Three weeks ago, Justin Moore found himself standing in the Mullen High School gym surrounded by the boys basketball team, holding his cellphone and staring at a text message from his brother.
This was not the sort of text message one wants to read to a group of high school players — ever — but certainly not on the cusp of postseason play. And not to the team that just a year ago brought home the first state basketball championship ever to the school located in the endless miles of Nebraska Sandhills.
But he’d promised his older brother, Mullen basketball coach Rusty Moore. So he pressed on.
He can’t remember the exact words displayed on his phone, but they were positive, upbeat. Coach Moore told his players he believed in them. That he would be OK. That he wanted them to play hard, with passion, to remember all they’d learned. That he loved them.
Three days earlier — on Feb. 10 — Rusty Moore, the 40-something rancher who’d coached at Mullen more than eight years, went to the doctor because of nagging headaches. The doctor found a malignant mass on his brain. He had surgery to remove it.
Word spreads quickly in a town of fewer than 500 people, and the boys knew something was going on.
The next day, Justin Moore — who just five months earlier had become principal of Mullen’s elementary school — visited his brother at the hospital, then came to the high school gym and told the team everything he knew.
The Broncos went on to win the final game in the regular season, then subdistricts and districts. Thursday, they'll be in Lincoln to defend their state title, only the third time since 1953 that Mullen has qualified for state.
Justin Moore and assistant coach Brad Wright will be on the sideline. Rusty Moore will be in the stands, and it’s a very good bet that most of Mullen will be there with him.
Senior Luke Christen, who helped lead the team last year, said the news about their coach was tough, but it’s focused the players.
The team respects the coach for so many reasons, he said — his knowledge of the game, the way he cares for his players like they’re all his own sons.
“He’s one of the greats,” Christen said. “He’s willing to do everything for you, and that’s what makes you want to do everything for him.”
The five Moore children grew up on a Sandhills ranch south of Mullen. Rusty stayed and took over the operation. His wife Jennifer is a sixth-grade teacher in Mullen and they have four kids. Their oldest, Lance, played on the championship team last year and now attends Nebraska Wesleyan University.
Justin went on to teach and coach at Kearney Catholic High School for a decade before returning to Mullen.
When Rusty's tumor was diagnosed, Justin stepped in to help: He can’t even remember there being a conversation about it. It just happened.
“It’s still Rusty’s team,” he said. “He’s still the head coach, plain and simple. If it gets to the point we’re handing out medals, he’ll be the one doing it.”
The people of Mullen have stepped in and stepped up, said high school principal Mike Kvanvig.
Someone made #CoachMoore T-shirts for the games; someone else made wristbands. Churches made meals for the family.
“Up here everybody knows everybody,” he said. “That’s one of the great things about our community. Everybody steps up and takes care of each other.”
When they played Twin Loup, the fans passed a hat and collected money for the Moore family. After the subdistrict final, the boys on the Sandhills/Thedford team came into the stands to shake Rusty Moore’s hand.
The Mullen players have handled the news with such maturity, Justin Moore said.
“I have been thoroughly impressed with the boys and the way they’ve handled it,” he said. “I’ve coached basketball for 10 years now and I’ve never seen a group of kids take ownership of a team like these kids are right now.”
He’s told them he knows it will be an emotional weekend, that when they step on the court against Mead on Thursday night at Lincoln Northeast High School it's about them — and they need to do their thing. There’s no pressure, he said, win or lose. Enjoy the moment.
Christen is a little nervous but confident in his teammates' abilities, that they’ll be fine out there on the court.
And he figures when they break from the huddle it will be the same as each game since they found out their coach is sick.
"We're playing for the coach," he said. "Everything we do is for him.”