By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – It’s 12:30 p.m. on a Wednesday and the Health and Sports Center arena is nearly empty.
There are no spectators, cheerleaders or pep bands. Just the sound of squeaking sneakers and eight guys in shorts and T-shirts playing pickup basketball.
For the past 40 years, people of all ages and skill levels have been gathering at the University of Nebraska at Kearney for “noon ball.” They come from departments across campus and businesses throughout the community, brought together by a shared love of the game.
“It’s people who enjoy playing basketball, chatting and just being friends,” said Matt Miller. “The friendships are a big part of it.”
Miller joined the group around 2000, when he was an undergraduate student at UNK, and returned to the court after completing his doctorate and accepting a faculty position here in 2015. Although he left the university for a job in the private sector in 2020, the former assistant professor still shows up to “get his sweat on” and have some fun.
“I’m here to run around,” he said with a laugh. “I try to guard people who will give me a good workout. But I do enjoy taking the last shot and making a game-winner.”
Noon ball can be pretty competitive – “It depends on what point you’re at in the game and how many you’ve won or lost before that,” Miller admits – but nobody is out for blood. At least not intentionally. There have been a few stitches and a broken tooth over the years.
“We value the sense of camaraderie. Very rarely do we get upset with each other,” said Rick Schuessler. “And if we do, someone says, ‘OK. Time to take a break.’”
The professor of art and design has been playing noon ball since 1995. At 56, he’s the oldest guy on the court these days – a holdover from the original group formed by Nebraska basketball legend Tom Kropp.
An All-American at UNK, Kropp spent two seasons in the NBA before finishing his professional basketball career in Europe.
In 1983, while serving as a physical education faculty member and assistant coach for the UNK men’s basketball team, he started organizing pickup games as a way to continue playing. That was seven years before the Health and Sports Center opened.
“I just did it for the pure enjoyment,” Kropp said. “We started with just a few people, enough for one court, and before long word got out and we’d get up to 40 or 50 people who would show up every noon hour. I remember having three full courts and we would have games on all three, with subs.”
Similar to today’s version, his noon ball group was comprised mostly of UNK employees and community members, including some former Loper players.
“Everybody was out there to have a good time because they loved to play basketball. We were there to get some exercise and stay in shape,” said Kropp, who participated until his knee replacement surgery around 2000. Then he “dialed it down a little bit” by creating shooting games for some of the older players.
After 25 seasons as a head coach, Kropp announced his retirement in 2015, ending his career with 482 victories and 11 appearances in the NCAA Division II Tournament. He remains on campus as an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Sport Sciences.
“I’d give anything to have one more day out there like it used to be,” the 70-year-old said. “I enjoyed every day I played out there, but I knew that someday it’d come to an end.”
THE GAME GOES ON
Although Kropp is no longer part of the noon ball crew, his creation continues to provide an athletic outlet for new players and savvy veterans alike.
Schuessler laces up his sneakers once a week to “relive the old days,” a reference to his time playing high school and community college basketball in upstate New York.
“The main reason I keep playing is just to blow off steam,” he said with a smile.
There are more than a dozen regular participants right now, with half-court games organized two or three times a week.
“People just come when they can,” Schuessler notes.
Dylan Simmons, a graduate assistant in UNK Campus Recreation, is the youngest member. The 21-year-old was pleasantly surprised when he joined in September.
“It’s difficult,” he said. “My first time I thought playing with a bunch of older guys would be slower, but it’s a good workout and it gets competitive.”
In addition to the exercise, noon ball gives him an opportunity to connect with other people on campus. His boss, Andrew Winscot, is another regular.
“Yeah, I let him win. Can’t get in trouble,” Simmons joked. “Andrew is a lot better than me.”
Noon ball has never really been about being the best, though.
“Some people come, some people go,” Schuessler said. “The friendships remain the same.”