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Tuesday, October 03, 2023
Trice Ford Kuske

13-year-old Lilly Kuske (center) has become incredibly close with both Aleem Ford and D'Mitrik Trice.

How a 13-year-old Badgers superfan used Instagram to become 'part of the family'

Lilly Kuske sits on her bed with her head buried in her hands. She’s not an emotional person, but tonight the tears won’t stop. They swim down her cheeks and fall from her chin, darkening the red of her favorite Wisconsin sweatshirt. Florida’s Chris Chiozza has just ended the Badgers’ season with a desperation, buzzer-beating three in the NCAA Tournament.

It’s here, from the bedroom of her home in Bloomer, Wis., that Lilly pens her final Instagram post of the 2016-’17 season. Tears streaming down her face, the 13-year old thanks every member of the men’s basketball team — redshirting players and all — for their hard-fought season.

Nearly a year later, Lilly runs four dedicated fan accounts for the Badgers: one for D’Mitrik Trice, one for Aleem Ford, one for Walt McGrory and one for the whole Wisconsin team. Many of the players follow these accounts, including Lilly’s personal Instagram page. Though she’s still in the eighth grade, Lilly is operating what her mom, Amanda, says is tantamount to a full-time job.

“It's her first thing in the morning,” Amanda said. “She puts a lot of time into it. It's not even just the posting; she's researching. She knows everything about everybody.”

* * * * * * * * *

On Feb. 19, 2017, the Badgers beat the Maryland Terrapins, 71-60, in Madison. Nigel Hayes posted a double-double, his third of the season, and Ethan Happ recorded five steals, but it was otherwise an unremarkable outing. But it was Lilly’s first taste of Badger basketball in person.

She vividly recalls waiting outside the Kohl Center as the players slowly trickled out. It was then that she first met Trice and Ford, and a month later she started Trice’s fan page.

Typically, a Division I basketball player would take no notice of the Instagram account of a middle schooler. But Trice is no typical player, and Lilly is no typical fan. Their friendship grew so that on April 5, Lilly’s birthday, she opened up her direct messages to a message from Trice.

“I saw that it was her birthday, so I said 'happy birthday' last year. I gotta remember to do that again this year,” Trice said. “She had been there for so long keeping my fan page alive, so of course I gotta stay connected with her somehow.”

Bloomer is a little over three hours from Madison, but the distance hasn’t stopped their relationship from developing. They talk frequently on the phone and over social media — Lilly even once interviewed Trice over FaceTime for a school project. Trice, who has two sisters back home, says she fits right in.

“I definitely consider her a part of the family,” he said. “All my friends, everybody knows about her and who she is.”

Lilly has become so close with some of the players that, at the Badger Boosters’ Annual Steak Night at the Kohl Center last Spring, she was even recognized by Ford’s parents.

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“I met Aleem’s parents and they were like, ‘You should start a fan page for Aleem. Trice’s dad and I were just talking about this a couple days ago.’ And I was like, ‘You were talking about me? A girl from a small town?’”

* * * * * * * * *

As a freshman, Trice was thrust into a prominent role with the Badgers, and in his sophomore year, he was asked to be a leader on and off the court. But 10 games into the season, Trice suffered a foot injury that has kept him sidelined since. A few days after suffering the injury, a package arrived at his doorstep. Scrawled atop the return address was a familiar name: Lilly Kuske.

Trice opened the box to find a host of carefully crafted goodies — cookies, candy, pictures, cards — to keep his spirits up during his recovery. And while Trice’s injury has kept him off the court, it hasn’t kept Lilly from updating his fan page, which features a new post almost daily.

Trice acknowledges how uplifting it is to have a fan that remains dedicated through his absence, but it’s more than that, too. He says that interacting with Lilly has helped him develop the leadership skills that he normally would foster while playing.

“It's definitely opened up my eyes with watching games and not being on the court, being more of a coach and a spectator,” Trice said. “I think that it's helped me in the vocal aspect of being a leader.”

Trice isn’t the only one growing through their relationship. Lilly has found benefits in nearly every aspect of her life, from schoolwork to the basketball court.

“Obviously it gives me a drive. They give me goals to set,” she said. “It gives me goals of what I want to do and keep up with my grades, stuff like that.”

Amanda, Lilly’s mother, sees this change, too. But as a parent, she’s seen another change. Like many kids her age, Lilly struggles with anxiety. But since her fan accounts have started to take off, Amanda says Lilly has something she knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she’s good at.

“It gives her confidence. When she feels down or nervous about other things, this is something that she's extremely confident about,” Amanda said. “It gives her a bright spot. I think it's helped [with anxiety] quite a bit.”

Among the goals that Lilly now has set in stone is attending UW-Madison. But she doesn’t want to just be a student; she wants to follow in the footsteps of Trice and so many others, walking through the tunnel onto Ab Nicholas court in a cardinal red jersey and basketball shoes.

To reach her goal, Lilly is infusing her own basketball game with moves she’s picked up watching the Badgers. She’s tall for her age, but she runs the point, bringing the ball up the court like Ethan Happ, ever reliable. She recounts a game where, inbounding the ball in the closing seconds, she drew a blocking foul practically identical to Brad Davison’s game-winning play against Western Kentucky. Amanda says her drive has become almost overwhelming.

“She wants to make it to Madison. She wants to play,” Amanda said. “It's constant. Morning, noon and night. That's all she thinks about.”

* * * * * * * *

Lilly and Amanda travelled to Madison for Frank Kaminsky Night and were there as the Badgers upended then-No. 6 Purdue. They stormed the court with a thousand half-drunk college students and danced with the players in celebration on a high in a season filled with lows. Once more, tears welled in Lilly’s eyes. This time, though, they were joyful.

Far above the excitement and jubilation that night hung Kaminsky’s jersey, alongside Ab Nicholas’ and a 1941 championship banner. They’ll stay there as long as the building stands, forever immortalized in Wisconsin lore. Kaminsky and Nicholas are the only two Badgers with their jerseys hanging from the Kohl Center rafters, and it’s getting lonely up there.

Maybe they’d enjoy the company of Lilly Kuske’s No. 5.

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