SB Nation

Peter Rugg | January 14, 2015

The Fighting Indians Earn It

For coach Chad Kills Crow and the basketball team at Haskell Indian Nations University, nothing comes easy


The point guard scrawled his dreams on unlined paper and left them taped to the back of a doorless locker. Not that Blake Pittman wouldn't talk. I'd only been in the Coffin Rock Sports Complex at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., an hour, spent watching 2014 edition of the Haskell Fighting Indians drilling a rude style of ball and weighing the team's strengths and handicaps with Coach Chad Kills Crow. But most college basketball programs get used to tolerating journalists with a patience that neither the 5'10 senior guard nor his teammates at this NAIA Division II school have been given many opportunities to cultivate.

"When's ESPN showing up?" somebody cracked.

So when I snuck away from the practice and into the purple-walled locker room with the order "Clean This Place Up" shouting off the whiteboard and the promises they'd made to themselves still taped up, it was like peaking at a crush's diary.

Here is what Blake Pittman wanted for himself:

1.   Be a Leader
2.   Limit Turnovers
3.   Learn to be a team leader
4.   Win at All Costs
5.   Prove everybody wrong
6.   Make other teams feel like pussy's
7.   Win a championship
8.   Drop dimes
9.   Get buckets

***

You only need to drive 2 ½ miles with one right turn before you bump into the University of Kansas, where all those bullet point dreams you find hanging in the lockers at Haskell are just reasonable expectations. Because when ESPN does show up for college basketball around here, the cameras focus on the Allen Fieldhouse and the KU Jayhawks, a colossus by any standard of NCAA basketball, a team with 43 tournament appearances and three national titles. Its first coach, James Naismith, invented the game, and he's the only one in team history with a losing record. Wilt Chamberlain played here. In 2010, in the same month Barack Obama's pen signed the Affordable Health Care Act into law, he also used it to fill in KU as the winning pick on the presidential March Madness bracket.

Which is why it was no surprise when I drove into Lawrence that late October just three days before the Fighting Indian's season opener, to find an absence of pro-Haskell sentiment. No posters on the back of bar doors, no half-off pizza deals, no words of encouragement smudged in bar soap on a car's rear window, nothing in the ways college towns traditionally communicate manners of importance.

At first I even doubted the team cared. The men who lace up their sneakers at Coffin Sports Complex don't seem like they're waiting on anyone's approval.

I remembered Haskell, and a team that deserved to use their name. The Fighting Indians.

I worked in Kansas City as a journalist before leaving a few years ago. In that time I could remember reading one, maybe two stories about Haskell Indian Nations University. Every writer has stories in the back of their brain they plan to write eventually if they can find a gap between deadlines, or if an editor didn't stonewall the pitch, or if a hook would finally present itself. Haskell was one of mine.

More often than I'd like, those stories finish one of two ways: Either you get beat by a competitor or you move on and forget them. In this case, I never saw the Haskell story I wanted to write appear with another byline. Then, this summer, the Washington Redskins were in the news desperately trying to convince everyone that their name wasn't a slur, but a tribute to a great people, and pouting like toddlers that didn't want to go to bed when anyone disagreed. And I remembered Haskell, and a team that deserved to use their name.

The Fighting Indians.

***

Sophomore point guard Blake Pittman brings the ball up the court against McPherson.

Pittman dreams bigger than his teammates, or is at least more willing to put it on display. Give him the ball and the undersized point guard drives like he's confused the basketball court with an MMA cage. On the night of the season opener, he waits huddled down before his locker like the rest of them. Each has papers hanging above their heads confessing timid hopes. "Be coachable,+" is all another writes. The bolder want a winning season. Last year they went 7-22, but averaged more than 80 points a game. This year more half the squad is new, mostly freshman or transfers.

These Fighting Indians play for Haskell Indian Nations University. There are 40 tribal colleges scattered across the country, federally funded two-year programs primarily in small towns and reservations, but Haskell is the only four-year school. And if you trust the history, not all of the 14 players here tonight will be on campus come spring. The school's enrollment of 1,000 students, give or take, is low, partially because admissions are restrictive (to get in you must either be a member of a tribe recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or have one-fourth of your bloodline tied to a member) and partially because most of the students simply don't stay. Maybe one in 10 studying for a bachelor's will earn the degree. In 2010, Washington Monthly ranked the school 13th on a list of the 50 four-year colleges with the lowest graduation rates, a "dropout factory." Haskell officials have since claimed an official graduation rate of a little above 50 percent, mostly through semantics  reclassifying how students register and what programs and degrees they're pursuing. For many American Indian student-athletes, already just a sliver of a minority (the NCAA estimates about 3 percent of all high school basketball players will make it to the next level) this is the best opportunity they have to play college sports.

In the five years he's had the job, Coach Chad Kills Crow has led this team against the McPherson College Bulldog's eight times, running out the clock as losers every game. Only 160 miles away, the tiny liberal arts school of just over 600 students is one of Haskell's few true rivals. In four of the last five seasons they've played each other in the first game of the season. Haskell has taken McPherson to overtime, lost to a blind shot at the buzzer, been blown out. Last season they first lost 75-74, and then in a January rematch had them down by 18 points before the momentum turned and they finally fell, 112-104, only a month before the Bulldogs would go on to a shot at the NAIA Division II national title. Kills Crow still talks about that game the way you talk about the girl who left you and never said why.

He wants them to remember those losses, and use them as kindling for a fire this year. "I saw what they looked like, you saw what they looked like. They look like scrub-ass trash to me," Kills Crow tells them before the game. "I am so sick of losing to these guys. I don't give a shit if we go into 10 overtimes. Tonight is the night. And for those of you who are new here, welcome to college basketball."

Three of these kids are freshman, half sophomores, but for most it's still their first chance to play on a college court. Some bounced out of Division II and III schools, unable to make a team. Some couldn't pull the grades, or earned the jersey but not the playing time. Some are just restless, and uncertain, sampling a semester at junior college and a semester at tribal school, academic refugees with no final destination in mind. Then there are the kids who were just never in the running to begin with, who are here because there is no place else to go.

"You don't see a lot of recruiters at res games," Stand Lovato had told me. He's a Santo Domingo Pueblo and Euchee Tribe guard from Oklahoma, an environmental science major and one of the two seniors on the team. Stand's a good bet for game MVP. His picture is on the back of the program they give you at the door, ball clutched in hand, broad face turned up toward a basket somewhere beyond the frame's boarder. He knows tonight is the last season opener of his life, but if that bothers, him, he keeps it to himself. He's not team leader by default.

Kills Crow pauses from hammering at the philosophy of zone defense and runs a hand over his cheek like he's checking whether he needs a shave. It's a theatrical move for the coach, who doesn't come across as the kind of man who telegraphs contemplation.

Coach Chad Kills Crow leads the team in prayer prior to the McPherson game. (Peter Rugg)

"I do this speech once a season and you're going to get it tonight," he starts. I've been silently watching from the doorway of the locker room, floppy reporter's notebook in hand, and I'm cynical enough to wonder if he's about to deliver a message meant for SB Nation. But if he is, so what? Understand, Kills Crow paid for the uniforms the Fighting Indians are wearing out of his own pocket. The team receives some donations, but he's not about to start holding court at any local booster club dinners with steaming buffet trays on particleboard tables and mid-shelf liquor. That's really not available here.

"this is the night we show them what it is to be native. This night is sacred."

"I don't know how good of a person I've been. I don't know how great of a coach I've been,' he tells them. "But I want you to be better than me.

"You know it, I know it, the people out there, they think we're less than. They think Indians can't play ball. You've all heard it," he says, not speaking so much of McPherson, but of almost everyone his players have ever played against, anywhere. This last part is met with an agreeable grumble. "They think you're second class. They don't even think of this as our country. We were the last people to get citizenship. That's what they think of us, and we know it. But this is the night we show them what it is to be native. This night is sacred."

He then begins the ritual and now I have no doubt about his intentions because these words were never meant for me. He delivers an American Indian prayer in a language I cannot know, in words that have been in this country since the beginning. He will later tell me it contained a hope for victory, a victory earned because it is both right, and honors their ancestors.

The team kneels around him in a closed circle and he lights a gathering of sweet grass. The room smells of old sneakers and vanilla.

These are the last words he says in English:

"I know we are a good people. We are a good strong team. I ask that you keep our men injury free. I ask that you keep McPherson injury free. I ask that you look out for our people and the ones back home that don't have much. All the people that are hungry. Maybe all they have is this basketball game and these young men to play for them. Maybe that'll bring a smile to their face. And if that's all we can do for our people back home, who are pitiful, that's what we are going to do tonight. We're here to win. We're here to fight for people who are long gone. We don't take shit from anybody. We kick them in the ass. We have the upper hand because we're native. They're not. I love you guys. Do what you do."

***

Not everyone in that locker room gets their chance tonight.

On the reverse side of that program where Stand Lovato watches for his shot, there are 14 players on the top-third of the page for the Haskell roster, 22 for McPherson side.

Except there are really only 11 eligible players on the Haskell side. Fighting Indians Kevin Nez, Ralston Moore, and Wilber Everett aren't allowed to play. Moore and Everett are benched because they didn't meet the eligibility requirements. According to the NAIA's murky rules, over the last two full terms each player has to have passed a total of 24 hours of coursework. But Moore transferred to Haskell from Salish Kootenai College in Montana, a tribal school on the trimester system, and no one could figure out how to add it up. ("I guess he's ineligible now," Kills Crow says. "If they say he's ineligible, there's no reason for me to argue it.") Everett's just behind on his work, though he should be able to play next semester. Then there's Nez, who's made grades, shows up to practice on time, and according to Kills Crow is easily the team's best man on the boards. "I don't know how he gets open but it's like magic how he shows up in the right spot," Kills Crow says. "Him we need. We need him really bad."

But they don't get him because to have a student cleared to play, a faculty advisor has to sign off on their transcripts and send them to the NAIA office in Kansas City. Nez's advisor hasn't been to work since Tuesday for reasons that either Kills Crow can't explain to me or cares not to, and wherever the paperwork is, signed or unsigned, it's not in Kansas City. So Nez stays on the bench for the season opener, in full uniform except for his good sneakers.

Everything is a struggle at Haskell. Once they might've said the hell with it and played Nez anyway, but the school's athletic programs are only four months out of an almost two-year probation slapped on them by the NAIA for "violations involving ineligible players." Under the rules, that meant every game the player suited up for was an automatic forfeit, and the athlete lost a season of eligibility.

"Not every reservation office keeps the best paperwork on file," Kills Crow says. "It's frustrating as hell because the kids should be fine, but you ask for the records and maybe they don't have them or maybe no one knows where they are. Should be simple. For everyone else, it's simple." I imagine other schools have different definitions of simple but I can't argue the point. No matter what else those programs are working against, there's no easier way to deal with a problem than to have never had it at all.

***

They step onto a floor built for a team that died a long time ago. There was a time when this was Kansas City Kings territory, a NBA club whose good years were winning seasons without trophies, and whose bad years were marked by bitter contract disputes and a storm that tore the roof off of Kemper Arena. Then the money men finally decided there was nothing left worth investing in. The team moved to Sacramento, and eventually the floorboards were torn out and shipped to Coffin Sports Complex, where they were pieced together, polished, and painted with a purple Chief's head, the Fighting Indians symbol, at center court.

he knew that tonight I'd see the stands packed shoulder to shoulder on the Haskell side. Senior guard Stand Lovato in a game against Kansas Wesleyan earlier this season.

"I'm going to sound like an asshole saying this, but you guys aren't exactly bringing in the gold," I'd told the schools Chief Information Officer Joshua Arce, a Prairie Band Potawatomi, earlier that day over dinner. "Does this team matter to anyone?"

The slack grin I got in response was less about humor than suffering a fool. "You come tonight," he told me. "You'll see."

Because he knew that tonight looking up from my spot on those reclaimed floorboards I'd see the stands packed shoulder to shoulder on the Haskell side, the way I'd hear they were for every game, home opener or no. And when the ref put that ball in the air and finally started the game, it didn't sound like a crowd used to being gracious losers, to accepting defeat.

From the opening tip, if I didn't know the history of this pairing, I'd say that humming crowd was just gearing up to carry Pittman off the court with the ball in his hand at game's end. More than just taking Kills Crow's words to heart that they needed to make the most of their last season opener, at the start the Fighting Indians play as if these first moments are all they have. A minute isn't out before the score is 6-0 Indians, and the way its starts is the way it goes for a while, their lead expanding with nearly every trip down the court.

If some McPherson guard manages to sneak in a layup, Lovato will sink two threes. Pittman looks like a wrestler and the men trying to guard him slip away as if that's the sport they expect him to be playing. Then there's Tsalidi Sequoyah, arms carved with arcane tattoos, fixed and true as a national monument and almost as big and tall. It's hard to fault him for the fouls he's racking up banging into people since there's so much of him he has to try and move out of harm's way.

When their lead reaches 16 points I'm good and suckered in. An underdog beating the odds is about as cliché as you can get, the basketball equivalent of the Indians finally beating down the Cavalry, but who cares about art when a game is this fun? Winning makes digging for metaphors seem like a waste of time.

They cool a bit sliding into halftime, but the 45-41 margin they hold as they head back to the lockers seems just a lull, easy enough to stretch out again once they get their breath back. As he heads to the locker room, Tsalidi reaches above the wall between hallway and locker to his grandmother's chair in the third row. I'm too far from Brenda Sequoyah to hear what she tells him, but he finds it agreeable enough to nod in acquiescence before disappearing. Brenda, a small woman with fading red hair, turns back to the court as he goes, and keeps her seat alone while the rest of the section clears out for the break.

Chatter from a scattering of Bulldogs passing me on their way to the concession stand is untroubled, praising their own and free from trash talking the hosts. Something Arce had said made me wonder if this would hold during Haskell's next road game. "You should see the shit some of these students pull when we play away games. Going ‘woo woo woo,'" he pauses, pops his palm three times against open, puckered lips. "Tomahawk chops. I've gone over to coaches like, ‘Guys, could you please control your crowd? Can you say something? Are you proud of this?'"

On the other side of the court in the front row of what would be the visitors section sits Haskell university president Venida Chenault. Like Arce, she too is a Prairie Band Potawatomi. I want to ask her what they'll do to celebrate when Haskell finally gets the win. "They're doing great," I tell her, only slightly ashamed of how much fun I'm having. Her gaze stays fixed somewhere on half court behind me and she gives back a professional bob of the head, the same gesture Tsalidi gave his grandmother minus the family love.

"Don't jinx it," she says. "Don't talk about it."

***

One good trick Kills Crow uses when he goes out recruiting is to tell a player how his family got its name.

One good trick Kills Crow uses when he goes out recruiting is to tell a player how his family got its name. The story goes that generations ago, an ancestor, a Lakota boy was left alone with the tribe's women while the men went off to hunt. In their absence, the boy discovered that his people were being scouted by a group of five members of the Crow tribe, who had made a deal with the U.S. Calvary to pass along Lakota locations so the soldiers could massacre them.

This time, the boy took it upon himself to take care of the problem. As the Crow scouts slept, he snuck up on them and slit their throats with a stone blade. He then presented the scalps to the tribal elders. The family surname has been Kills Crow ever since.

"It's a story that can help me get in with the families," he says. Then he adds, "I think we all know the history between tribes. It's good for a laugh, if they aren't Crow."

Haskell's second-hand culture keeps talk of amenities from being part of his hard sell. Instead, he appeals to their sense of heritage, to the chance to become more. "We're native, but we're segregated," he says." We don't learn from each other as much as we should. You can be a Navajo and never learn about the Seminoles. I tell them this is a chance to learn from one another." There are more than half a dozen tribes represented on this years' team.

Kills Crow might not keep every man he puts in a jersey for four years, but compared to the rest of the students at Haskell, you have a better chance of being one of the 150 odd kids crossing the graduation stage in May if you're on a team.

"You got to a place like KU, you're going to have maybe one out of, I don't know, 30 students playing a sport?" Arce speculates. "If you're at Haskell, that's going to be one out of five. A lot of kids are here because this is the only way for them to play at this level. And if that's what keeps them in class, and going back to their tribes with job skills, I'm not going to argue with that. Ironically, that makes these programs a lot more important to us than they might be at a nationally recognized program like Kansas."

The problem is that desire doesn't equal readiness. It's not uncommon for Kills Crow to drive through the southwest meeting prospects with potential on the court who have no idea what it means to train for a real game. On many reservations, the most important criteria to be a coach is willingness and availability, not necessarily the ability to teach basketball. It's something Kills Crow remembers from his own days hustling games as a kid.

"I didn't want this job when they offered it to me the first time," he says. "There were some things about it that reminded me too much of home."

Kills Crow grew up in Shannon County, S.D., the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home to the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, a 71-day standoff between the American Indian movement and federal authorities in 1973 known as the Wounded Knee Incident, and the second-poorest county in America. He remembers outhouses, homes without running water, roadsides littered with empty beer cans, a dwindling number of families who haven't buried a member after a suicide. "It's like a third-world nation at home we don't talk about," he says.

Basketball got him out. He even had his own brief trip to Haskell before moving on to finish his degree and play ball at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla., a Division II school. Kansas didn't feel far enough away from home back then.

"It's like a third-world nation at home we don't talk about."

After working in high schools in Oklahoma and Colorado, he was offered the coaching position at Haskell in 2009 at the urging of his retiring mentor and former Haskell coach, Ted Juneau, who coached KU All-American Danny Manning in high school. Juneau stayed in touch with Kills Crow over the years and even pressed him to finish a master's degree in adult education.

"It didn't feel like it meant being stuck in Shannon County anymore," he says of returning to Haskell. "I'd grown up a lot. I figured out what I'd be doing was helping kids out of their own versions of that."

He has his own ways of keeping the past in the past. The main concern is drinking. His first year, he held practices at 6 a.m. every day to make sure no one thought they could sneak a drink in, though now he's cooled out to only two morning practices a week. If a player uses any booze at all he could be tossed from the program, though Kills Crow might let them off with a game on the bench if they come to him first with a confession.

Then there are the things he can only try to discourage.

"I've seen kids blow their whole Pell Grant the first year paying off their family's debts. I've also seen them blow it on beer, but I'm less inclined to help with that," he says. "You can hope they know how to be away from home, but you never really know until you've got them on campus. A lot of them, they've never even been on a plane before. They don't know how to be alone."

The Wounded Knee memorial on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where Coach Kills Crow grew up. (Getty Images)

***

I can't say when exactly the mistakes started. Back on the court for the second half, the Fighting Indians didn't move with the same tidal force of momentum that marked the first minutes, but they were steady. Still up, then even, and then a breakaway three-pointer from an undersized McPherson kid put the Bulldogs on top.

You could measure the Fighting Indians fatigue easily enough. Canary yellow jerseys sweated through, and then that same middle-distance stare the school president had looked at me with, as if seeing something they had seen many times as defeat crept over the horizon. Even the rhythm of their dribbling off that once-professional court sounded sloppy and uncertain against the steady reverb of ball and wood in McPherson's hands.

"We are not giving this up," Kills Crow would breathe in the huddles. "This is not the way this is going to happen."

Now Lovato and Pittman were paying for that big point gap they'd run up in the first quarter, jogging up and down the court, grinding down what reserves they had left. This is what it looks like when players who hit the court like the game is only 20 minutes long find themselves on the wrong side of halftime.

McPherson, meanwhile, was harder to keep track of. Every time I thought I had a good sense of a player, he ran off court and was replaced by another. The only reserves left on the Haskell bench were those who couldn't get on court.

The end comes with less than 12 minutes on the clock when McPherson hits yet another three-pointer, their second or third in as many minutes. Their lead now is as big as the Fighting Indians had just half an hour ago.

‘We are still in this," Kills Crow tells them at the last timeout. For most of the game, whenever he gave instructions, I've been reminded of the way a cop speaks, the sort of even tone that comes when you know the person you're speaking to understands there's a consequence for the wrong response, in this case failure to hustle their asses up the court. But I don't hear the threat anymore. I wonder if he believes it. The men around him look as if they've been playing with a bag full of concrete on their backs.

Most sports fans who find themselves rooting for a team with a slipping grasp on victory can relate to the feeling. You start making up reasonable scenarios for a comeback that quickly become less and less reasonable until time and reason utterly and completely diverge. There's no second wind, or third, no way for enough calls to break their way, not enough time for enough miraculous shots from half court to kick them in the ass.

It's impossible to convince yourself that there's a chance anymore, because there isn't one.

At the end of the game it's McPherson, 94-81

***

Brenda Sequoyah made one decision about her grandson's future more than 15 years before the coach came calling for Tsalidi, but he wound up at Haskell anyway.

"I never wanted him to come here," Brenda tells me. "This was the last school I ever wanted him to step foot in. It was because of what happened to my daughter. My baby daughter." She believes in bad omens, and miracle births, too.

"This was the last school I ever wanted him to step foot in." Sophomore forward Tsalidi Sequoyah in a game against Southwestern College earlier this season.

Now every time he plays here she watches him from her third row seat, the spot she picks to lean against the wall she knows he'll pass on his way to the locker room. He moves slower on the court than his teammates  at 6'10 and 250 pounds he doesn't need to be fast  yet after watching him loiter from the court after fouling out in the final minutes and pulling down only six boards, Brenda lays a hand to her cheek and shakes her head in that silent worry that comes easy to mothers. What will we do with you now? He comes to the wall and reaches over and she takes his hand in both of her own.

"You played good, baby." she tells him. "Next time."

He nods, settles a towel over his head, and goes on his way to the postmortem. Tsalidi isn't much for talking, and Brenda fills me in.

Tsalidi was on the court in the womb of his mother, Brenda's daughter, although that might not have been the case had she known she was carrying him. Melissa Welch was the star player on her high school team her senior year despite being pregnant, not showing enough to clue anyone in. Then she blew her knee out and came out of surgery with both rehab instructions and a new addition to the family.

He was born 27 inches tall, so who knew where he'd been hiding? They bought Tsalidi a pair of baby Air Jordans and set up a play basketball hoop near the playpen. "He learned to sit up and she'd teach him to throw that ball in," Brenda says.

The plan was for Melissa to play ball at Haskell, so when the fall came she and Tsalidi headed for Lawrence. Brenda and her husband Gary promised to be up to visit in January.

Twenty years to the day before I drive up I-35 South past the Hazardous Waste Disposal signs that border the campus, Brenda woke in the early morning from a night of restless sleep in the queen-size bed of a St. Charles, Mo., motel. The previous evening, she'd left messages for Melissa at her dorm saying they wanted to pop in early and see her in the morning, the type of thing her daughter usually called back about. She didn't. Now there was a cop at the door.

"I didn't know how anybody would know where we were," she says. "I was with my girlfriend Merle and she tells me, ‘Don't open the door Brenda, that's got to be a fake. Has to be a fake.'"

Brenda tells me it was a car crash, but she doesn't know much more. "I told the police I didn't want to read the accident report. I didn't want to look at the body. I didn't want to have those memories."

Tsalidi was 2 years old.

She raised him after that, and kept the basketball hoop and bought new Air Jordan's when he grew out a size.

Originally recruited by Northeastern State University, at his graduation in 2012, Tsalidi told the Cherokee One Feather, an online tribal newspaper, he was going to be the first American Indian in the NBA. With his record, it wasn't bragging. He left Cherokee High School in North Carolina with the best rebound record in the state, both All-District and All-State, and was named his school's Academic Athlete of the Year. Kills Crow wanted him, but between the open arms of a bigger state school and Brenda all but spitting on the ground whenever she heard the name Haskell, Tsalidi signed a letter of intent with NSU.

In a Muskogee Phoenix story headlined From "Playing for his people: NSU signee has purpose to shine in his bloodline," Cherokee High School Assistant Coach Eric Hogner said of Sequoyah, "He just does what he has to do and does it to the best of his ability. I haven't coached a kid who works as hard as he does and he doesn't hesitate to work on his own. He really didn't have anyone working with him on post skills until the ninth grade. If someone had a move, he didn't have a countermove. He was the tallest player in our conference, but against kids his own size he always showed up and had big games."

They arrived at NSU expecting big things. "Ha," Brenda tells me about his year in Tahliquah. "There were a lot of promises made. They were good at talking. ‘Well, we'll give him a partial scholarship the first year and a second year he'll get a full scholarship.' Sure. Sure you will. We go there in September and that was a whole different thing. They redshirted him. The coach told him he'd never play ball, just sit on the bench. He says ‘Nobody but black guys can play ball.' He said it to me. He said it in front of the whole team! Ask Stand, he did a semester there."

I do ask Stand and he agrees immediately. Of course, he's heard that kind of talk before, and I could change the coach's name to half a dozen others and he'd probably still say I had my story straight.

Tsalidi's version is the same.

"Yeah, he said that. A lot of people say shit like that," he says. "I wanted to play college ball. I left."

Haskell had kept the door open. So Tsalidi came to town last season, eschewing the dormitories for a rented house in a neighborhood mostly filled with KU students where he and Brenda live together.

"So here we are," she sums up, letting that last word roll a few beats on a rumble low in the throat. She nods her head to her shoulder and up again like toggling a switch. "It's been good. They've treated him very well. I'll be damned if he gets out of my sight."

I ask Kills Crow if he believes the story and get a moment of barred teeth and an eye roll before he settles on an answer.

"I know a lot of coaches that are good coaches and that are good people. But they're passionate. Sometimes they say things they don't think about," he tells me. "Sequoyah's a unique case. Most players, you're dealing with just them and that by itself can be a lot. But he's a package deal. But this is the problem, is all these kids are coming from different places than what these coaches are used to seeing, and they don't know how to deal with that and the kids don't know how to deal with them."

***

Journalists have a dangerous habit of reading heavy motives into often-meaningless gestures as a way of telling you what's happening. And I mention this now because I know that when I watch the Fighting Indians in their locker room packing up their gear without having to brush away tears, I'm trying hard to assume that this is my clue that they expected to lose, or that have resigned themselves to a future of it, or are simply already looking ahead to the next game. I'd like to say that it's because they're basketball players, and the best athletes tend to have a bit of Zen in them, moving on instead of obsessing about what has already passed.

"Not one of you didn't do what I wanted of you tonight. You rose to my expectations."

"Not one of you didn't do what I wanted of you tonight," Kills Crow tells them. "You rose to my expectations. You lifted in the offseason. You trained hard. I don't think we should've lost tonight. I blame Haskell for this one. They dropped the ball. We should have had Nez out there."

That's that. I have a flight in the morning and I say my goodbyes, give my thanks, and collect phone numbers to speak again soon. I feel more exhausted than they look.

I walk from the locker room for the last time still hearing hear Kills Crow reading the game numbers for McPherson players.

"That little guy had 25 points? The tiny shit? God damn it."

The program is folded into my notebook, itself stuffed into my back pocket, a camera bag swinging on my side on my way out of the court. I hadn't had a good look at the trophy cases in the lobby before. Arce had been right when he told me that it doesn't matter how they play, the Fighting Indians sell tickets, and the lobby had been filled with a lot of excited promise over the new season. Anyway, I didn't miss much. There's a lot of open real estate behind the glass.

Before Tsalidi emerged from the locker room, I'd asked Brenda, "Doesn't this piss you off? Doesn't this piss you off to be here again? Doesn't it piss you off we're in place where the yearly motivational is based on the idea that you're less than human?"

She lolls her head away from me, puckers her mouth up toward her nose, and swats the air like she was killing a mosquito. "You know he's the first boy from his tribe to play college basketball in 20 years?" she asks me. "I could give a shit how anyone wants to judge it. That's my baby. He's playing college ball."

Tsalidi comes back to collect her gym bag hooked over his shoulder, and takes her hand to help her from the bleachers. Together they walk across the court, past the empty trophy case, and back to his Camaro. In the rear window is a white decal of an Indian charging up court with a basketball, fringe on his deerskin pants bouncing with his stride, feather in his hair.

A month later, I skim the Haskell website. On Saturday, Nov. 22, I see the Fighting Indians finally played McPherson again, this time as the visiting team in their second and last meeting of the year.

The game ended 77-67. Stand Lovato rang up three three-pointers. Kelvin Nez made it onto the floor. Tsalidi scored 13.

This time, the Fighting Indians of Haskell earned it. This time they proved everybody wrong.  And this time they won.

Update: On Jan. 3, after defeating Kansas Wesleyan 100-87, the Fighting Indians are now 2-14. Tsalidi Sequoyah earned a double-double in that game with 23 points and 10 rebounds. He is 28th in the nation in rebounding in NAIA Division II and Stand Lovato is ninth in total three-pointers with 51. Three players have since been suspended from the team over credit issues, but all 14 men that started the season are still in school.



Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler
Photos: Haskell Indian Nations University Athletics

About the Author

Peter Rugg is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. His work has also appeared in The Pitch, The Village Voice, SF Weekly, Backpacker Magazine, and Vice's Fightland. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa, and was a notable selection in the Best American Sports Writing 2012. Follow him on Twitter @petermrugg.

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