Still Fighting

Like their coach Brad Feeken, who lost his battle with cancer in December, the Gretna boys basketball team continues to fight. It's how they honor the man who taught them the game they love.

FEEK’S TEAM: The Gretna Dragons gathered around assistant coach Bill Heard during the Heartand Hoops Classic on Saturday in Grand Island. (Harvest Sports / Andrew Placke)

“For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps.”

— 1 Peter 2:21

GRETNA’S LONG WINTER: Something you learn — not that you really want to — after you have lost someone you loved is that people will be there for you in the immediate aftermath. To help you with the things you need, to help you grieve for a few moments, to get you settled into a new normal.

And, then they leave you to finish the grieving process on your own, such that they — the ones who helped you — can move on with their lives.

In Gretna, late December — when their long-time basketball coach Brad Feeken passed away — turned to January and, now, January has turned to February. Soon, March will be upon us.

That was Feeken’s favorite time; when all his lessons played out in front of Gretna’s fans and the whole state in Lincoln, at the Nebraska State Basketball Tournament.

Bill Heard thinks about those lessons a lot. He was one of Feek’s best friends. Now, he’s been tasked with leading this team; coaching these men.

The grieving process stops for no one.

“We needed some time to get our legs back under us,” Heard said Saturday in Grand Island after his Dragons won their seventh straight game over Pembroke Hill (MO) at the Heartland Hoops Classic. The record is 16-4. They are ranked fourth in the most recent boys basketball coaches poll. “It’s a lot that they have gone through.”

Sometimes, though, Heard wonders if the players aren’t doing the leading.

"Their grit, their composure. It’s unbelievable,” he said, his words come slowly and they sometimes fade. “Going through that, there is no game plan. You just try to go day-by-day. I said at one point, I told our community, ‘Our kids will show us how to handle this.’

“Our kids are truly leading us. I need them way more than they need me right now.”

FOREVER A TEAM: Alex Wilkins (near) and Kade Cook (42) set to check in for the Dragons at the Heartland Hoops Classic. (Harvest Sports / Andrew Placke)

Brad Feeken built this team — so eloquently portrayed in this Dirk Chatelain piece — his one last Picaso for all of us to see. Now an assistant coach, Chatelain sits on the bench with them. He needs them too.

In the seven-man rotation are six seniors, two of them — Landon Pokorski and Alex Wilcoxson — have started since they were freshmen. With each game, each precious chance to honor their coach, the Gretna community looks to them for leadership.

“Obviously it has been super tough,” Pokorski tells me. “But there has been so much growth for us as a group, as a team. Our relationships — from the coaching staff, to the players, to the community, coach’s wife and kids — we have grown so much closer together.”

If you line this team up against some of the other Class A juggernauts, you might not pick the Dragons when you are watching warmups. But they are going to compete, they are going to give you everything they have. Their four losses are by 3, 4, 5 and 12 points.

In their grief, they fear no one. Their coach taught them toughness is not throwing punches.

“Tough is doing things right, over and over and over and over, LONGER than the other guy. Because it means more to you!”

There is still a standard, even though Feek is not here physically. On Saturday, Gretna led 31-25 at the half and his presence found its way into the halftime locker room. They had led 22-9 before coasting to the locker room.

“I jumped on Landon and Alex pretty good,” Heard said. “In a lot of programs kids like that aren’t going to take that very well. But what (Feek) built outside of basketball in terms of kids as people, that’s where you see it.”

The response was a 28-2 run for the Dragons in their 66-51 win.

“That’s Gretna basketball,” Pokorski said. “It doesn’t matter if you are the leader of the team or the last guy, you are going to be held accountable. (Feek) built that, too. It’s not about wins and losses, it’s about competing and playing with joy and excitement.

“That was Feek. He was the ultimate competitor and had so much love for the game. The wins and losses take care of itself.”

LANDON THE LEADER: Gretna’s Landon Pokorski drives to the basket against Pembroke Hill (MO) during Saturday’s Heartland Hoops Classic. (Harvest Sports / Andrew Placke)

These Gretna Dragons have four weeks left together, give or take. Four more weeks of lessons, of being together with your best friends, of giving everything you have for the guy next you, for their coaches and community.

Bill Heard feels it every day. He’s trying not to mess it up. The games, sometimes, are the easy part.

“It’s the moments after games, the practice, everything that goes into it,” he said. “During games just don’t screw it up. This is his team. We are trying to hold court the best we can for him.”

Landon Pokorski and his teammates know that Feek built them for life. The basketball court was just one of Brad Feeken’s multiple classrooms.

“If anything, he built us to handle something like this,” Pokorski said. “He prepared us for when things are hard. He did it through basketball. The game will find you, the game honors toughness.

“I didn’t know right away that wasn’t basketball. That was life.”

Who knows what will be the final result for this Gretna basketball team. Because long after the 2023-24 season is over, they will still need each other.

Landon Pokorski and Alex Wilcoxson and Kade Cook will take Feek’s lessons to college when they play basketball. Bill Heard might need his best friend next fall in the coaches box of a Dragon softball game.

"In the midst of something hard, when God asks you to do something tough, He will give you glory in the suffering,” Pokorski said.

A few years down the road there will be weddings. And, little John Feeken will play his first high school basketball game. Lord knows how many big brothers he’ll have in the stands.

And, it will all come back to this team. This season. These lessons. Feek’s lasting fight; his final painting.

“I know I am going to be really proud of them,” Heard said. “Because when it was really, really, hard they showed up everyday. They honored him every day. Honoring him isn’t winning and losing, it’s exactly what they have done.”

Yes, Brad Feeken is in a better place now, but his final lessons are right here for us to see. They wear a Gretna basketball uniform. And, all we know now is they will live on in his final team forever.

WATCHFUL EYE: Bill Heard (standing) and his assistants watch the Dragons play against Pembroke Hill (MO) during Saturday’s Heartland Hoops Classic. (Harvest Sports / Andrew Placke)

Our featured content and series “The Season” during the 2023-24 winter sports season is provided by a partnership with Tom Dinsdale Automotive — proud supporters of Nebraska High School athletes.