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How pride, patience and persistence have helped Hunter Sallis – Nebraska’s original five-star recruit – settle in at Gonzaga

OMAHA, Nebraska – Over the past two decades, Mark Few and his coaching staff have turned over an assortment of stones to locate prospective Gonzaga basketball players.

No destination has been too far, no gym too remote, no plane ticket too costly if the Bulldogs have felt there’s a good match. In some instances, Gonzaga rosters could be mistaken for passports and the program itself a travel agency. Few and his staff have collected stamps from destinations such as Poland, Japan, France, Lithuania, Mali, Germany, Brazil, Russia, Australia and Serbia.

But a few years back, the Bulldogs went somewhere off the beaten path, even by their standards, to chase a recruit.

They went to Nebraska.

Gonzaga coaches have flown over it, probably seen it from a plane window at 30,000 feet but seldom, if ever, have they spent any length of time visiting Nebraska to fill a recruiting need. Until 2018-19, they weren’t alone on that front.

Then the Hunter Sallis effect took hold.

Aside from Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga, at the time, hadn’t been in the business of signing five-star players and Nebraska definitely wasn’t in the business of producing them. Sallis, now a sophomore combo guard for Few’s Zags, was the state’s second McDonald’s All-American and its first in 39 years. The annual game normally selects 24 players, meaning approximately 930 invitations had been delivered since a Nebraska player last earned McDonald’s honors.

There are three Nebraskans on Creighton’s roster, though only two graduated from a Nebraska high school. The University of Nebraska’s roster doesn’t feature a scholarship player who played high school basketball in the state. The top player from Nebraska in the current recruiting class is a three-star prospect who holds one power conference offer: Creighton.

So Sallis, the first consensus five-star prospect to come out of Nebraska, is carrying a hefty torch for the state’s basketball scene, which has “definitely improved” by his estimation. Even a slow crawl represents positive movement in a region that has an undying appetite for football, especially when it comes to the in-state Cornhuskers.

“I think he does a great job in representing Nebraska in that way,” said Sallis’ mother, Jessica Livingston, who has her own place in Nebraska’s basketball annals. “He’s gotten all the top honors. He’s exceeded everything I’ve done. I’m just really, really proud of how he’s taken that on.”

It may sound like a burden, but Sallis, a humble, soft-spoken, hard-working introvert, seems to have his priorities aligned. He can’t be the next big thing out of Omaha until he figures out how to become someone Few can’t afford to keep off the floor in Spokane. Unless you’re Suggs or Chet Holmgren, that normally doesn’t happen immediately, so Sallis’ career at Gonzaga has been – above all else – an exercise in patience.

“We’re trying to amp him up and get him more aggressive,” Few said after Gonzaga’s 64-63 loss to Baylor, played Dec. 2 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota – 180 miles north of Omaha. “We desperately need guys who can poke balls lose … get deflections and make plays. I thought Hunter did a nice job of doing that. He’s worked really hard on his shot. So his 3-point shot is much better and we’re even playing him a bit at the point, so trying to get him some reps there.

“Probably looking back at it, probably should’ve got him some more minutes tonight.”

Bambi’s hoop dreams

Sallis inadvertently decided on his athletic future at a barber shop in Omaha around the age of 6 or 7. Up until then, it was a tug-of-war between Trevis Sallis, a standout wrestler at Omaha’s Central High who sparred in the 193-pound division at NAIA Dana College, and Livingston, a two-time all-state basketball player who went on to a career at San Diego State.

“I kind of was telling the barber, ‘Yeah, Hunter’s going to be a wrestler, I’m getting ready to put him on the wrestling mat and what not,” Trevis said. “(Hunter’s) body was away from me as the barber was cutting his hair and he turned around. There was all these tears.”

Trevis accepted the outcome, vowed to gain a better understanding of basketball’s ins and outs – “I was the best ball retriever I think there was,” he jokes – and focused on building his son’s character traits. He still got his wrestling fix from time to time. Trevis and Hunter bonded over a mutual interest in WWE, with a special affinity for “The Rock,” and occasionally attended local events together.

Livingston always saw a basketball player, noting Sallis had “abnormally long” arms as an infant. In other words, his mom’s arms. Livingston’s arms didn’t do any favors for opponents trying to crack SDSU’s 1-3-1 zone. She played at the top of the defensive set, once stealing the ball from an opposing point guard 10 times. In another college game, she scored 32 points with 24 rebounds.

There’s no official documentation to confirm when Sallis was able to beat his mom in a 1-on-1 setting. It mostly comes down to who’s telling the story.

“She’ll tell you different, I’ll say like fifth grade,” Sallis said. “She’ll tell you it took me all the way until high school.”

Either way, it was noteworthy when it happened – whenever it happened. Livingston is basketball royalty in Omaha, with her own mural across the street from Central High – the school she helped guide to multiple state championships. In the 1984 Class A final, Livingston delivered one of Nebraska’s iconic moments, picking a rebound off the glass, dribbling coast to coast and converting a finger-roll layup at the buzzer to secure the state title.

“Jessica, in my opinion, is one of the two or three all-time high school players in the state of Nebraska,” said Tim Cannon, a longtime prep basketball fixture in the Omaha area who coached Sallis at Millard North High School. “A lot of people didn’t remember that because they’re not as old as me.”

Livingston claims to have “the largest family in Omaha” and without a good way to verify such information, it would sure seem that way. One of Sallis’ sisters, Jerrica Jackson, was a state champion basketball player at Bellevue East. Another sibling, Mia, is a transgender celebrity hairstylist who started out of a basement salon in the family’s Nebraska home and now, as “Tokyo Stylez,” maintains a clientele list that includes musical artists Beyonce, Rihanna, Cardi B and Nicki Minaj, along with Kim Kardashian, Gabrielle Union and various WNBA players.

One of Livingston’s relatives is Pee Wee Harrison, an original Harlem Globetrotter, and she’s a cousin of James Harden Sr., the father of the 10-time All-Star Philadelphia 76ers guard.

“His dad was horrible,” Livingston said. “We used to call him ‘self-check.’ Nobody would have to guard him.”

It’s easy to see where Sallis’ athletic genes came from, but he was a late bloomer on the court. Long but uncoordinated. Athletic but not always decisive. A slasher but not a shooter. In many ways, he was a block of clay waiting for the right sculptor.

“(Teammates) started calling him Bambi and I’m like, ‘Why are they calling you that?’ ” Livingston said. “I think partly because he was a little unorthodox.”

His delayed development and middle school politics forced Sallis to come off the bench as an eighth-grader. That did nothing but stimulate his competitive drive. It wasn’t uncommon for Sallis to phone his father late at night – sometimes past 10 p.m. – to drive him to 24 Hour Fitness. Trevis, the ultimate trooper, spent hours fetching his son’s rebounds until Hunter was satisfied with the work he put in.

“If he’s committed to it,” Trevis said, “then I’m all in.”

At AAU games, Trevis came up with an incentive system. A steal is worth $10. Turn that into a transition layup, another $10. Hunter had one such sequence at a tournament in Vegas, flashing two fingers and a zero to his dad on the sideline.

“In the middle of the game,” Trevis said, “he’s counting up the money.”

Leaving Near North Side

Hunter got the best of his mom’s gene pool and avoided the worst of it. Livingston’s maiden name, Haynes, is synonymous with Omaha’s gang history, especially in a rougher neighborhood known as “Near North Side.”

“Back then Crips and Bloods just infiltrated Omaha. So you were either blue or red,” said Jessica’s husband, Thad Livingston, formerly an award-winning sports editor at the Omaha World-Herald. “She was known as an athlete, that’s the other thing. Athletes kind of get, not a free pass, but respected for something else.”

Jessica kept her distance from the gang lifestyle and made sure her children stayed even farther away, but merely residing in Near North Side, with a connection to the Haynes name, could present problems. Livingston’s brother, Jarrell Haynes, was fatally shot in Omaha in 2016. The family had reason to think he was targeted, according to a local television report.

Sallis had a close relationship with his uncle, who he still refers to as “my big brother.” During middle school, another student made a vile comment toward Sallis about Haynes. Sallis, feeling the need to protect his uncle, jabbed back. The confrontation ended there, but Livingston was concerned those situations could escalate if Sallis, a rising athlete, attended public high school in Omaha.

“Let people talk, I don’t want you to get into that gang rivalry thing because he wasn’t exposed to that,” Livingston said. “… I wanted to make sure Hunter did not have to protect the family name as far as gangs go, so I sent him to the Millard District.”

Sallis has lost other friends from gun violence not necessarily tied to gang activity. One was shot and killed the week of Gonzaga’s game at Texas in November. Although there was no indication that Sallis, an aspiring basketball player who liked fashion, video games and relaxing with teammates, would fall into the wrong crowd, removing him from that environment was the only way to guarantee his safety.

“I was the youngest. They were real protective of me, so they wanted to get me out of that area and circumstances,” Sallis said. “They did that and it all worked out.”

Did it ever.

Mania at Millard

At Millard North, it was good to be Sallis. It just wasn’t always easy being Sallis.

High school basketball phenoms in Nebraska are a dime a dozen. Superheroes come around even less often.

That’s how Sallis was depicted in a comic book-themed, prep basketball preview edition of the World-Herald in 2020. It’s how he was treated by autograph seekers and photo hunters who lined up hours early to guarantee a ticket to Millard games and stayed hours after for the chance of an interaction with Nebraska’s first five-star recruit.

Sallis is modest and reserved, but also kind and well-natured. The kind of player who’d take everything from his opponents on the court and give back to the people in his community when he was away from it.

It was rare someone came for a signature and left without it. Opposing players may have been cringing when Sallis launched over them for a dunk, but it wasn’t uncommon for them to linger outside Millard’s locker room, hoping to catch Sallis for a selfie as the Mustangs were getting ready to leave.

“We’d hold up the bus if we had to,” Cannon said.

Millard’s coach recalls watching his grandson, Eli, rebound for Sallis before an important playoff game. When the Mustangs reached the state championship game, Cannon caught a glimpse of those two on the court again – the roles reversed this time.

“Hunter’s rebounding for my third-grade grandson,” Cannon said. “That’s how he is. He’s humble. He’s very, very humble.”

There were countless examples of kindness and humility that transcended anything Sallis did with a basketball. Those in his circle maintain the behavior was unforced – never an obligation or duty, just Hunter being Hunter. The implication being, that’s seldom the case for high-profile athletes with 34,000 Instagram followers and millions of things competing for their attention.

On one occasion, Sallis and Millard teammate Saint Thomas, now at Loyola Chicago, popped up at a birthday party to surprise the son of Mustangs assistant Nick Moyer. They took photos, they ate, they climbed into a bounce house not designed for prep basketball players and trampolined with the grade school-aged kids for hours.

“They got there and they didn’t have to stay there nearly as long as they did,” Moyer said. “The parents, they all took a step back and said, ‘Wow.’ It’s something they’ll all remember forever.”

Brothers Conner and Aiden McMahon became Sallis super fans during his time at at Millard, grabbing the player’s attention when their mother posted handwritten notes from the boys to her Twitter account.

“Dear mom, can we go to the gym please?” one note read. “We can’t go outside because the snow. I won’t get as good as Hunter Sallis if we don’t go. From, Aiden.”

Sallis struck a friendship with the third- and fifth-grade boys, who’d attend his signing ceremony and take the Gonzaga player up on an invitation to Spokane last season.

They attended a game against Pacific and collected autographs from Sallis and a few of his high-profile teammates, such as Holmgren, Drew Timme and Andrew Nembhard.

Asked about the motivation behind these acts of service, Sallis said, “Growing up. I needed somebody like that, so just trying to be that role model that I always wanted.”

‘Like watching Blue Chips’

On a sheet of paper taped to the wall of his U.S. history classroom, Cannon started documenting the college recruiters that came through Millard North during Sallis’ explosive junior season.

Cannon filled up one column and moved to the next one, ran out of real estate on the first sheet and began scribbling on another.

“Practice one day, Iowa State’s there, Kansas is there, Missouri’s there,” Cannon recalls. “Our wrestling coach walks by the next day, he says, ‘God, it was like watching ‘Blue Chips.’ ”

During her heyday at Central High, Livingston claims she was recruited by more than 200 colleges. Residing with grandparents who weren’t prepared for the college recruiting circus, she was hammered with phone calls most nights and normally came home from school to “buckets of mail.”

When Sallis broke out as a high school sophomore, in an age when social media only amplifies the pressure on high-end recruits, he and his parents were ready to embrace the chaos. Cannon estimates 65 schools visited Millard North.

Some were there for Thomas, a three-star forward, and a few wanted a look at guard Max Murrell, who gave an early commitment to Stanford. But most were there for the dunking, ball-hawking combo guard with wild hair and long arms.

James Kane, a current Iowa State assistant who was credited for discovering Ja Morant at Murray State, dropped by Millard North one morning in the fall, telling Cannon, “I’ve recruited five NBA guys and I think I’ve found my sixth.”

Former North Carolina coach Roy Williams called Cannon’s home so many times to inquire about Sallis he developed a friendship with the coach’s wife, Shirley.

“By the second time, he’d say, ‘Hey, where’s Shirley? I’ve got to talk to Shirley, too,’ ” Cannon said.

Shirley became Millard’s de facto recruiting manager during those years, arranging seating assignments for visiting colleges, sending her grandson out to fetch them water and coordinating with fire marshals to make sure they got in when the gym had reached capacity. Coaches from Iowa State, Louisville and Kansas were turned away, only gaining access after making frantic phone calls to Trevis.

“From 2018 to 2021, 2022, I personally feel there was more coverage of Nebraska high school basketball than they’ve ever seen and it would’ve been even more if it didn’t get limited (due to COVID-19),” Trevis said.

Sallis managed the buzz and hoopla as well as any 16-year-old could. He was calculated, coordinating times to meet with coaches who understood they couldn’t just ping him at any time of the day.

There’s an honesty to Sallis that’s easy to appreciate when he says, “One thing for me, I don’t like answering my phone.

“Recruitment, I don’t like being on the phone for too long, so all of the people that recruited me knew, yeah, we’ve got to call him then and then we’ve got to stay on the phone for this long,” Sallis said.

That probably explains why Sallis clicked so well with Gonzaga’s no-nonsense staff and why he’s stuck around despite not getting the minutes a top-25 prospect would normally demand.

“He says he loves it here,” said Livingston, who packed up and moved to Spokane with her husband last summer. “That was one of the reasons he decided to come back. I know a lot of people were thinking he might transfer, but that never crossed his mind. He was like, ‘No I love it here.’ ”

Finding his confidence

Gonzaga’s coaches are still trying to form the block of clay that arrived on Millard North’s doorstep five years ago, but few have been more instrumental in shaping Sallis than Ryan Foster, co-owner of a basketball training facility in Omaha called The Factory.

At a point when Foster was losing his appetite for the game, he met a focused, driven eighth-grader who had enough hunger and passion for the both of them. To this day, Foster assures he’s gained more out of the partnership than Sallis.

“He doesn’t even know,” Foster said. “When I met ‘Hunt,’ it reminded me of me. He just wanted to be in the gym and he was always receptive to learn.

“So he was looking to get better and I was looking to find the love of the game, which I found.”

For the last half-decade, Sallis has been able to Google his name and find any number of articles, videos or scouting reports professing his greatness. Foster’s job is to balance the scale. That doesn’t mean suppress Sallis’ confidence or belief, but rather identify weaknesses and drill them to a point where improvement becomes the only option.

“In Nebraska, when a kid gets a scholarship it’s like, ‘OK, does that mean you stop working or you should work harder?’ ” said Foster, who still works with Sallis in the offseason and during holidays. “… When you have dreams, that’s what’s needed, in my opinion.”

Foster and Sallis have worked tirelessly on the guard’s jump shot, and he’s acutely aware “the evidence isn’t there now.” Sallis is shooting 45% from the field and 25% from the 3-point line, but Foster said it’s important to factor in changes to his body. Sallis’ arms have grown 3 inches from his senior high school season to his freshman season at Gonzaga.

The first step was building Sallis’ midrange game, which has been more than serviceable for a high-major guard. Some of the looks have been high-percentage, open-court dunks, but Sallis is making 60% of his shots inside the arc at Gonzaga.

“If I can create savages from 15 feet, then their bodies get strong enough, by the time we get to the 3s it’s going to be beautiful,” Foster said. “Now, once again, you can’t see that, but his shot has changed dramatically.”

If Sallis can get to the point where’s knocking down perimeter shots at a high clip, it’s almost an added bonus to the tools he’s already bringing to Few’s Zags. Timme, GU’s All-American forward, was effusive in praising Sallis’ defensive instincts on a recent edition of the “Gimme Timme” podcast when his teammate’s name came up.

“His defense and intensity, he changes the dynamic of our team when he comes in because he is just such a ballhawk,” Timme said. “And he’s looking to score more now.”

With the understanding this takes time, Few and his staff still need to see more from a player who’s been characterized as “too coachable” by some of the people in his life. Thinking the game can be a sign of maturity, but overthinking also presents a set of problems.

“The biggest thing for me is I just need to be more confident,” Sallis said. “Just having confidence ooze throughout me, throughout the games.”

He’s guarded at a high level for Gonzaga this season, defending three players on a single possession against Kent State, but Sallis is also adopting more offensive responsibilities.

“Really my biggest focus has been my ball screen reads, being able to handle pressure, being able to be like a point guard basically,” he said. “So, still working on those type of reads.”

College basketball, more than anything else, has put Sallis’ patience and persistence to the test. That’s not a novel experience for someone who rode the bench as an eighth-grader before gaining traction as a top national recruit just two years later. Now he’s back at square one with Gonzaga, a program in which instant success and guaranteed playing time rarely come with the sales pitch.

“Some of that is by design. He certainly could’ve picked several schools where he walked in and been the guy right then and there,” Trevis said. “Some of it is self-inflicted, if you will. He wanted that challenge and I think at the end of the day, it’ll all pay off for him and have him ready mentally and have his game even stronger.”

In Omaha, they’ve been watching this story unfold for years, but to capitalize on the next chapter, Sallis had to get away from the only place he’d known.

“He needs to understand what’s more to life than Omaha,” Trevis said. “… If that comes to fruition at Gonzaga, and say he’s fortunate to go to the next level, it happens all over again.”