The Lakota, LNI, and the Love of Our Game by Brandon EcoffeyTweet
As a Lakota who grew up with a basketball in my hand, idolizing reservation greats like Jesse Lebeau, Bryan Brewer Jr., and Charlie Cuny, I knew from a very young age that for my community, the game meant more to us than it did for others.
Some have said basketball is poetry in motion. Phil Jackson wrote, “On any given night, the lessons of life are played out on the basketball court.” John Wooden said while describing how to play the game, “It isn’t what you do, but how you do it.” Each touches on a small element of how we Lakota see the sport we love, but it is really so much more. It is a game that transcends the barriers that keep people apart. The socio-economic, geographical, and on occasion, racial ramparts that prevent us from understanding one another on the most basic and human levels are crushed by the power of the bonds we create doing battle on the hardwood. The game brings us together and it has the power to make strangers family.
When I think back, my earliest vivid memory of high school hoops is from 1990. I was only 6 years old when the Custer Wildcats defeated the Red Cloud Crusaders in the state championship game; however, I can still recall some of the sights and sounds of that day as if I had just left the gym moments ago. I remember thinking Trevor Long (who played for Custer) seemed to never miss a shot, the Custer team shattered the back board in celebration, and even in defeat Jude Fairbanks and Beau Lebeau were honored gladiators whose feats ranked in history right alongside the accolades of our greatest warriors.
While most Americans share stories of Babe Ruth, Jim Thorpe, and Jessie Owens at the dinner table, my family talks about Jesse Lebeau shooting countless jumpers on the rim outside my house, to the point where my mom would open the door to tell him to go home; and about Willie White and the Brewer boys going undefeated and winning the state championship in 1988; or the time my Dad climbed from the upper balcony and over the safety railing in the Rapid City Civic Center, like a drunken frat boy, to rush the floor when Willie Richards and the 1995 Red Cloud Crusaders won it all.
Throughout life, basketball stayed with me. People would come and go, but the memories we created on the court together never left. The greatest players I encountered were those who were robbed of the opportunity to reach their full potential. Players like Derek Paulsen who I watched in awe, and the best guard I ever played against, Jesse Vasquez, who hung 50 on a team I played for in the 8th grade both passed in tragic car accidents.
On the Pine Ridge Reservation we were taught to view the game differently than most, and to see those who played it as larger than life. The way Derek Paulsen played the game had such a profound impact on me that, even though he was a white guy who played for a white team and we had never met, I was brought to tears when I was told of him dying in a car wreck while returning from the South Dakota Mr. Basketball awards ceremony. Several years later when I lost my own dream of winning a state title at the hands of his younger brother Paige, I walked up to him and told him that his brother was there on the court with him that night, and that I knew he was proud of what Paige had done. This was despite the fact that I thought my own destiny included me winning the state title that he was celebrating.
I learned how to build a family by watching Dusty Lebeau mold a group of young boys, from different backgrounds, gang allegiances, and families, into a cohesive unit willing to ignore the outside world and build each other in to something special when I played for him. The same held true for the Pine Ridge Thorpe family, as they embraced me when I slipped on the red and white for the first time after playing for the cross town rival Red Cloud High School my entire life. Basketball is part of our community.
For us basketball is family. It is love. It is who we are. It is a place where we represent our loved ones, and in my personal opinion–is an exhibition of what it is to be Lakota. Now I can only speak for myself and how I see the world, but on the court we see our kids play with courage and compassion, for community and family, and at its most basic level, for love. To me, along with our spirituality, this is what it means to be Lakota.
The Lakota Nation Invitational is the epicenter of a special purity that comes to life when a Lakota laces up their Jordans and picks up a basketball. I tell those who do not know our people intimately to forget the statistics, forget the poverty porn created by the media, forget what you think you know about us and for four days look on the court and see our kids being who they really are…Lakota.
Brandon is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and a lifelong resident of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation who earned his education at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH. He is currently the managing editor of Native Sun News Weekly, the current events and life editor at Native Max Magazine and a contributor to LastRealIndians.com and can be followed on Twitter @BEcoffeynswkly