Nebraska doesn’t have many connections to the NBA. After all, only six Huskers have played in basketball's highest league over the past 25 years. In today’s NBA, there is only one connection: Tyronn Lue. He just steered the Cleveland Cavaliers, partnering with LeBron James, arguably the greatest basketball player this century, to their first NBA title and the first major sports title for a team from Cleveland in 52 years.
The emotion overflowed in the moments immediately following the buzzer sounding. Lue retreated to the bench, alone, if only for a moment, and wept into a towel. The weight of the accomplishment, and all the meaning tied up into it was not lost on him. The meaning for the city of Cleveland, the Cavaliers organization and for him personally.
Make no mistake, what Tyronn Lue accomplished was not easy. It’s not easy to be a rookie head coach. It’s not easy to step into a locker room in the middle of the season and take control when there’s already an established power structure. It’s not easy to take on the defending champions, spot them a 3-1 lead and reel off three straight wins, including two in a hostile environment. Oh, and they did it vs. the team that just set the record for most wins in an NBA regular season, knocking off the team many considered to be the greatest in the history of the sport. He was able to do that, all of it.
With the championship comes an inevitable revisiting of Lue’s place in Husker Hoops history. Lue was one of the most accomplished players ever to lace up the sneakers, ranking in the top 10 in just about every major statistical category. He was a transcendent player at NU. Players of his skill don’t come around these parts very often, even during the brightest decade of Husker Hoops, he stands out and because of it was rightly enshrined in the Nebraska Basketball Hall of Fame.
But in light of recent events, the question was raised: Why has NU not retired Lue’s jersey?
It’s a fair question. On the court, he was clearly one of the best players in program history. Had he stayed for his senior season, he may have been unquestionably the best Husker Hoopster there ever was, but he didn’t stay. The Huskers fell a couple of games short of returning to the NCAA Tournament as Lue was buried on an NBA bench in Los Angeles. Had he returned it’s natural to project his place in the NU record books: the top. He likely would have been the highest scoring player in NU history, second in assists and third in steals, free throws and three-pointers. The Huskers probably go back to the NCAA tournament, are ranked highly and, who knows, maybe we’re not sitting here still waiting for that first NCAA tournament victory.
Therein lies the problem. Projections have a way of going askew on us before we even know what happened. We can’t project what might have happened, we can only go with what did happen. He didn’t ultimately change the fortunes of Nebraska basketball. Perhaps he could have. Perhaps there’s an alternate universe somewhere where he did and the narrative around the program is wholly unrecognizable from what it is today. But that’s not a luxury we are afforded. Honors are based on what did happen, not who someone is friends with based on good fortune after leaving some place.
The argument for Lue joining the fraternity of Stu Lantz, Eric Piatkowski and Dave Hoppen is a compelling one, but it is not a layup.