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For Native American athletes, basketball is more than a game

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By Nora Mabie GREAT FALLS TRIBUNE
ASSOCIATED PRESS

GREAT FALLS — In his first game of the season, Rocky Boy High School basketball player Ben “Benji” Crebs was unstoppable.

The 5-foot-11-inch sophomore shot the ball nearly every chance he got against Box Elder High School, a rival team sharing the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation. Located in the Bears Paw mountains in northcentral Montana, Rocky Boy is home to 2,500 members of the Chippewa Cree tribe.

Benji has full cheeks, deep dimples and a wide smile. Despite his boyish look, he’s a fierce competitor. His coach describes him as an aggressive athlete who’s maturing into an outspoken leader, and teammates say he brings them up when they’re down, one dubbing him “our inspirational guy.”

Benji knew Box Elder was a big game. He listened to rapper Eminem in the locker room, and when he stepped on the court, he was ready. The game was close and went into double overtime.

“I can’t lose to these guys,” he thought during the game. We’re the best team on this rez.”

Benji scored 35 points that game, helping his team secure the victory.

“I felt amazing,” he said. “I was free.”

Basketball has always been an escape for Benji – a way to conquer insecurities and distract from home life stress and past trauma, but after he scored “the big 35,” as he calls it, he began to feel pressure.

Benji told the Great Falls Tribune that every game day, people would approach him in the hallways, during class and at lunch, saying things like, “I want you to score 20 points today” or “I want to see 30 points from you.”

He didn’t want to let his community down, but he knew it would be hard to beat, or even come close to, “the big 35,” so when people said they expected him to score, he said, “I can try.”

Benji was stressed. The next few games he “came out cold” and didn’t score as many points. That made him more stressed.

He was in a slump.

Just as for Benji, for most Rocky Boy High School players, basketball is more than just a game.

The sport is huge in Native American communities, drawing hundreds of proud fans at games. There are no bowling alleys, movie theaters, restaurants or even large grocery stores in Rocky Boy, so basketball gives players and fans something to do.

Basketball also distracts from struggles at home and provides an outlet for players to relieve stress, frustration or sadness. The sport often connects players to their deceased loved ones, and some players say it helps them avoid substance abuse and stay on track for “the good life.”

For many, basketball becomes family, where coaches stand in as parents, and teammates become brothers and sisters.

When Adam Demontiney moved from Great Falls to Rocky Boy when he was in the third grade, he was teased because he didn’t play basketball.

He had wrestled and played baseball, soccer and football, so he found it odd that people fixated on his lack of involvement in one of the few sports he hadn’t tried.

“It was crazy,” he recalled. “When I came up here, basketball was everything.”

Demontiney said he didn’t like the sport at first and wasn’t very good.

“But after I saw how much everybody loved it and how they took it serious, I tried to slowly adapt to it. So I got more and more into it. By the time I was in fifth grade, I was a decent player,” he said.

Demontiney, now 36 years old, played for Rocky Boy High School and has been coaching the boys’ basketball team for six years.

Like it was for Demontiney when he was younger, current players and community members say basketball is still everything. Children watch high school games, idolize local players and travel to tournaments across the state.

“Every weekend, I’m pretty sure the whole rez goes to Rocky Boy games or Box Elder games,” said Jaynah Gopher, 18, a senior captain on the Rocky Boy girls’ team.

When they win, some players are hailed as community heroes, but as they cultivate celebrity status, fans hold them to higher standards.

“It’s always been basketball,” said senior boys’ player Frankie Bacon. “They’ll shut down school, close the tribal office and the courts (for the district tournament) so everyone from the rez will watch us play. It feels good when people come, but if we lose, they get mad. No other sport is like this.”

Basketball is also pervasive within families. Many boast generations of players, each new player feeling pressure and pride to honor their relatives’ legacy.

“It’s in my blood,” said Kirsten LaMere, whose grandfather, Bobby Small, coached for the high school. Her grandfather died in 2009, and when Kirsten plays basketball, people often mention his name, telling her what he would have wanted, or how he would have coached her.

“It makes me feel mad sometimes,” she said. “But also happy that people keep his memory going, but mad because people didn’t know him like I did.”

One player admitted she doesn’t like basketball very much but feels she is expected to play.

Even non-Native teams recognize the game’s unique position within Native communities.

“It’s a different atmosphere and a unique experience,” Fairfield coach Dustin Gordon said of playing against Native teams. “It’s a heated environment, it’s fun, it’s loud, it’s intense. People will come up to you after the game to shake your hand if they respect you. When you play other rival teams, they may say something to you after the game, but it probably won’t be respectful.”

Superintendent of Rocky Boy High School Voyd St. Pierre said basketball is the “king sport in Indian Country,” adding that the community thrives on it.

But St. Pierre knows basketball is also invaluable to the players.

“For some of these kids, basketball is the reason they’re here. It’s the reason why they get up every day. It’s the reason why they try to keep academically eligible,” he said, adding that athletes must keep their grades above a C average to play. “It also gives those kids that may not have a parent at home, a little structure in their lives.”

But it’s not just basketball that’s big in Rocky Boy–it’s high school basketball. Even former high school standouts who go on to play in college say that high school ball is more competitive and attracts more fans than college games.

“It’s inconvenient,” said Sean Henry, 19, Rocky Boy alumna and current Stone Child College player. “Our games are on Saturdays at noon. No one comes because they’re all at the high school games.”

Short for “reservation ball,” rez ball is a style of play associated with Native teams. Characterized by running and shooting rather than practiced plays or “fancy moves,” rez ball is a fast-paced strategy proving hard to defend.

“Native teams play at a different level,” said Gordon, whose team competes in District 1B with Rocky Boy. “They play fast, forcing even the most disciplined teams to play undisciplined, at times. And it works to their advantage.”

Though rez ball is celebrated as a quintessential style among Native teams, it has a complex history, stemming from the United States government’s assimilation policies. During the late 1860s through the 1960s, Native American children were taken from their homes and forced to attend boarding schools, where they were punished, often in the form of physical abuse, for engaging with Indigenous traditions.

It was at these schools that Native children played basketball, adding their unique style to the traditional game.

Though the Rocky Boy basketball teams don’t rely on rez ball, players always smile when they talk about it, describing the style of play as an ephemeral force that they “just slip into.”

“We get carried away with it,” said senior basketball player Blake Cantrell. “We sometimes have to remember to slow it down to the other team’s tempo.”

His teammate, Benji, agrees.

“We don’t practice rez ball. It just happens naturally in a game. And (Demontiney) will let it happen because it works. Until it doesn’t, and then he tells us to slow it down,” he said.

Though Benji was proud of himself for scoring “the big 35,” the day before that game hadn’t been easy for him.

His team hosted a family gathering at Rocky Boy High School, where parents and players came together for a meal before the start of the season.

Benji’s mom died when he was 12, so he brought his grandparents to the event. When he saw his teammates’ mothers, Benji broke down. He missed her.

“She always wanted to see me play varsity basketball,” he thought.

But Benji wasn’t always good at basketball. When he was in fourth grade, he was bullied.

He was shorter than his peers, and he remembers regularly being picked last for a team at recess. Even if he was on a team, Benji struggled to make layups, which made the teasing worse.

“I was scared to go to school every day,” he said.

To avoid the bullies, he stopped playing basketball, spending recess on the playground rather than the court. When Benji told his mom about the bullies, she had him repeat the fourth grade, so he wouldn’t be around them.

Benji spent a year without basketball, but when he was in fifth grade, he started going to the fitness center every day to practice. His mom often joined him. A former Rocky Boy High School player herself, Benji’s mom provided tough competition and would regularly steal the ball from him. But she made basketball fun, too, initiating games of H-O-R-S-E with Benji and his younger brother.

But when his mom passed away, Benji was lost.

“She wanted to see me score big games and dunk the basketball. Now that she was gone, for a while it was like, you know, who do I have now?” Benji said. “I didn’t know who to play for.”

That’s when he decided to get serious about basketball.

“Alright,” he thought. “I’m going to try to do everything we talked about.”

Soon, Benji didn’t struggle with layups, and people were eager to pick him for their teams at recess.

Benji, now 17 years old, imagines his mom is still with him, and when he plays basketball, he tries to make her proud. He doesn’t think it was a coincidence that he scored “the big 35” the day after the family event where he thought of her.

“Almost everything I do now is for her,” he said.

Benji isn’t the only one playing for someone else. Most players on the girls’ and boys’ basketball teams play for a loved one who can’t. By playing for others, some players feel a greater sense of purpose, which keeps them motivated.

In the last few years, Kirsten LaMere has lost her grandfather, uncle and friend Lacey, all of whom played basketball. Kirsten, 16, is soft-spoken. She has long brown hair and the corners of her mouth form sharp points when she smiles.

When her uncle died, she said her father struggled.

“He didn’t know how to grieve, and he still doesn’t grieve,” she said, adding that he used alcohol to cope.

When things at home got worse, Kirsten, her mom and brother moved to Havre, off the reservation about 25 miles north of Rocky Boy. That’s when Kirsten decided to focus more on basketball.

“I used basketball as something to escape home life for, or whatever is going on,” she said.

Things were going well after Kirsten moved to Havre, but in December, her friend Lacey Kaide Arkinson was killed in a hit-and-run crash.

“It’s still surreal. Everything is still so surreal,” she said, her voice trailing off.

But Kirsten tries to honor her deceased family members and friend. Before every home game, when the flag song plays, she thinks of them.

“I think of how they would want me to play,” her voice wavered. “How they would look down on me, or something like that.”

For some players, however, playing with purpose can be overwhelming, causing them to put too much pressure on themselves.

It’s no secret that senior boys’ player Blake Cantrell gets upset during games. If he misses a shot or pass, he bows his head and slouches his shoulders. Sometimes he yells at teammates or officials. Standing 6-feet-2-inches tall and muscular, he’s one of the bigger players on the team. Blake, 17, can be intimidating; he speaks in short sentences and often wears a stern look on his face.

But Blake is also thoughtful, and highly critical oaf himself. He knows he gets discouraged during games and works on keeping his composure.

“I get very emotional,” he admitted. “Everyone sees it. A bunch of people tell me they see me get frustrated.”

Coach Demontiney said that many players struggle with mental toughness or keeping their composure when things go wrong.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the home life,” he said. “You get parents that ain’t always there for (the kids), and then when they are there, they want to baby their kid. So the kids aren’t used to being told ‘no,’ and a foul is like being told ‘no.”’

Blake gets most upset when he misses.

“I just want to make every shot and do everything right, perfect it,” he said. “I got people I play for and I don’t want to let them down.”

Blake plays for his best friend, Dakoda-Crow Bucking Horse Gray Boy, nicknamed “Horse,” who died in a car crash in 2017. Blake was in school when elders and teachers told him about the sudden death of his friend, offering comfort and support.

“It was really hard. Really, really hard,” he said.

Blake said losing his friend is the reason he is hard on himself during games. He doesn’t just want to play well; he wants to play perfectly for Horse, who can’t. But it’s not easy for Blake. As a senior, he said it’s even harder to control his emotions.

“I kind of miss being led. I’m still learning how to lead,” he confessed.

Horse was a Rocky Boy basketball player, and the team, whose mascot is the Northern Stars, still honors him with a cheer before every game.

“Stars on three, Horse on six!” they shout in unison, huddled in the locker room. “One, two, three, Stars! Four, five, six, Horse!”

Horse’s dad still supports the team, and before every game, Blake gives him a hug. When Blake was a sophomore, Horse’s dad had the 2017-18 boys’ team sign a basketball. Scrawled Sharpie signatures cover the ball, and the words “RIP #24 for Horse” are written in big letters across the center. Each year, Horse’s dad gives the ball to a different player on the team. Blake has the ball this year, and he carries it everywhere. Unlike the players before him, Blake plans to keep the ball, and he said his teammates, who he calls his “brothers,” want him to keep the ball, too.

“It’s his baby,” his teammate Joe Demontiney joked.

Blake hugged the ball and nodded.

Senior Frankie Bacon is tough. He has long, shaggy hair and walks with confidence. He usually wears a backwards hat and earrings in both ears. Though he’s tall and muscular, Frankie is approachable. He’s honest with himself and laughs easily.

“If you need anyone, Frankie will be there for you,” said teammate Joe Demontiney.

But Frankie struggles with his emotions. For him, basketball is a way to relieve stress.

“I get really mad sometimes . like when a kid says something to me that’s really bad, I don’t know I can’t explain it,” he said. “I try not to take my anger out on anything else. So I just play basketball so I don’t say anything bad or get in trouble.”

Sometimes when he’s angry, Frankie asks his friends to play ball with him.

“We’ll joke around while we’re playing. I’ll start laughing again, and it makes me feel better,” he said.

But basketball doesn’t always appease Frankie’s anger.

In January, he got in a fight and broke his right hand. Though he didn’t notice it during the fight, Frankie said when he looked down at his hand afterward, he saw bones poking through his skin.

“I got shocked, and it hurt my belly,” he said, adding that he vomited for half an hour before his girlfriend took him to hospital.

Frankie got a plate and four screws in his hand. It’s his last high school season, and it wasn’t guaranteed that he’d have the opportunity to play with his team again.

“I acted like I didn’t care, but I was mad .” he paused. “And pretty sad about it. Because it’s my last year, and a lot of people are counting on me.”

Frankie, 18, has been living with coach Adam Demontiney on and off for two and a half years. Acting as a father figure and role model for many players, Demontiney has opened his home to athletes for years.

But Adam and his wife, India, have rules.

“If they stay here, they have to be in school and keep their grades up. And no sleeping over with girlfriends,” said India. “Oh, and the biggest thing is we have no secrets in this house. No secrets allowed.”

Like a lot of his players, Demontiney grew up without a father figure.

“It took a lot for me to open up to people,” he said. “I guess you could say I had trust issues, and I’m sure maybe some of the kids have the same issue trusting people. So that’s one of the main things I’m trying to get – their trust.”

Though sometimes it’s hard for players to adjust to new rules and structure, Frankie has no trouble being honest with the Demontineys.

“I consider Adam and India my mom and dad,” he said. When he came home after breaking his hand, Frankie wasn’t afraid to tell them about it.

“I tell them everything. Everything that’s on my mind,” Frankie said. “I don’t talk to other people like that, just them. I just feel safe there.”

Unable to play with a broken hand, Frankie said it’s harder to control his emotions. Now, he relieves stress at Demontiney’s house playing video games with his teammates.

Demontiney pays attention to his players and is mindful of the struggles they face.

“I can see when a kid is having a bad day. You can see it in their face at practice,” Demontiney said. “It’s like they don’t want to be there, but they’re there.”

Demontiney said he makes sure they always work hard at practice, but then he tries to end it with something fun.

“I try to bring them up before they leave so they’re not leaving practice all mad and go home and make a dumb choice while they’re mad or maybe go drink a beer because they’re mad,” he said.

Demontiney’s influence extends beyond high school. He keeps in touch with his former players, and his home remains open to them. He also invites players to work for his construction company in the summer, but they must follow rules there, too.

Rocky Boy basketball standout and current Stone Child College player Kendall Windy Boy, 21, was the first player to live with Demontiney. He also spent a summer working for his construction company, which inspired him to major in building and trades.

Though basketball relieves stress for some, it induces stress for others.

Until recently, basketball had been an escape for sophomore Mariah Arkinson.

“I grew up without a dad. It was hard for me, and basketball just took my mindset away from that,” she said.

But over the last year, Mariah, 16, has been struggling with anxiety. She has long, dark hair and speaks in a low, steady voice. The girls’ team has had three coaches in the last three years. They struggle with consistency, and Mariah gets frustrated when they don’t get results.

“We could be doing a whole lot better than we’re doing right now,” she thought of her team before the Harlem game. That’s when her anxiety set in. She knew she was overthinking things, but she couldn’t calm down.

“I kind of had a panic attack during warmups. When I was out on the court, I almost cried because it was getting bad. So I asked for a sub and tried to relax.”

After sitting out for a bit, when Mariah got in the game, she played well.

“If I can get into it and focus on the game, I can take my mind off things,” she said.

For the third time in the last three years, the Rocky Boy boys’ team will play in the state tournament.

But Demontiney said his team “took the longest road possible to get here.” After losing their first game in the Northern B divisional tournament to Harlem, Rocky Boy had to win the next three games to advance.

“It took a lot to get here, and we had to fight through the mental part,” Demontiney said.

The state tournament is held at the Butte Civic Center, and the boys’ first game will be against Arlee on Thursday, March 12 at 1:30 p.m.

Despite their success, Demontiney said other teams underestimate them.

“People count us out because I start three sophomores and a freshman, and we’re not a very tall team,” he said. “But because we’re such a young team, the boys have a recklessness about them. They don’t show nerves, and they have nothing to lose.”

The girls’ team competed in the Northern B divisional tournament March 5-7.

Sophomore Angela Gopher is a high achiever, who aims to please.

She works hard in school and pays attention to the social issues in her community. Though she wasn’t comfortable speaking in public, Angela enrolled in a speech class after a teacher encouraged her to add it to her schedule. In the class, Angela prepared and delivered a speech on the graduation and dropout rates among Native Americans who live on reservations.

She wears big scrunchies in her hair, and she smiles often, flashing her blue braces.

Her father is the high school girls’ basketball coach, and Angela, 16, is painfully aware of concerns and criticism from community members about potential nepotism. Despite judgement from others, Angela looks up to her parents and takes pride in her family.

“There are expectations (when you live here), that you’re never going to leave the reservation, you’re going to be drunk, and you’re not going to do anything. But all these stereotypes – my parents just wiped them out. They went off the reservation, they did what they had to do, and they got a great education. They’re just my two heroes,” she said, adding that her parents both earned degrees in higher education.

Angela plans to attend college and either return to Rocky Boy to help the community or live somewhere new.

“College will be a big part of my life. I was always taught that you need education to help in the real world,” she said.

Basketball helps Angela stay focused on her future.

“Around here, there’s a lot of drugs and alcohol,” she said. “Basketball helps me, so I don’t fall into stuff like that. I’d rather go shoot around than go to a party, you know?”

Angela said that because basketball is well-respected in the community, it enables her to escape pressure in a way her peers understand.

“People get it if you wouldn’t want to party before a game,” she said.

The idea of using basketball to avoid peer pressure is common among the boys’ and girls’ teams. Many players say basketball helps them live “the good life,” or a sober lifestyle.

“Basketball keeps me out of trouble,” said sophomore Joe Demontiney, son of coach Adam Demontiney. “I work on my game instead of going out late and trying to be cool or something.”

Joe said he has a “good life.” He is grateful to live with both his parents in a stable home.

Though basketball helps players evade certain peers, sometimes drug and alcohol abuse occurs in players’ homes, making it impossible for them to ignore.

Benji never thought he’d be living “the good life.”

He remembers his mom and stepdad fighting when he was younger.

“I thought that was going to be the rest of my life, you know, fights and drugs and stuff,” he said.

After a few years, Benji said his grandparents realized his home wasn’t safe, so he and his brother moved in with them. When he moved, Benji said he expected “a few arguments and a few hits.”

“But I was surprised,” he said. “My grandparents never scream at each other or hit each other. It’s a sober home, and we’re just happy. I’m safe, and nobody can hurt me.”

Benji paused. “And it smells good, especially when Grandma gets that cooking going.”

Benji’s grandma, Jolene Crebs, used to work for the tribe as a drug and alcohol counselor. She is proud of Benji and his brother for being drug and alcohol free, and encourages them to pursue higher education.

“I tell them, ‘Both of your grandparents have their Master’s. You should get a P.h.D!'” she said.

When Benji’s mom died (Jolene’s daughter), Jolene quit her job so she could be home with her grandchildren. Every night, she helped Benji and his brother “smudge,” an Indigenous healing tradition involving the burning of sacred herbs.

Benji said Jolene is his role model.

“She taught me how to be a good man. You know, to be respectful to others, be respectful to women,” he said.

Though she supports Benji, Jolene, 68, admitted that she didn’t always understand the importance of basketball.

“At first, I thought (basketball) was overrated,” she conceded. “But now I see the value in character building for the boys. It teaches them how to be team players, get good grades and keep up their attendance. It teaches discipline.”

Benji likes to joke that Jolene “doesn’t know much about basketball,” and she likes to joke about Benji slowing down.

“Sometimes I wish he would be more cautious,” she said, eyeing her grandson across the dining table, perhaps anticipating his objection. Benji smirked. Avoiding eye contact, he fumbled a basketball between his hands.

“But I know that’s not possible for him,” Jolene added. “He’s too passionate about it, and I want to be as supportive as possible.”

Benji looked at his grandma and smiled.

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