Everything you need to know about Nebraska assistant Matt Abdelmassih sits behind his desk on the second floor of the Hendricks Training complex.
It’s a navy street sign. “A Bronx Tale,” it reads, in capital white letters, a nod to the 1993 classic film. The metal is signed by New York actor Chazz Palminteri, who plays a mobster named Sonny in the movie. Inscribed is a quote that might as well ring out into every room Abdelmassih walks into.
“The saddest thing in life,” Robert De Niro says to a boy in a Yankees hat, “is wasted talent.”
If you ask about the sign, Abdelmassih will tell you to go watch the movie and report back, because he wants you to know the New York he knows. When the Husker assistant talks, you can almost hear the honks of taxi cabs and feel the hot air of an arriving subway and taste the street-side hot dogs. Abdelmassih is a big Mets fan and a St. John’s graduate. Small talk in the winters begins and ends with the misery of the Giants.
And right now, he’s quarantined in Lincoln, half a country away from his hometown, putting together Nebraska’s roster piece by piece from his couch and watching his city fall to its knees from the coronavirus. Most of his family is back there. Most of his friends.
“I wish I was there,” Abdelmassih said. “But ultimately, I’m not a medical professional, so there are limited ways to help. I guess in our own way we’re helping by abiding by the recommendations and staying inside.”
COVID-19 has New York essentially on lockdown, with nearly 150,000 confirmed cases and more than 6,000 deaths in the state. One night, the Empire State Building shined a rotating red light to remind everyone to stay inside. At 7 p.m. sharp, New Yorkers take to the balcony to applaud health care workers. Two weeks ago, a video circulated showing a forklift hauling dead bodies onto a truck outside a hospital.
That was outside Elmhurst Hospital, where Abdelmassih’s wife, Kelly, used to work.
She’s now the director of nutrition at St. Elizabeth’s in Lincoln, wearing a face mask on the job, throwing scrubs in the wash as soon as she gets back to their Lincoln apartment.
Abdelmassih has always looked up to his wife. That respect is higher than ever, now.
“I couldn’t do what she does,” Abdelmassih said. “She’s my hero.”
The pandemic has touched everyone’s lives, but there may not be anyone in Nebraska athletics who's had to change routine like Abdelmassih. Normally he’d be on flight after flight this month, meeting with recruits in person to rebuild Nebraska’s roster. He had plans to head to Europe this summer to check out overseas talent. Had a trip to Greece scheduled for vacation.
Instead, Abdelmassih has had to get creative in the busiest, most stressful time of his year. All while he watches New York struggle, helps care for his wife in her high-stress job, and keeps track of his 17-month old son, Shea, who shares the name of the Mets’ old ballpark.
Through all that, he’s still landed five transfers for the 2020 class, the last three commits coming without a visit to Lincoln.
“My professional life hasn’t changed as much as you’d think,” Abdelmassih said. “I could do my job from a bench in Spain.”
Adbelmassih has added “virtual visit” to his vocabulary. That entails sending recruits video clips of Pinnacle Bank Arena, the academic center and practice facility. After that, he sets up a call between the recruit and Fred Hoiberg, who is at home under lockdown because of his previous health issues, Abdelmassih said.
After that meeting, sometimes Abdelmassih will set up a family dinner.
“We text everyone and say, 'Hey, make spaghetti with oil and garlic and let’s FaceTime at 7,'” Abdelmassih said. “We’re trying to take it as a positive. I think it’s a great opportunity to connect with the family and kind of realize how fortunate we are. We’re safe and have a job and happy.”
Nebraska can start signing the 2020 class on April 15. That’ll include junior college scoring leader Teddy Allen, Chipola college forward Lat Mayen, Wisconsin transfer Kobe King, Pittsburgh transfer Trey McGowens and Western Illinois transfer Kobe Webster. NU has one more spot on the roster. They’re hoping for a big man, and ideally that’d be Adama Sanogo, a four-star center from New York who recently took a “virtual visit” with Nebraska.
Nebraska’s coaches are also trying to keep tabs on the current roster, which is now spread across the world. After NU’s loss to Indiana in the Big Ten tournament, the plan was to keep everyone in Lincoln, Abdelmassih said. But as tournaments got canceled, and the severity of the virus grew, they sent players home, which for some is in Iceland, France or Canada. Coaches are in constant contact with them, holding virtual team meetings and sending them workouts to do at home.
The plan, as of now, is to have all of them back by June 6.
Abdelmassih knows that may not happen.
“We can sit here and predict what’s gonna happen, but it's just foolish and time wasted because we really don’t know,” he said. “We just have to take it day by day and hope things improve, especially in New York. If things improve there, then that’s a sign it’ll improve everywhere."
Assistant basketball coaches are rarely home, especially recruiters like Abdelmassih. So he’s trying to take advantage of it. He’s checked off every TV show he was behind on — Tiger King, Homeland, Ozark. He's spending more time with his wife than any point in the last 10 years.
Still, there's an anxiety that doesn't fully go away, and won't for awhile. It all reminds Abdelmassih of 9/11. The swell of good amid chaos.
You wonder if he learned from "A Bronx Tale," too.
“When you do right, guess what, good things happen,” De Niro tells the boy.
Abdelmassih is doing his best to be De Niro, and preach that lesson to his players and recruits.
"Why do we need a tragedy like 9/11 or this pandemic, why do you need to be reminded what it means to be together and realize that maybe this is what we need to be like on a daily basis, and what's really important?" Abdelmassih said. "Why can't that be the normal?"