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TRIBES' PRIDE BOUNCES BACK FOR BASKETBALL

There's a ragged basketball hoop on a plywood board beside the sweat lodge at the Shoshone-Bannock tribal chemical dependency clinic. It isn't a full court, just enough asphalt to pick the worn volleyball out of the dirt and start a game of horse or one-on-one.

It's like this throughout Indian country."If you come onto an Indian reservation, you'll see a hoop in the yard," Sho-Ban Recreation Director Mike Sakelaris said.

Basketball on reservations has grown from a kids' game to one of the pre-eminent motivators, time killers, social events and displays of tribal pride. Some tribes are using it to build the character and strength of their youths and to rebuild the spirit of their downtrodden.

For that reason, and a bounty of awards to be won, the Sho-Bans drew 24 teams from around the West to their annual all-Indian basketball tournament during a weekend in March.

There were 72 games in three days. Young men mostly in their 20s drove from as far as the Dakotas to play for embroidered jackets and trophies.

Though in the shadow of Idaho's annual state high-school tournament, this was the event of the week at the reservation, and people turned out in the hundreds even on nights when locals weren't playing.

A team from Lapwai, on the Nez Perce Reservation, took the title.

The Sho-Ban school basketball coach likened such tournaments to traditional rivalries but with a milder venue.

"Instead of coming over and raiding, they play basketball," said Mike Jordan, himself a Colville Indian from Seattle. "I'm serious; it's pretty intense."

But even without competition, there's something about a round ball and a hoop that draws Indians young and old onto the court.

"Every kid plays basketball. Fat, skinny, stupid, smart, everybody," Jordan said.

It should be that way, says the director of a group coordinating Indian sports.

"We'd like to see children use sports as our ancestors did to build themselves," said Kugie Louis of the National Indian Athletic Association.

"You use sports to build yourself from the inside, and you strengthen the sacred circle," he said. That circle of personal attributes includes family, identity, spirituality and health.

Jordan said basketball gives everyone a development tool and reason for hope. It's no different than in the ghettos of America's big cities.

"You may be impoverished and economically downtrodden, but there's always a basketball team around the corner or a group of kids playing."

It's hard to say why basketball and not football or something else is king of the reservation, Louis said, but certainly a part of it lies in the simplicity of the game and its equipment. It doesn't cost much, if anything, and you can play whether you're by yourself or in a crowd.

Though many play basketball, more tribes need organized recreation programs, Louis said. The kids need guidance in the fundamentals they'll need to know if they want to use their natural hand-eye coordination to move on to college or the pros. Louis said even those who can't achieve that level will learn valuable lessons.

"Our children stopped dreaming 100 years ago," he said. "We're trying to reinstate the idea that you are quality and you can excel."

Fan Louida Benally said there's more to the tournament than running and gunning. It's a social gathering and a chance to hear about upcoming tribal gatherings or tournaments on other reservations. And she likes to see how different the tribes look.

"South Dakotas are real tall," she noted.

And there's some pride involved, too.

"We want to see which tribe is the best," Benally said.

A Northern Cheyenne player from Montana said his team will hit at least 10 tournaments a year to spread the word about the guys from Lame Deer.

"We have to make sure the boys are knowing (about his team) on every rez," Enoch Limberhand said.

In preparation, they play together three nights a week at the reservation's open gym and compete in a league at home.

Ray Farmer, a black player who married into the Northern Cheyenne tribe, came along even though he is ineligible for this all-Indian event.

"These are my sons," he said, gesturing metaphorically to the younger players.

Susan Pevo, who likes the game so much she brought her two-month-old baby behind the scorer's table while working a game among people she doesn't know, said basketball is one path to popularity on the reservation.

"I've always looked up to basketball players," she said. "It's an in thing. It's always been an in thing."

She, too, played basketball while at American Falls High School.

It's a faster game than most hoops fans enjoy. The teams tear down the floor and waste no time putting the ball in the air. The three-pointers fly, sometimes while the players are on the run near midcourt, and the nearly straight trajectory jolts the back of the rim.

In a game between Northern Cheyenne and Fort Washakie, Wyo., each team had only one sub, and even they were drenched in sweat. If the teams passed the ball at all it was usually just once to an inside man who put it up immediately, and the other team wasted no time getting the ball back in play.

There was a timeout once to determine whether Wyoming's 20-point lead in the fourth quarter required calling the game. It turned out a 30-point lead was necessary.

"There's just not much defense," Jordan lamented.

It showed in the score of the championship game: Lapwai 122, Indian Express from Montana, 108.

Pocatello referee Bill Lacy said he works a lot of games on the reservation, and he tries to stand aside and let the game flow a little more than in high school games.

"If (a foul) doesn't take them out of their rhythm, we let them go on."

Still, players complained of all the "touch fouls" called on them by the crew during the tournament.

In decades of sponsoring this tournament, Fort Hall has won just once. The coordinators took action to change that a few years ago and imposed a 6-foot height limit.

"Fort Hall doesn't have very many players over 6-foot," Sa-kel-aris explained. All it took was one 6-10 player for other teams to dominate.

Many of the fans were dubious. "That guy's taller than 6-feet," people complained from every corner of the gym.

About 300 watched the Northern Cheyenne-Wyoming game, and later games kept them there near midnight. This was while their own Fort Hall team was playing at a different gym in Pocatello.

Some in the crowd mixed blue jeans with traditional Indian garb like beaded vests, but just as popular were Utah Jazz T-shirts and jackets commemorating tournaments past.

Given their neutrality in most of these games, the gym was fairly quiet most of the night. But the observers weren't bored; just conserving their energy and watching closely. When a player from Provo, Utah took a pass in front of the rim and hooked it off the glass while gliding by, everyone roared. People paid more attention to good plays than to the scoreboard.

In one corner of the gym, Kevin Edmo and Casey Ellsworth leaned back against the wall and watched the game, black cowboy hats tipped back and thumbs hooked in jean pockets. They were here to see which tribe was most competitive, but also just to watch and remember the sport they were raised on.

"It goes way back," Ellsworth said. "Old Indians used to watch the game . . . They weren't this good back then."