make. He felt secure betting on that mindset.

He cashed out a lot sooner than he even thought he would. “I knew typically how it goes for a walk-on, the timeline,” he said. “Some people maybe get it their junior year, if they’re going to get it or not, or senior year. But, I mean, I’m not going to set limits on my goals or what I want to happen.”

Hoiberg may have decided to give him that last open scholarship from the sideline of PBA when, on Jan. 7 against Iowa, Easley hit the deck for a loose ball battle with 6-foot-11 Hawkeye center Luka Garza.

“It seems like he’s been a guy who’s been a double-team guy on the post and a helper in different spots because he’s willing to put his body on the line to be able to get things like that done,” Spicka says.

To which Easley agrees. “If that’s what it takes to win, then yeah.”

“That was pretty ballsy, but that’s Charlie.” — Brian Spicka

Everyone has a routine. Some are night owls, either pestering the cleaning crew to let them in the gym after the sun has gone down so they can work the day off in peace. Some want their day to begin in between those lines. Easley is no different; he has his schedule and he keeps to it.

Easley is in the practice facility an hour and 30 minutes early every day. He’s on the court an hour before the scheduled start time for practice, working on his ball-handling and getting shots up. Homework permitting, he’ll earmark a few days each week to go back to the gym in the evening.

“I like shooting on the gun,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I set a limit, but when I shoot on the gun I try and get 200-plus shots up.”

Against Rutgers on Jan. 25, Easley got an open corner 3 from the right side in clutch time. The score was knotted at 72-all and the clock was ticking under a minute to play. Easley’s hit game-winners before, but this one drew iron. Nebraska lost by three points.

“That one hurt,” he said.

The next day he was on the gun again, in the right corner, shooting for an hour. “Had to have been 200-plus, 300 (shots), something like that,” he said. “It was a good hour.”

When his shot isn’t falling, Easley isn’t worried about usage or soreness or rest. In a slump, he shoots himself out.

“Nothing bad is ever going to happen from doing something more or working on something more,” he said. “It’s not going to come back to haunt you in any way. … It’s going to end up clicking eventually.”

Hoiberg’s sons play for Spicka now at Pius. The two men have come to know each other. They talk about Easley. Both agree the shooting is going to come around eventually. Easley believes things will work themselves out if you put in the work.

He’s not really a stranger to being tested. As a freshman at Pius, a back injury kept him on the shelf for an extended period of time. The following year, as he was starting to come into his own, Easley suffered a bone bruise where the tibia inserts into his ankle.

“It was something where if you played on it too much, you could actually break your tibia,” Spicka said.

Easley was held out of the last two regular-season games and then districts. Pius lost in the district championship game, but made it into the state tournament as a wildcard team.

Easley’s brother, Jack, was a senior that year. He had a cousin on the team who was also a senior.

“There was just no way he wasn’t going to play in that game,” Spicka said.

The team doctors cleared him, but it was a matter of pain tolerance for Easley. Pius was playing the defending state champions in Omaha South, and in the days leading up to the game, Easley didn’t practice much. Spicka and his staff wanted to test what Easley could and couldn’t handle, and Easley lied as best he could about how it wasn’t actually hurting that badly.

So he played.

Pius went on to lose the game, and Easley was pulled for good midway through the third quarter with the game in hand.

He left the arena that night in a wheelchair.

“The kid, he’d gnaw his own arm off if it meant he could win the game,” Spicka said.

Easley had bone spurs in his foot nearly his entire senior season. To the point he got Mondays off in practice, the team gauged weekly usage by reports from his parents on how he was walking at home, and he needed surgery before his freshman year with the Huskers. Hoiberg could see him itching to get through rehab. Once he was cleared, he didn’t miss another minute of practice.

He goes onto the court each night with no sleeves or pads to protect his joints, his arms or his legs. If he leaves some blood, sweat, and skin on the floor, that’s what it might take that night.

That’s why he’s already beloved.

“Nebraska fans are famous for being smart sports fans, and they recognize the little things people can do to be able to help a team and that’s what Charlie’s all about,” Spicka said. “Obviously there haven’t been a lot of local kids who have played for the Huskers here recently, and to have someone like Charlie have that kind of work ethic and have that kind of intensity and that drive … to have that be present on the basketball floor for someone that’s a local product like that is something I think a lot of Nebraskans have identified with and taken a lot of pride in seeing someone like that succeed.”

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