He doesn't care which shoe he laces up first. He doesn't wear lucky boxers or have socks he hasn't washed since seventh grade. There's no memento in his locker he must touch before his feet hit the court, no specific trainer who always tapes his ankle, no single spot on the doorway his fingers graze before jogging into the arena.
All he needed before his first college game was a quick hot shower before pulling his No. 5 jersey over his head, and he was ready to play.
"I was nervous like a little kid before Christmas," Staiger said of the hours leading up to his debut Friday.
The 13,135 people in Hilton Coliseum seemed nervous, too. They began filling the best seats more than an hour before the game, cementing a clear view of the bench, the court and Staiger as he stood up from one and stepped onto the other. As he got out of his chair and checked in, they rose from theirs and cheered.
It wasn't fair, the Cyclone faithful cried on Internet message boards, in petitions and on a Web site, freelucca.com. Slowly, the Lucca Staiger legend grew. For 54 weeks, ISU fans waited for Staiger to perform his pregame ritual, don his Cyclone jersey and touch the Hilton Coliseum court.
But Staiger had waited much longer for that first college game.
A sports nut finds his game
Ralph Junge knew there was something special about the new kid the first day Lucca Staiger arrived at Urspringschule's practice. The 10-year-old picked up a basketball and, from the opposite baseline, chucked it one-handed the entire length of the court into his coach's arms.
"You know how young kids are; when they have to throw the ball to half court, they struggle," Junge said. "He just threw it down the court and right into my hands. It was unbelievable."
Maybe it was because Staiger had played handball before ever stepping onto a basketball hardwood. Maybe because he is just a sports nut who, 10 years later, still loves soccer, tennis and water parks.
Junge doesn't usually gloat about the talents of new players who arrive at Urspring, a boarding school tucked between Stuttgart and Munich in southern Germany and known for its elite basketball program. But Staiger was different. He had hand-eye coordination from handball, but his understanding of basketball was unteachable. His court vision surpassed that of many teenagers. His skills were raw, but the intangibles were there.
Staiger grew up in Blaustein, only 23 kilometers from Urspring. His mom, Britta, divorced his biological father when he was 4 months old; two years later, she met and soon married Cem, the man Lucca considers his dad. A brother, Janic, was born when Lucca was 9 years old.
Staiger initially enrolled at Urspring as a day student, but by the time he was 12, he began boarding there so the time he had wasted commuting could be used for basketball practice.
The change meant seeing slightly less of his parents, who never missed a game at Urspring, but it helped him become one of the elite guards in the German youth basketball system.
"Some kids are earlier to develop, some later," Junge said. "He was very early. At 15, he already played at the men's level in the second league in Germany, which was unbelievable."
All players at Urspring was gifted, but Staiger's talent was exceptional. Every December, the team traveled to the U.S. to play a tournament against elite AAU teams. But Staiger was one of just 49 kids the NBA and FIBA invited to their Basketball Without Borders camp in 2005. Dirk Nowitzki flew him to the United States for his All-Star camp, where Staiger was named camp MVP.
Yet Staiger never acted like a superstar.
"He's a great character," said Fabian Boeke, a sophomore at Washington State who also played at Urspring. "He's very grounded, very down to earth."
'Every basketball player in Germany dreams of playing in the U.S.'
Alan Huss intended to drive the 185 miles from Decatur, Ill. to O'Hare International Airport that night in August 2006. He'd caught a nasty bug and could hardly lift his head from the pillow, so he called his father, who sent his company's driver to Chicago to fetch the new basketball player.
The 18-year-old arrived at Melinda and Craig Huss' home after 1 a.m. Lucca Staiger was exhausted, uncertain, yet overwhelmingly gracious to the American strangers.
"We sat down on the couch and went through this precious little scrapbook his grandmother had put together for him," Melinda Huss said. "Him with tears, because he was sad to be leaving home but excited to be doing this."
As his star in Germany grew, Staiger couldn't help but think about the future. He wanted to keep playing basketball, but the German professional leagues don't nurture young players. He could try Italy or Spain, but what would happen if he blew out a knee three weeks into his career?
One day at dinner with his parents, he casually brought up the possibility of college in America. He knew a half dozen other European players who'd done it, telling him he could perfect his English, get a college degree and stay on the court.
Knowing the NCAA's strict amateurism regulation, Britta and Cem Staiger turned down a scholarship offer that would have paid for Urspring, instead squeezing the tuition from Cem's salary at a newspaper distribution company so it wouldn't look like Lucca had been paid.
Still, Staiger worried his limited English would hurt his ACT scores and chance to academically qualify to play. Then he met Detlef Schrempf, the first German to play in the NBA, at the Adidas Superstar Camp in Atlanta, and Schrempf promised to help him find a high school in the states where he could work on his English, improve his basketball skills and catch the attention of college coaches.
"Basketball in the United States is like soccer in Germany," Staiger said. "Every basketball player in Germany dreams of playing in the U.S."
Eventually Junge and Schrempf found Alan Huss, who was building an international all-star team at a small Christian school in central Illinois. He invited Staiger to play for his team, where the school would provide tuition and room and board for each of the athletes he was bringing in from places such as Cameroon and Croatia.
Junge helped organize Staiger's transcripts and visas, and in August 2006 Staiger packed everything he could into three bags and moved to the U.S.
His parents, brother, grandparents, girlfriend and several friends came to the airport in Stuttgart to see him off.
"I was sad to leave all my friends and family," Staiger said, "but I was excited for the new start."
'A real dog and pony show'
Melinda Huss had one rule for the German, Cameroonian and two Croatian teenagers who took over half her home: don't leave dirty dishes all over the place. She didn't care how messy their bedrooms became. She didn't mind if they stayed up late using the computer. For one year, her home was their home, and by the time they moved out in spring 2007, her family became theirs.
Melinda and her husband, Craig, initially agreed to host one foreign athlete from the basketball team their son coached, but when another family backed out, they promised to take in another. Then Alan's assistant coach got married, so the two boys who'd been living with him took over a third spare bedroom.
Add two dogs and Melinda's 87-year-old mother, who moved in for a while as she recovered from hip surgery, and the sprawling ranch on Lake Decatur began to feel like "a real dog and pony show," Melinda said.
"It was a wonderful experience, but I would never do it again," Melinda said. "I did it the one time because my son needed me."
Alan Huss had been a part-time assistant coach at another Decatur high school when Decatur Christian offered him a job. The school hoped to build notoriety and thought an elite basketball team could accomplish that. Huss, who played at Creighton, called college friends playing overseas and began building a list of international ringers for his squad.
Lucca Staiger said he's lucky, because Craig and Melinda are just like his own parents. Their rules were the same. Their expectations were the same. They helped him study American history and English literature and were happy when he noticed the trash was full and emptied it without being asked.
When the other kids grabbed their dinner plates and retreated to the basement, Staiger loved sitting down to meals with the family. He got a driver's license and willingly became the team chauffeur so Melinda and Craig didn't have to shuttle kids to practices, movies and school all the time.
And when Craig's father died that October, Staiger reminded the other players that they all needed to attend the service.
"He comes from a very close family, so he understands the fabric of family," Melinda said. "He understood how to fit in here."
But his English was still raw, and he was still an ocean and half a continent from home.
Attending a tiny Christian school didn't make things easier. Staiger wasn't used to praying before every class or studying text books infused with religious references. Basketball in Europe is about finesse, not athleticism, so that too challenged him.
He remembers lying in bed the first week, unable to sleep and desperately wishing to go home.
It got better as the crowd at the Huss' slowly became a family. By the time basketball season began, Decatur felt like home.
"They became like my parents in that year I was there," Staiger said. "It's kind of like I have two moms and two dads now because I grew so close to them."
Staiger chooses Iowa State
Lucca Staiger couldn't practice as he limped around Urspring after undergoing surgery on his right knee, so coach Ralph Junge asked him to give the visiting American a tour of the school. Staiger didn't speak much English, and Greg McDermott didn't speak any German, so the eighth-grader felt a little like Vanna White as he waved his hands in the air, pointing out the team's facilities.
"At the end when he left he said, 'We will stay in touch,'" Staiger said. "I thought, 'Blah, blah, sure, coach. That will be in five or six years. Sure I will play for you.' I thought I would never see him again."
But each time McDermott called Junge to ask about one of his older players, he remembered to check in on Staiger's progress. When he heard the sharp-shooting wing was headed to Illinois, he made Staiger a priority.
The gym at Decatur Christian hosted a constant stream of college coaches scouting the international players. Beas Hamga eventually signed with UNLV. Mario Stula ended up at DePaul. Ozren Bjelogrlic played last season for Liberty University in Virginia.
Staiger drew attention from Washington State, Old Dominion and South Florida. But he visited only Ames.
"He just had a feel for the game," McDermott said. "He was very unselfish, made everybody else better as a result of him being on the floor, and he put the ball in the basket. That jumped out at us."
Staiger averaged 13.3 points per game at Decatur, and after the season, was invited to play in the Illinois Premiere Basketball High School All-Star Game.
Germany's national basketball program invited him to play for its U20 team in the summer of 2007, but for the first time in three years, Staiger said no.
"I wanted to have playing time here," Staiger said. "So I quit the national team to be here the whole summer and do this."
'I don't know what I did'
It's October 2007, and Iowa State basketball is in the middle of a preseason practice. Greg McDermott has been drilling his offense with the team for more than an hour. With six new players, it isn't going well.
"Lucca, if you want to play this season, you have to learn to rebound," he yells to Lucca Staiger, who could have a breakout season if his defense would only catch up to his offense.
Staiger's rebounding wasn't McDermott's only concern about the German freshman. Since June, ISU had been firing e-mails and phone calls back and forth with the NCAA about whether Staiger played for a professional league while at Urspring.
Before the 2007-08 season, the NCAA instituted an Amateurism Clearinghouse, hoping to weed out athletes who honed their skills playing professionally abroad before competing as amateurs for American colleges.
The spring before he arrived in Ames, Staiger, like all incoming college athletes born outside the U.S., was asked to complete a questionnaire about his status. Knowing that two Americans at Urspring received stipends for participating, Staiger answered "yes" to a question about whether any of his teammates were paid.
The NCAA red-flagged his response.
ISU exhausted the NCAA's appeals process, but by the semester break, it was over. McDermott and assistant coach Jeff Rutter pulled Staiger aside after practice one day in December, but Staiger knew what was coming.
"Coach Rutter said 'Let's go outside real fast, you, me and Coach Mac, we've got to talk,'" Staiger said. "I knew exactly what they were going to say. I didn't think. I was just crying. I was really angry.
"I thought, 'I don't know what I did.'"
Weeks earlier, though, Staiger had abandoned angry thoughts of returning home to play professionally. He knew he could earn more money than either of his parents if he returned to Germany. He could play professionally and be done with the NCAA.
Cheesy as it seems, he says, his heart told him to stay.
"He's really mentally strong," said ISU forward Craig Brackins, a California native who roomed with Staiger last year. "I don't know what I would have done, being away from home, you're here but you can't play. I'd probably be on the first plane back to California."
As Iowa State struggled through a 14-18 season, Staiger struggled with the knowledge he could be helping. After the Cyclones suffered a 79-44 loss at Drake, he lamented to Brackins that maybe he would have made a few buckets, and thus made a difference.
In practice, he studied ISU's defense, worked on his rebounding and became the foundation of the scout team.
First his grandparents, then his parents, then the Urspring coaching staff traveled from Germany to Ames to visit, and Staiger said that helped make the long season pass more quickly. But he came to the U.S. to play basketball, not watch from the stands while wearing street clothes.
"There were days you could tell it was weighing on him, maybe he wasn't as focused that day or was down a little bit," Rutter said. "But, by far, more days than not he persevered."
'He's got a chance to be a really good player'
Two days after ISU began practice last month, Lucca Staiger felt a familiar pain in his right knee. The same condition he'd experienced as a teenager in Germany had returned, and within a week, he underwent the same arthroscopic surgery he'd been recovering from when Greg McDermott first visited Urspringschule.
The surgery meant Staiger would wait a few weeks longer.
McDermott worries about how Staiger's legend will affect his relatively novice guard. The chants of "Free Lucca" that rang through Hilton Coliseum last season showed Staiger he had the fans' support, solidifying his decision to stay in Ames.
They also added to the hype.
"It's important that our fan base shows patience," McDermott said. "There's going to be signs of the great things that are going to come from Lucca over the next three years, but there's also going to be growing pains."
Staiger returned to the German national team last summer, but that was strictly European basketball, so no one knows how he will fare against the fast physicality of the U.S. game.
On certain nights at Decatur Christian, Staiger outplayed some of the best athletes in the country. Other times, he faded into the mix. Alan Huss said if Staiger cleans up the details, he could find consistent success at ISU.
"He's got to prove he can defend on the wing in the Big 12, which is probably the best conference in the country." Huss said. "He'll make shots, and he'll score points, but he's got to defend his position."
Craig Brackins brags his pick and roll with Staiger cannot be stopped. Ralph Junge notices Staiger now can drive to the basket, something he never tried to do back home. Jeff Rutter says he's best when he can catch and shoot, rather than having to create open shots.
It could be several more weeks before Staiger returns to full health, and even then, McDermott said, he essentially will be a freshman. But Staiger might have made the biggest step Friday night, when rather than taking his usual spot at the front of Cyclone Alley, he sat on the bench.
"He's the most popular college athlete to have never played in a game," ISU Athletic Director Jamie Pollard said last month.
Courtney Linehan can be reached at (515) 663-6930 or firstname.lastname@example.org.