Dream Hoops

Joe Allen

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."

Lots of people, Nayquonabe says, get their impression of Red Lake from the scattered accounts that surface in the media--reports of alcoholism, poverty, and, especially, crime. (Just last month a reservation murder made the Twin Cities papers: 24-year-old man found shot to death in a home. Tribal police say they have "a couple of suspects," though no arrests have been made yet.) But, says Nayquonabe, stories like that tend to miss important, less obvious aspects of life on the reservation. The tightness. The support. The big extended families. It's different, he says, from Mille Lacs, where a booming resort economy--and a big casino--have shifted a lot of attention to money.

Nayquonabe and Byron Graves have the same words inscribed on their basketball shoes: "The Outsiders." It's a reference, Joe explains, to a professional wrestling tandem featured on TNT's Nitro. Because both draw less attention than other Warrior starters, they say they identify with the Outsiders moniker. "Byron said it perfectly," Joe explains. "It's like we're a painting. Gerald and Delwyn are the paint. Me and Byron are the canvas. Nobody sees the canvas, but you couldn't have a painting without it."

Around Red Lake, if you mention the names Gerald and Delwyn, everyone knows who you're talking about: Gerald Kingbird, a soft-spoken point guard who lets his silky court moves do the talking, and Delwyn Holthusen Jr., a six-foot-six shot-blocking and slam-dunking center. The duo established their place in local hoops lore two years ago, and even current teammates speak of them with some awe. "I'd play with them the rest of my life if I could," says Chris Branchaud, a reserve shooting guard.

As sophomores, Holthusen and Kingbird started for the team that, as they say, went to state. That year, 1997, some 7,000 Native Americans--many from Red Lake, others from throughout Minnesota and surrounding states--flocked to the St. Paul Civic Center to watch the first all-Indian team to play in the state high school basketball tournament. To this day, Red Lakers fondly recall bumping into long-lost expatriates at the games. They joke that the reservation turned into a giant ghost town. The proprietor of The Other Store, one of two groceries in the hamlet of Redby, put out a sign that read, "Last one out of town, turn out the lights."

In the end the Warriors lost with style. They took fourth place in Class A--the division for the state's smallest schools--after falling to the Wabasso Rabbits in overtime, 113-117. The game total of 230 points was the highest in the tournament's 85-year history. Wabasso tied the tournament mark for most three-pointers (11). But nothing was more memorable than the Warriors' 43-point fourth-quarter rally. Kingbird, who has played with the varsity since eighth grade, scored 19 in that period alone, 37 in the game. Holthusen fouled out before OT but still racked up 30 points. When the game ended, players from both teams embraced.

Many Red Lakers still struggle to describe the experience. "People think that words can explain something like that, but there's no words for it," says Holthusen, the normally talkative, outgoing star and senior class president. Then he adds simply, "We showed everybody what we're all about."

Coach Desjarlait says he cried tears of joy that night. For decades, he says, Red Lake has produced good, even near-great, teams that always seemed to fizzle. But the gritty showing in the Wabasso game erased much of the pent-up frustration. "We won more in losing than we would have in winning," he says. "I don't know if you can understand that."

Just two months after that defeat, the Warriors suffered a very different sort of loss. At a graduation party in Redby, Wesley Strong, a reserve guard on the team, was stabbed in the heart. Two men who had crashed the party were arrested and charged with Strong's murder. Both were acquitted last October following a three-day trial in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.  

Strong's death is a subject about which few at Red Lake wish to speak openly. Desjarlait says only that it was "my worst nightmare." Others privately provide sketchy accounts about drunken brawls, old feuds, and unreliable witnesses. On the reservation, just about everyone knew Wesley or the accused men or some family member. Nobody wants to step on toes by offering details. Grudges, notes Desjarlait, can last a long time at Red Lake.

Gary Strong, a senior at Red Lake High School and Wesley's younger brother, made varsity this year. Like Wesley, Gary has spent his time on the team as a backup. Known to friends and family as "Baby Gare" or just "Baby," he wears a Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt and Wu-Tang Clan earrings. On the basketball court, he wears Wesley's number, 42, which has been taken out of retirement for the season.

Gary speaks about Wesley in the present tense, though he seldom broaches the subject of his brother with teammates. "They all know what happened," he says slowly, nervously tapping his fingers on his arm. "Drinking. Too much alcohol." Gary lives in Redby with his mother Mavis, a teacher's aide at Red Lake Elementary; and Brandon, his 22-year-old brother. His mother still cries a lot, he says, and Brandon is still looking for work. Gary isn't sure what he'll do in the future. Join the air force. Maybe just move. Maybe stay. "People say it's boring here. I have no phone and no cable, but I like it," he smiles. Tonight Gary is sure what he'll do: make his first appearance as a starter for the Warriors.


Over a three-dollar luncheon plate at the tribal nutrition program for the elderly, just down the road from the Thunder Cafe, Bob Head and Pete Strong chew over the details of Warrior hoops. They grumble about questionable officiating. They speculate whether certain players might be getting a little, well, complacent. But for the most part the two lifelong Red Lake residents praise the Warriors. Like many people on the reservation, they think this could finally be their year.

With rare exceptions Head, 72, and Strong, 65, make it to all the games. In the Northland Conference, Red Lake is famous for sending contingents of 200 to 300 people to regular-season road games, occasionally dwarfing the rival home crowds. In a February 16 contest at Pine River, a full two hours from Red Lake, half of the fans in the packed gym came from the reservation. "Everybody waits all summer for basketball," says Head. "Now we're all waiting for Friday." His friend Strong echoes a sentiment common among Red Lakers--that the Warriors have finally brought the community some positive press. A few weeks ago, when a flattering story about the team appeared in USA Weekend, Red Lakers eagerly snapped up extra copies of the Sunday supplement. "For once we got something good," says Strong, "rather than reading about someone getting killed."

Over the years perceptions of Red Lake have been tarnished by episodes of mayhem, the most notorious being the riots that broke out in 1979 following the firing of a tribal secretary. Dissidents set fire to three government buildings (including a then-new $1.2 million jail), the town's only two stores, a laundromat, and three homes (including the residence of former tribal chair Roger Jourdain). Two youths died in the upheaval.

The unrest was hardly the only setback the Red Lake Band has experienced since moving to this part of northwestern Minnesota in the mid-18th century. In the late 1800s, loggers illegally clear-cut their forests. A series of treaties and other agreements with the federal government resulted in the ceding of vast tracts of land. Yet, unlike most tribes around the nation, Red Lake never succumbed to government pressure for "allotment," the divvying up of tribal lands among individual band members. In most of Indian country, allotment resulted in a steady hemorrhaging of real estate--especially valuable agricultural and lakefront properties--as inexperienced, desperate, or merely naive landowners sold to white buyers. The Leech Lake Reservation, located in the heart of Minnesota's vacationlands, retains just five percent of the real estate within its borders. The Red Lake Band's holdings, on the other hand, now constitute about two-thirds of all the tribally owned land in Minnesota--about 1,200 square miles.

To this day, tribal members revere their 19th-century chiefs for their foresight in resisting allotment. That decision, they say, enabled the band to retain not only land, but also an unusual measure of independence. Because Red Lake insisted on clinging to communal ownership, it now stands as one of only two so-called closed reservations in the U.S. (The other is the Wasco Reservation in Warm Springs, Oregon.) In Minnesota, Red Lake is the only reservation over which the state has no criminal or civil jurisdiction; crimes are investigated by a tribal police force and--in the case of murder and other major felonies--the FBI. The band was the first in the U.S. to issue tribal license plates, and it is the only one of the state's seven Ojibway bands that does not belong to an umbrella organization called the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.  

For much of the past 100 years, Red Lakers have derived much of their living from the famously vast schools of walleye of Lower and Upper Red Lake. But in the early '90s, the catches started to decline, and soon the walleye populations crashed. Overharvesting is cited most often as the cause. Some old-timers suspect that agricultural pollutants and wastewater discharges had something to do with the calamity. Others believe it was part of a natural cycle. Either way, two years ago the Red Lake Fisheries Association placed an indefinite moratorium on walleye harvesting. A federally funded $75,000-a-year restocking program is set to begin, but no one knows when--or if--the fish population will recover.

The tribe, already the major employer on the reservation, has been scrambling to create new jobs and expand existing enterprises, including a new modular-home plant that opened in Redby in February. Officials hope it will employ up to 170 people someday. Other than that, private enterprise--with the exception of a few cafés and small stores--is virtually nonexistent; Red Lake's main shopping district is the highway strip outside Bemidji, the town of 11,000 some 30 miles away that serves as an economic hub for much of north-central Minnesota.

Relations between the two communities have often been strained. "People in Bemidji are terrified of Red Lake, like there's murder here all the time." says Floyd "Buck" Jourdain, a counselor at Red Lake High School. "You see articles about Red Lake and it's all gloom and suicide and poverty. We've been given a bad name."

At the Thunder Cafe, everyone has a story about Bemidji. The dishwasher and mother who endures suspicious glances at the mall. The waitress in the "Fuck Milk, Got Pot?" T-shirt who has trouble obtaining bank loans. And so on. Bernadine Thunder, an amiable grandmother who rises before dawn five days a week to bake fresh rolls and bread at her café, says Red Lakers have long faced subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, discrimination from their neighbors to the south. In the late '70s, Thunder recalls, tribal members went so far as to institute a boycott of the city, taking their business to Grand Forks, North Dakota, about two hours away. Things have improved since, she says, then adds with a sigh, "Bemidji will always be Bemidji."

Local lore has it that even the Warriors' sole loss this season--at the hands of a top-ranked team from Warsaw, Illinois, in an out-of-state tournament--came courtesy of Bemidji. Desjarlait, along with his assistant coach, insists that a former coach at Bemidji State University scouted the Warriors on behalf of Warsaw just before the December matchup at the Coca-Cola/KMOX Radio Shootout in St. Louis. The alleged breach of regional loyalty is said to have given Warsaw a big advantage: Red Lake, which lost 71-48, went into the game blind against a team that knew all of their plays by name.


Just east of the heart of downtown Red Lake sits a low-slung red-brick building surrounded by a six-foot chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The fence was erected around Red Lake High School a few years back in response to a rising tide of summertime vandalism. Even some school employees complain that it makes the place look too much like a prison, an impression bolstered by the constant presence of both a guard and a metal detector at the main entrance. A video monitor connected to hallway cameras provides constant surveillance of the 260-some students.

According to counselor Keith Lussier, the metal detector was installed three or four years ago after a student showed up on school grounds with a gun. He says there haven't been incidents of serious violence at the school in recent years, though, and characterizes the security measures as a mere precaution. They help some students and parents feel safe, he says.

Gangs remain a problem, Lussier says, with affiliations often imported when Red Lakers return to the reservation after spending a few years in tough urban neighborhoods. "Things happen. Jobs fizzle out or are not there. Housing crumbles. And so families make their way back," explains the counselor, a veteran of the American Indian Movement who grew up in North Minneapolis. "The kids come back walking, acting, and wearing the clothes of gang culture. And they start to influence the other kids. Some of them have never been off the reservation other than Bemidji, but they see all this and they start acting out."  

Still, Lussier asserts, the gang menace has been exaggerated. He says much of the visible evidence--the symbols scribbled all over the walls of public bathrooms--come from wannabes who take their cues from television. Until the past decade, television viewers in Red Lake could seldom pick up more than one station. Cable wasn't an option for the mostly rural residences, and old-style dishes cost a lot. The relatively inexpensive new models, however, have been a big hit. They are mounted on the roofs of some of the most remote housing on the reservation, and parents and teachers worry that TV is muddling kids' sense of identity.

"I didn't know my family was poor until I was 18 years old," says Judy Roy, the tribal secretary. "We were all in the same boat. Now we have Friends to compare ourselves against, a world that isn't real." Elders like Pete Strong think maybe that's why the kids don't ever seem to use the town sledding hill anymore.

The school has other, more concrete difficulties. Truancy remains epidemic. Officials have stepped up efforts to combat the problem (truants are referred to tribal court), but there are still 50 to 60 "chronic" cases, says principal Chris Dunshee. Perhaps in part because of that, the Red Lake school district has ranked dead last in state-mandated reading and math proficiency exams each year since testing began in 1996.

According to Patricia Grace, the school's Educational Effectiveness coordinator, there are some signs of progress. In January 45 students who had failed to meet the state's minimum standards voluntarily attended "CramSchool," an intensive four-day-a-week tutorial program. Grace, who has worked in the school district since 1985, predicts the next round of testing will show better results. Attitudes about academics are changing, she says. "When I first started, there weren't many kids that talked about life after high school," she notes, "but now they see a future."

Desjarlait, the coach, says he preaches the virtues of education to his players every chance he gets--like the other day, when a couple of the Warriors conceded ignorance of their own grade point averages. "I said, 'You better damn well know what your GPA is.' I said, 'Numbers mean a lot.' I asked them, 'Do you know what the universal language is?' One of them finally said: 'Mathematics.' I asked them what the dots are for on the pool table. Are they just pretty little decorations? What are they? If you know those dots, you can make any shot on the pool table, because they're all tied in with mathematics." He concludes with a characteristic zinger: "I don't know them. Otherwise I'd be playing pool somewhere."

In conversation, Desjarlait likes to digress. He segues abruptly from wry to cryptic, a tactic that keeps his players both amused and attentive. "Sometime you might ask me a question and I might not even give you an answer to that. I'll go off somewhere else," he explains. "Sometimes I'll answer your question with another question. A lot of people notice that about me." Yet Desjarlait is blunt about the challenges the Warriors face in terms of education, jobs, and, he notes pointedly, peer pressure. "It just takes one person to drag down 15, that's what I tell these kids," he says.

Last season, after a strong squad got bumped out of the postseason tournament early (by the eventual Class A champs, Norman County East), Desjarlait discovered that some of his seniors had been partying in the days leading up to the game. "I was madder than hell," Desjarlait says now. "You can't drink and play ball. You have no timing, no hand-eye coordination. They thought they could rise above it. They got full of themselves. They thought they were going to be idolized the rest of their lives, but everybody on the reservation knows what they did."

According to the coach, "that underlying alcohol factor" has played a role in the team's fortunes "for 10, 20, maybe 40 years." This year, he says, his players seem to be a sober bunch. He thinks some of the graduating seniors will make it to college--and maybe even play some ball. Two past Red Lake graduates (including Randy "Peach" Holthusen, Delwyn's nephew and the seventh-highest scorer in the history of Minnesota high school basketball) are currently playing for United Tribes, a junior college in Bismarck, North Dakota.

But by and large, Red Lake kids have struggled in their forays into higher education, and Desjarlait--who received his degree from Bemidji State University--is openly discouraged. "The education is out there if you want to bust your ass and get it," he says. "But most of them get jobs or families and get tied down. If I don't see it change, maybe I'll give up. Seems like all my work's for nothing." Maybe, he muses, he'll try living in Alaska for a few years while he's still a relatively young man.  

Warriors star senior Gerald Kingbird plans to remain in Red Lake, with his girlfriend and her three-year-old daughter. He says he'd like to enroll at Bemidji State and get a degree with an eye toward teaching on the reservation one day. "I want to be a role model," he says. "Red Lake needs more male Indian teachers." Delwyn Holthusen, the standout center, says he's definitely going to college, probably a Division II school where he would have a chance at a basketball scholarship to finance a computer-science degree.

Already Holthusen works part of each school day at the Tribal Council offices, installing software, modems, and the like. His mother Millie thinks her son will do well off the reservation. After three years of starring for the Warriors, she says, he has proved he can deal with pressure. "I don't think a lot of people understand what these kids go through," she explains. "There's some jealousy. Some people don't think that a Native American can succeed--or should succeed."

On the day of the Warriors' final home game, Red Lake hosts another sort of competition: the first annual Red Lake Anishinabe Knowledge Bowl. The Jeopardy!-style game is designed to measure knowledge of Ojibway custom and language with bits of pop culture thrown in for good measure. (Clue: This Charlie's Angel has American Indian ancestry. Correct answer: Farrah Fawcett.) The teams consist of four students apiece, each team representing one of six high schools on or near northern Minnesota reservations. The contest is held in a small, linoleum-floored gymnasium--not the newer court that is home to the Warriors. Nonetheless, more than a few Warriors are present, and two varsity reserves, Jon Mountain and Chris Branchaud, are representing Red Lake. In the end Red Lake finishes in second place.


As game time approaches later that afternoon, Desjarlait stresses the need to keep his kids on an even keel. The Warriors have been the top-ranked small-school team in the state all season, and that status has made them the team to beat. "You've got to tell 'em they're getting too big-headed--break 'em down," he explains. "The season gets long, and they've got to get real focused." Holthusen echoes the coach's anti-overconfidence message: "Getting your name in the paper isn't anything," he says. "Even getting a ranking doesn't mean anything. It's just a number on a piece of paper."

Indeed the Warriors' road toward the state tournament hasn't been without bumps. Three weeks ago they surrendered a big lead to a rival school, Blackduck, only to pull out the victory on a three-point buzzer shot by sophomore Clyde "Sonny" Perkins. Then, in a road game against a smaller but hard-shooting Pine River-Backus team, the Warriors nearly blew a hefty fourth-period lead. Tonight's game, though, is against Lake of the Woods High School. They're from Baudette, a hockey town. Desjarlait says he has heard they're not too good this year.

As the Warriors file into the locker room, the coach sits to the side, studying paperwork, a lit Marlboro dangling from his lips. Tonight he'll start with an all-senior lineup. Three of those seniors--Dave Rosebear, Jon Mountain, and Gary Strong--spent most of the season on the bench or in mop-up roles.

Desjarlait doesn't bother much with nostalgic sentiment. "I don't know what I'm supposed to say to you guys tonight," he begins, and then launches into a halfhearted effort to convince them that Lake of the Woods could be tough. "After the first quarter, I'm going to put the starters back in," he warns, "so hopefully you can do a little damage." He loosens up the Warriors with some light patter, and they hit the floor.

The bleachers on both sides of the gym are packed, and fans are still chuckling over the warm-up act: The Warriors' B-team has just dispatched its Lake of the Woods counterpart 72-35. A row of older fans in wheelchairs lines one wall, a testament to the elevated rate of diabetes in the Indian population. Before the tip-off, four men assemble in a drum circle for the traditional Ojibway flag song--pounding rhythms interlaced with keening vocals.

The game is a laugher. The kids from Baudette, it turns out, can't run with Red Lake's fast-break offense. They can't go to the boards. They can't really even shoot. Ah, but the Warriors can. The crowd thrills as Holthusen grabs a rebound and dishes it off to Kingbird, who delivers a graceful finger roll in heavy traffic. The Warriors jump out to a 29-13 lead, though three of the normal starters haven't yet played.  

By halftime, with Joe Nayquonabe and Byron Graves back in the lineup, Red Lake is up 55-30. Desjarlait instructs his players to remain on the floor as a grade-school dance team runs through a ragged but enthusiastic routine, accompanied by the synth-pop of the old Eurythmics hit "Sweet Dreams." Final score: 123-50, the most points ever scored by Red Lake High as far as anyone can recall.

Fans pour onto the court to celebrate and shake hands, and Gerald Kingbird, who scored 22 points despite playing only half the game, is quickly surrounded. For the next 20 minutes, he signs autographs and politely answers questions from a few reporters. About the looming end of his career as a Warrior: "Pretty sad." About problems on the reservation: "Getting better." About his plans for the future: "Bemidji State."

Across the gym Gary Strong is lying down on center court, eyes wide and cast upward. He's smiling. He's a starter. He's wearing Wesley's number.

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