It’s a gray evening rush hour outside the brightly lit gym at Madonna ProActive, where a pair of unlikely competitors are bouncing basketballs.
“Here’s the drill,” says Bill Eckstrom, 57, a gray-haired guy calling out the rules, dressed in wind pants and a shapeless Husker gymnastics T-shirt.
And here’s 31-year-old Rebeca Lopez listening; hair high in a ponytail, a Wilson round ball resting on her hip.
They’ll flip a coin to see who goes first, Bill says. Ten free throws at a time. A series of five. Best of 50 wins.
The customer and the restaurant owner shake hands on the deal; cooked up over after-supper chats at Copal Progressive Mexican Cuisine.
The road to the free-throw challenge started this way: Bill and his wife, Kerstin, are regulars at Rebeca’s place on Pioneers Boulevard.
The Lincoln couple like to support local businesses, and they were always looking for new culinary opportunities, Bill says. So when Copal opened in 2015, they found great food and they found Rebeca, too.
She’s hard not to notice, says Bill, owner of EcSell Institute, a management and executive training company. “You go in there and she just hustles. She moves with great purpose.”
The aura of an owner, he says.
Bill is a curious sort, so he started asking questions — Is this your restaurant? How’d you get started? Where are you from? — and when Rebeca had a spare minute, she’d take a seat and fill in the details.
Rebeca was from Mexico City and she came to Nebraska in 2011, first to Kearney and then to Lincoln to pursue a master’s degree.
She opened the restaurant to pay for tuition.
She saw the need for a more-complex twist on Mexican food here, she says. She lacked restaurant experience, but her business background helped. (“She’s very entrepreneurial,” Bill says. “She is not afraid of much.”)
Rebeca wrote a business plan, secured a loan, planned a menu, hired a crew, oversaw a recent renovation. She put the degree aside when the restaurant opened.
“I’m learning so much about business and about people,” she says. “Some things you have to experience day-by-day.”
Her staff is small. Her grandma — “my best friend” — helps in the kitchen. Abuela and Rebeca and the rest make it a point to know their regulars.
Like Bill and Kerstin.
“We became really good friends,” Rebeca says. “I share things with them.”
Which is how Bill learned Rebeca had attended Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education — the Harvard of Mexico City — on a basketball scholarship.
And as it turned out, he just happened to have played off-guard back in the late ‘70s at Valley High School, in the small Nebraska town of the same name.
I bet I can beat you, he said.
I bet you can’t, she said.
It was all in good fun, Bill says Tuesday, the day after his last free throw rolled off the rim.
It took months of good-natured taunting and a nudge from Bill’s daughter Claire before they set a date.
And a prize for the winner.
If Rebeca rolled in more free throws, Bill would lend her his Florida vacation house for a long weekend. If Bill’s tally was higher, she’d name a dish after him and put it on the menu. (He suggested calling it: "Bill won; Rebeca lost.”)
“I was well aware of the fact that I was older and I probably couldn’t shoot anymore,” Bill says.
And so it happened that on a gray Monday in the gym with a small cheering section, a cross-section of family and friends with poster boards and phones turned to video, Bill wins the flip and elects to go second.
And Rebeca squares up at the line and the basketball arcs up and down through the hoop for a hot-handed start: 7/10.
Bill manages three.
Rebeca’s follow-through is fading by Round 4 and Bill launches a minor comeback that falls (far) short.
Afterward, the competitors pose for pictures.
They salute their friendship and the restaurant and the community it fosters.
“Like family,” Rebeca says.
When they leave the gym, it’s nearing suppertime. Copal is closed on Mondays.
“We all went to dinner together at Cactus,” Bill says. “She wanted to see what her new competition is like.”