Memorial hoops 

In Indian Country, basketball is more than just a game. It's about life. And death.

In the tight Jocko Valley just west of Ravalli on Montana 200 the sky darkens into a late afternoon gray. The National Bison Range lies across the river. A few buffalo dot a tan stretch high on the hills there. The A-frame with the metal roof makes this place distinctive. If you’ve come this way, you’ve seen it. It’s the Price place.

A year ago, it was simply the house George and Barbara had lucked on when, with a full U-Haul, they needed a house. It’s more than a home now. Last year, a few days after a fatal single-car accident in Pattee Canyon on April 20, 2002, Lemuel Nehum Price, age 24, settled into his resting place, the first in the family cemetery.

The Prices are quintessential Americans, a mixture of Wampanoag, Choctaw, black and white. Back in 1985, when the family left a small town near Springfield, Ore., to give Montana a try, a number of serendipitous vectors converged. There was a job for George Price, an artist and an art teacher, at Two Eagle River School in Pablo. It’s a small, intimate high school near the tribal college.

For the family’s four kids, that stretch of the Jocko was perfect, too. Friend-to-be T. J. Sandoval lived just down the road, and with his older sister, he was a good match for Lem and his two older sisters, Faith and Hannah. Lem’s younger brother Noah could tag along, too.

The boys played endless hours of basketball in the Price’s gravel driveway. They tallied up scores playing football and batting balls far into the thorny rose bushes. There wasn’t a sport the boys didn’t wear out, at the Price place or the Sandoval’s or up the road a few miles in Dixon, where they attended grade school.

“We were the Dixon Demons, back before they changed the name to Buffaloes,” Sandoval says with pride.

The boys grew and went to high school at Two Eagle. Both played on the basketball team. Lem loved the game. He’d play hurt. He even played on crutches once, with a broken foot.

“I told him. You’re gonna hurt yourself. But he played anyway, you know, crutching with one hand and dribbling with the other,” Sandoval says, acting it out and laughing. “He sprained his other ankle.”

Two weeks before his death last year, Lem had accepted a job as a photographer for the Topeka Capital Journal in Kansas. It was a good time in Lem’s life. He had earned a degree from the School of Journalism at the University of Montana while raising his two children as a single father. His talent and hard work had been recognized by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Associated Press. In short, he was off and running when his life ended in Pattee Canyon.

Lem left behind both parents, two sisters, and a younger brother. He also left his two children. Kiyana is now five. Her little brother Wakiyan is three. His birthday is April 20, the same day his father died. Lem’s sister Faith Price, who has a 6-year-old of her own, and her parents share custody of Kiyana and Wakiyan. It’s a close family. They lean heavily on each other. Kiyana and Wakiyan split time between Dixon and Faith’s house in Missoula. Faith’s sister, Hannah, also lives in Missoula with her husband Tony. They lighten each other’s loads. Wakiyan is an active preschooler with short-cropped hair and a mischievous grin. His sister, a kindergartner, has a quiet, delicate demeanor. Lem’s former wife lives out-of-state.

Missoulian reporter Michael Moore wrote a poetic news story a week after Lemuel Nahum Price’s death. Moore attended the funeral and interviewed friends and neighbors. At the bottom of the story, Moore described the end of the ceremony: “The drums stopped. T. J. [Sandoval] kissed the coffin. Everyone threw a handful of dirt onto the grave.

“‘That’s my daddy, he can’t get out,’ said Wakiyan. The men who once were boys with Lem put down their shovels. A man played a song, a song he never played before and will never play again, on the Indian flute. John Tom Bigcrane, who tried to drum the burial song but broke down in tears, put a small cross at the head of the grave, kissed it.” After the funeral Lem’s friends stood around the burial mound behind the Price house. Bigcrane was the first to suggest the idea of a memorial basketball tournament in Lem’s honor.

Last year at the April Dawn Stamper Memorial All-Girl Basketball Tournament in Rocky Boy Agency on the Rocky Boy reservation near Havre, Mitzi Horn pump-faked and dribbled around her defender for a short jumper. A few minutes later the center for the team from Seattle came down with a rebound and, with one of those improbable passes, hurled the basketball to the opposite end of the court. Incredibly, the ball landed in the hands of her teammate, who scored a lay-up.

The Native teams had come from all around the Northwest and paid the $300 entry fee to compete. It’s a tradition in Indian Country. “I go because of April, and because the prizes are so unique,” Horn says. Horn’s aunt was April’s stepmother. “The competition is good,” she adds with a laugh. Horn’s team won the tournament.

This isn’t about high school basketball, although that is popular, too. These are independently organized basketball tournaments held almost every weekend from January to May and, less often, throughout the rest of the year. Most are in the western states and Canada. Some are for players 40 or older or six feet and under. Some are women only; some are for men. Some, like the 50th Klamath All Indian Basketball Tournament in Chiloquin, Ore., pay out nearly $20,000 in prizes. The money comes from sponsors and entry fees, from $200 per team on up. For the diehard hoop hound it is possible to compete on courts with referees against other Indian teams in front of Indian fans all year around, as long as a team is willing to log the necessary miles. In fact, in the years since basketball was first introduced to Native Americans—by way of government and missionary schools in the early years of the last century—the tournament has become so ingrained in the culture that the word itself has become a verb.

Phil Homeratha, the women’s basketball coach at Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas, remembers. “I used to tournament, oh yeah, for about 20 years.” With high and low technology, tournament organizers reach out across the continent. Pencil drawings are scanned into computers. Posters are made and sent to distant reservations and Indian centers by hand and by e-mail list. There is even a Web site,, dedicated entirely to Native sports.

The site, run by two Indian sports fanatics in Kansas, carries news and profiles of Native athletes and coaches and dozens of message boards with hundreds of contributors. John Harjo and Brent Cahwee started the site in the fall of 2000 when both were seniors in college.

The message board offers a glimpse into the chatter between Indian players. One player recently bragged in a posting that he and his team would go to a Montana tournament and leave with all the cash and the local girls’ hearts. He was a no-show.

Another started a discussion on the Crow player, Tuff Harris, the “hottee” who won the slam dunk contest at last year’s Denver’s All-West Native American Basketball Classic.

But the solemn side of the tournaments is never far away. About one third of the basketball tournaments listed on are in memory of players now dead. Others—usually put on by a tribe or Indian community—commonly include a three-point shootout or an All Star award given in someone’s memory.

Older coaches and players say Indian basketball was already strong on a local level by the 1940s and growing. Ernie Stevens, Jr., president of the National Indian Athletic Association, says the organization has been holding yearly national championship tournaments since the early 1970s. “But I remember going to tournaments and seeing record books with brackets, scores, MVPs, everything, going back to the 1950s,” Stevens says. That consistency is amazing, because the NIAA operates on a budget of approximately zero. Stevens’ day job is director of the National Indian Gaming Association in Washington, D.C. The role of the NIAA, as far as basketball is concerned, is mainly to designate a tournament every year as the all-Indian championship.

The funding problems are the same everywhere. This is grassroots basketball. The tournaments are organized on a shoestring. A friend will make the logo. Relatives will chip in money for entry fees. Players will drive for hours on a Friday night, crash out on a hard floor, play five games on Saturday and three on Sunday and then drive all night back home.

From the nonfiction book Counting Coups, about a young Crow woman unable to use basketball to get off her reservation, to the recent documentary Chiefs, with a similar message, the media take on Native Americans and basketball is the same wherever it runs: Indian basketball is a beautiful failure.

At first glance, the evidence seems to support that conclusion. Consider the disparity between the talent level and devotion to the game in Native communities (way high) and the number of players in big-time college basketball programs and professional arenas (way low). Almost no Indian ball players have played successfully at Division I universities. Zero men have gone on to the NBA. Two women have played in the WNBA. But scores of Natives in Montana have played basketball on scholarship and earned degrees. Pete Conway at Montana State University, Leann Montes at the University of Montana, and Sami Walking Bear at Sheridan College in Sheridan, Wyo., to name a few.

Actually, the beautiful failure story is a standard one, all too common, used by non-Indians to describe Indian Country. It’s the romantic myth of the savage, and it’s not true.

But look at Indian basketball through another lens. The sport has become an integral part of modern Indian America, as ingrained as powwows and drum groups. Teams travel the tournament circuit in something of the same way that people ride the powwow highway, from reservation to reservation, competing for the love of the game and simply to have something to do with close friends and relatives.

Horn’s winning team at the April Stamper Memorial, for instance, is made up of old high school teammates and cousins. They drive from Lodgegrass to Rocky Boy packed in an aunt’s Ford Explorer and sleep sprawled on couches and the floor of yet another aunt when they get there. It’s not unusual to read in Native obituaries or hear at a funeral about impressive basketball wins of the deceased, just as more traditional skills such as dancing or beading or horsemanship may be cited. Sherman Alexie—the acclaimed writer/filmmaker and Spokane Indian—has described basketball in Indian Country as a new religion, complete with saints and martyrs.

For those who put in the long hours to organize the tournaments, it’s a labor of love and devotion.

“It’s all about Lem. It’s about showing respect and honor. I want it to be, ‘This is for you, Lem.’ He would like this,” says Sandoval.

There are no instructional pamphlets for what Sandoval and Faith and John Tom Bigcrane and Teage Goodvoice want to do. There is only what some call the moccasin telegraph. You have to ask your cousins or your friends, find out how they put on their tournament. Faith asked her friend Amanda Morsette. Morsette, outgoing and funny, had competed at tournaments in high school and college with, among others, a quiet athlete named April Dawn Stamper. The girls grew up together on the Rocky Boy reservation amidst the rounded Bear Paw Mountains. As kids, Morsette and Stamper had practically lived on the blacktop court, called the Jungle, at Rocky Boy School, playing hoops until black night. Stamper’s time at the Jungle paid off. She excelled in high school ball. At tournaments she was a standout, winning MVP awards by out-hustling college players.

After graduating from high school, the two girls went off to college, Morsette to UM in Missoula and Stamper to Arizona State University in Tempe. Morsette pushed through, graduating in 1997 with a degree in psychology, but Stamper—always quiet and poetic—struggled with schizophrenia and returned to Rocky Boy where she died on May 24, 1999, a victim of suicide. Morsette and a core of young women decided to hold an all-girl tournament in Stamper’s honor. They started by forming a committee of Stamper’s close friends and family. Soon efforts to raise money were in full swing. A bank account was started in the name of ADS Memorial. They held raffles and grilled others who in turn had put on tournaments for their close friends who had died.

“For a basketball tournament to run right, you have to take care of all these little things,” such as rules governing late arrivals, Morsette told them. Can a late player jump onto the bench and substitute into the game? “With the rules, if you have them, you have to enforce them. And you need ways that the teams can protest if they violate the rules,” Morsette explained.

There was the matter of getting the word out, of drawing up brackets, of organizing volunteers, of deciding on a selection process for the All-Stars and providing prizes for them. And the women planned a big feast for the last day.

By the end of that first year, the committee had raised more than $7,000. Gymnasiums at the high school and at Stone Child, the local tribal community college, had been reserved for Memorial Day weekend. Twelve teams had paid the entry fee of $300 apiece and traveled from as far as Seattle to play. Beautiful Pendleton jackets, sewn in Butte, had arrived with the tournament’s logo on the back. Players were checking in. As the starting time neared, the volunteer referees asked for their whistles. “Oh. We forgot whistles that first year. We had to drive around the reservation to borrow some,” Morsette says, laughing. “Every year we’ve learned from the year before.”

During the tournament Morsette was gratified to see players approach Stamper’s parents to ask after April. The whole event came off just as the women had hoped, as a tremendous show of respect for their special friend who had died so young.

Plus, there was money left in the ADS Memorial bank account. The committee used it to set up a scholarship in Stamper’s name. The application, they decided, would require a piece of creative writing, because Stamper had loved to write poetry. The women organized a panel of judges, and soon granted two scholarships—one for $1,000 and one for $500. “We thought that would be a neat thing to do,” Morsette said.

“When it was over, we were so tired, but it was so worth it,” Morsette says. But the idea of an ongoing tournament was daunting. What had they gotten themselves into? The tournament had taken over their lives. They talked to an elder who knows about the Sun Dance and other religious ceremonies. He told them that a vow of four tournaments was appropriate. That’s the sacrifice required for the Sun Dance: four years of observance.

Scholarships have been given out at all three tournaments so far.

The fourth and final tournament will be held this May, and the balance in the bank account is enough to keep the scholarship going for at least another year.

A few months ago, Morsette and Faith began to talk more often about the Lem Memorial Basketball Tournament. Morsette, who lives in Rocky Boy where she works as a career counselor at Stone Child College, coached Faith on the nuts and bolts of tournamenting, passing along the lessons she has learned through years of organizing.

Faith followed Morsette’s advice and made committees and e-mail lists to assemble people. The group met in Faith’s living room on a Sunday afternoon in February. Around the room, on chairs and deep-cushioned couches, sat the rest of the planning committee, joking and talking and brainstorming. There was Goodvoice, his knee in a brace from surgery. “Playing basketball out of shape,” he said with a grin. Goodvoice’s wife sat next to him. Their two children ran back and forth from the living room to the kitchen, playing the whole time. On one wall in Faith’s living room hangs a large photograph. It’s an informal portrait, of Lem at work as a photographer for the Associated Press. His handsome face holds a bemused expression as he kneels, heavy-duty camera in one hand, on the infield of the Seattle Mariners baseball stadium.

The adults glanced often up at the portrait as they discussed the tournament. How many teams would be accepted? What would be the entry fee? What about prizes? What about fund-raising?

Midway through the meeting, Sandoval appeared in the doorway to the kitchen, wearing his customary black sweatshirt and black jeans. His long hair was covered by the hood. Sandoval, a pleasant, self-confessed computer geek and comic book artist, planted himself at the table on one side of the room. He ate guacamole on chips while Faith gave him a rundown of the plans.

Faith asked if Sandoval had brought the logo. Sandoval produced two sheets of paper holding his idea. The drawings had been weeks in the making. It was a tough task. Sandoval had grown up with Lem. How do you compress all that onto one page?

Sandoval and Lem had played ball as the Dixon Demons, so Sandoval drew demons. Then he tore those sketches up. He moved on to more straightforward imagery. He set a camera on a table, studied it and drew it. He arranged film, bent it, and drew it. He posed in front of a mirror, held an imaginary basketball under his arm to see the way the elbow bent. It was a long process.

Faith sat at the table across from Sandoval holding the pages in her hand.

She smiled broadly. “I like them,” she said.

Faith handed the pages around. In the foreground stands a young and sorrowful basketball player in a wide stance, cradling a ball under one arm. His high-tops loosely laced, his head tucked into his chest, his gaze down. The background takes a moment to come into focus. There are peaks that look like the Mission Mountains, trees, and a river. All set in the shape of a basketball. A camera hovers directly behind the mourning figure, its lens framing his body.

The consensus was easy to reach. The organizers adopted the drawings for the logo. Jobs were divvied up. Some would write fund-raising letters. Others would research the cost of making T-shirts, reserve the gymnasium at the Two Eagle River School in Pablo, and make posters. The date had long been set: Memorial day weekend.

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