Dream Hoops

Over the last 40 years, the Red Lake Warriors have known high hopes, humiliation, and off-court tragedy. Now they're getting ready to make history.

It's Friday afternoon, February 19, and the village of Red Lake is starting to buzz. At the Thunder Cafe, the only breakfast and lunch joint in town, customers order their home-style specials to go. Across the street, kids gather in the high school parking lot, sneaking smokes and killing time. And in a yellow three-bedroom house just a few miles away, Doug "Jack" Desjarlait, a lanky, square-jawed man of 44, whips up an early supper.

Desjarlait is on a tight schedule. He has just arrived home from his job as a phys. ed. instructor at Red Lake Elementary School. Now he needs to cook, eat, and change into his game duds: white button-down shirt, black jeans, black vest, black boots, and a pair of tinted aviator glasses. As head coach of the Red Lake High School boys' basketball team, the Warriors, Desjarlait runs the biggest show in town. Why not look sharp?

"Eight 20s in a row," he says, digging into a plate of pan-fried perch, wild rice, and garden-grown potatoes. A victory tonight, he explains, will give the Warriors eight consecutive years with 20 or more wins--a notable accomplishment, considering that the regular season runs just 22 games. But this game carries special weight for another reason: For Desjarlait's seniors, it will be the final opportunity to show their stuff on the home court--a classic moment of sporting drama that, in the passionate world of Red Lake hoops, is writ especially large.

"They'll never put their uniforms on here again," Desjarlait says with a heavy pause. "They'll never run on the home floor again." The high school has produced strong teams off and on for decades, he notes, but the current Warriors may be the best yet, thanks to a pair of star seniors and the deepest bench anyone around here recalls. Hopes are high that come the weekend of March 16, the Warriors will be playing for a state championship.

Desjarlait has lived his whole life at Red Lake, save for stints in the army and college. He assumed the coaching job in 1991, eschewing the traditional half-court game for a fast-break, full-press approach that has both laid waste to Northland Conference rivals and further stoked local zeal for the game. Desjarlait can be disarmingly blunt ("I have no tact," he admits), and the team's fervent following seems to alternately exhilarate and aggravate him: "Everybody's a coach now," he says. "They're always there to second-guess you. These people had their chances. And now they're all pros? It pisses me off."

The Red Lake Indian Reservation is a sprawling swath of woods, prairie, and water, a little more than four hours north of the Twin Cities and larger than the state of Rhode Island. It includes four small towns, the biggest of which, Red Lake, serves as the reservation's capital. There are no motels, movie theaters, malls, or fast-food franchises. Unemployment runs between 40 and 65 percent, according to tribal treasurer Dan King, and average household income remains well below the federal poverty line. Of the 6,000 reservation residents, as many as 1,500 are known to show up for Warrior home games.

The conclusion, for outsiders, is almost too tempting. Tribal secretary Judy Roy has heard it a million times--the classic, melodramatic story of Red Lake basketball as "the one shining ray of hope for people who live in despair and hopelessness." Reality, she says, is more complicated, and harder to put into words. Warrior games, she says finally, help bring the community together in a way that transcends individual troubles. "It's like a mass joy. In an exciting game, you have the usually bashful Red Lake people jumping up and down and screaming and cheering all together. It's almost as though you're part of one living organism. It's the greatest natural high there is."

 

Byron Graves is not the biggest star on the team, though his status as its leading rebounder (11.6 boards per game) has scarcely gone unnoticed. In fact, very little about the team goes unnoticed. The starters have attained a remarkable sort of celebrity--a small-town version of fame that both rivals and mimics its big-league counterpart. Banners celebrating "Warrior Pride" are plastered across the reservation. Players are tapped for speaking appearances at elementary schools, and they discuss their "role model" status with the casual aplomb of ten-year NBA veterans. After games, they are besieged by throngs of fans who present every conceivable surface for an autograph: souvenir balls, pennants, programs, dollar bills, jackets, and, occasionally, flesh.

"You can't do anything without people wanting to talk to you for half an hour," Graves--an aspiring poet who stops to scribble a few lines during a break from the lay-up drills--says after practice one day. Being a Warrior, he adds, has turned him from a video-game-playing loner into the kind of guy who likes to make people guess what color he'll dye his hair next. "Basketball made me from a nobody into somebody," he says, running his hands through magenta-tipped locks.

Graves's best friend these days is fellow junior Joe Nayquonabe, the Warriors' other starting forward. Nayquonabe, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibway, grew up in Onamia, about three hours away. This school year, though, he is staying with Graves's family in their home a few miles down the road from the town center on a wooded lot near the shores of Lower Red Lake. Nayquonabe made the decision to transfer schools and move in with virtual strangers after watching the Warriors play at a 1996 Christmas tournament in Crosby, some 30 miles from his family's home. "You could sense the pride," he says. "I wanted to be a part of it. And I want to win a championship. A championship would matter more here than anywhere else."

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