Columnist

Cindy Lange-Kubick joined the Lincoln Journal Star in 1994 and has loved covering life in her hometown ever since. Will write for chocolate. Or coffee.

The hair.

So '70s, big and bushy.

The basketball shorts.

So Larry Bird, with that tucked-in jersey and those tall tube socks.

The game.

So different.

No three-point basket. No possibility of the other team making a half-court buzzer beater to force overtime when you had them down three with four seconds left.

Which meant one thing on March 13, 1976: That when No. 10 for the Geneva Wildcats sank that second free throw, that was that. Game over.

“Every member of Geneva’s Class C state championship basketball team knew Steve Adkisson was going to make the two deciding free throws,” a Lincoln Star reporter wrote. “The self-proclaimed confident, cocky 5-11 junior guard made sure of that.”

It doesn’t feel like 40 years since Adkisson turned to his teammates and told them: I’ve got this.

But the point guard with the big hair and the hot hand, the player who gave his Wildcats a three-point cushion over Walthill, is a 56-year-old grandfather now -- his hair slicked back and going white -- looking back four decades.

Back to when the Devaney Sports Center was brand-new.

Back to when his heart was young and trouble free.

A heart for basketball

Steve Adkisson loves high school sports.

He loved playing them and coaching them, and he loves officiating them.

And basketball -- state championship basketball? At the top of the list.

“You just can’t beat it,” says the Fillmore Central Middle School principal. “It’s an awesome environment to experience.”

After high school, Adkisson played basketball at Northeast Community College in Norfolk, eventually moving to Lincoln and getting his education degree.

He coached and taught in Hartington and then Sutton before moving back to Geneva with his wife, Becky, and their four girls.

He’s co-athletic director at Fillmore Central, where he started the softball program in 2002, and for nearly 20 years he’s been a basketball official, too, wearing a whistle at the state tourney in Lincoln in recent years.

In 2015, he was looking forward to girls state -- what was to be his eighth tournament -- but his heart had other plans.

He’d left home Feb. 26 to officiate a girls district game in Kearney when he started feeling clammy. The discomfort in his chest he’d felt earlier in the day was intensifying until it felt like everyone said a heart attack felt like. “Like an elephant sitting on my chest.”

Adkisson turned his Chevy pickup around and headed to the hospital, making a phone call on the way: I’m not going to make it to the game ...

After that, everything happened fast. Scans to evaluate him and medication to stabilize him and an ambulance ride to Bryan East Campus in Lincoln, followed by a triple bypass the next morning.

Word of the popular official’s heart trouble spread quickly.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘Is he going to be all right?’” said referee Kris Van Meter. “The second thing was the state tournament. He just loves it so much; I knew it would hurt him to miss it.”

After the surgery, last year’s tournament was out, but Adkisson spent the next 12 months getting strong. He started exercising regularly, threw away his salt shaker, took his baby aspirin faithfully and got back to the court, officiating in more than 60 games.

He applied for a spot at the state tournament again.

And he got in. Last week, he ran the court for girls state on Thursday and Friday, wearing his stripes, 30 pounds heavier than his playing days but feeling fit.

His fellow refs were thrilled.

“So many officials were pulling for him to get that assignment this year,” Van Meter said. “They were rooting for him over themselves.”

The year his team won it all

In 1976, sports fans were giddy about the new arena -- the $13.8 million Devaney Center, new home of the Huskers -- hosting state high school basketball for the first time.

“Get out of your living room,” wrote Randy York, prep sports editor for The Lincoln Star and the Lincoln Journal newspapers. “Bring the kids to a show just as exciting as any carnival or circus you can imagine.”

And Nebraska came.

“Small Towns Vacated,” a headline read. “All Eyes are on Lincoln.”

The Geneva team came down to Lincoln in station wagons each day, ready to play and reveling in the excitement.

When Coach Mark Cordes asked them where they wanted to eat, the answer was obvious: McDonald's.

“We were just typical small-town kids,” Adkisson says with a laugh. "Now we might pick Misty’s.”

The Wildcats beat undefeated Southeast Consolidated at Pershing in the first round that Thursday, changing clothes in a dressing room where confetti from a recent Kiss concert still littered the floor.

They beat the Tigers of Bassett in the Coliseum on Friday, feeling the history in the old building.

And then they faced Walthill on the big stage, the building so new the bleachers had not yet been installed on the floor around the court.

Adkisson wasn’t really cocky in 1976, and he wasn’t quite 5-foot-11, either.

He was confident, though, and it showed during the tournament’s final game: 25 points, including seven straight buckets in the fourth quarter leading up to those final two free throws.

He was surrounded by good players, Adkisson says. His older brother Ken, a 6-foot-7 forward who led Class C in tournament scoring with 76 points.

His teammates: John Francke, Steve Ewalt, Steve Wentz, Rick Norrie and Don Aspegren.

They were underdogs, storming through districts, entering the state tournament as an eighth seed.

“We had a lot of momentum at the time,” Adkisson says, “and we really didn’t feel the pressure.”

Before the tournament, they’d gotten a boost from Geneva’s 1965 state championship team who came to practice, telling the younger players they had the talent to win it all.

And the entire town got behind them on the road to Lincoln.

Attendance at the Class C final was 8,100, including most of Geneva -- among them the players who had cut down the nets 11 years earlier.

A newspaper reporter spotted them in the stands. “They were all sitting together yelling and hugging each other when it was over.”

'Forty years of joy'

After heart surgery last year, Adkisson made it to one game -- Winnebago’s win in the Class C final. He was sore and he had to be careful not to get bumped and Becky dropped him off at the door so he didn’t have to walk too far.

The player with the big hair will be in Lincoln to watch the Class C boys finals on Saturday again this year. He'll miss the first two days of the tournament because he's taking his youngest daughter on a college visit.

He’s fortunate, he says over and over.

Fortunate to have such good doctors and nurses, fortunate to be able to officiate again, fortunate to be surrounded by such good people, fortunate to feel the support of his town, then and now.

Fortunate to win a state championship in 1976, fortunate to have such a great coach and teammates.

Fortunate.

“I just have a love of the game,” he says. “A passion for the game.”

And for a tournament -- “Forty years of joy!” -- he has yet to miss.

“This is really a super feeling,” the junior guard told a newspaper reporter the year he starred at state.

“But I don’t think any of us realize what’s happened. It probably won’t hit us until we wake up in the morning.”

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7218 or clangekubick@journalstar.com. On Twitter @TheRealCLK.

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