Basketball And Redemption
For tribal kids, hope lies in the fast break and the jump shot
IT'S A PERFECT shot: all net, no glass, no rim. And for Glen Robertson, or Bug, as his teammates call him, redemption.
For as the basketball sails from the snap of his wrists in the prettiest of arcs, he feels what it's like to come through under pressure, and for his efforts to pay off.
No one knows what Bug, 18, and so many of the rest of the kids on the Lummi Blackhawks basketball team went through to play in this state championship tournament.
S. Matt Magrath, director of the youth home on the Lummi reservation, went to the finals the year before, when many of these same kids were on the football team, playing for the state title at the Tacoma Dome. "I'm realizing two days ago, one of these kids was in juvi, this one's mom died last week, three of them are here in treatment. If people knew the stories — what half of these kids go through just to be here."
They know on the rez. So when the kids' school bus pulled into the parking lot late at night after losing the finals that year — barely — more than 300 screaming fans turned out to welcome them. On this reservation, nothing bigger has happened in years than Lummi Blackhawks ball.
This year's 1B league basketball tournament brings together kids from all over the state who might not otherwise mix. The league is composed of teams from the state's smallest schools: the Christian academies; the tribal schools from remote corners of Indian country, and farm-country schools adrift in seas of sagebrush and wheat.
Across the wood in the cavernous cacophony of Yakima's SunDome, the team of rangy farm kids from the Palouse takes a breather on the bench while their band strikes up a tune and their cheerleading squad bounces about, all smiles and spinning ponytails. The St. John/Endicott Eagles even have a mascot, strutting about in — what else? — an eagle suit.
The Blackhawks don't have cheerleaders. They don't have a band. They don't have a mascot. But ask Bug who's here to watch him play today and he's got a soft smile.
"My parents. My sister. My whole community."
It seems just about true, and anyone not here from Lummi is going to watch the game on the tribe's closed-circuit TV network. Cameraman Freddy Lane, recording the game for the tribe, is seeing to that. And if he doesn't have the footage up within an hour of the last basket, he'll hear about it. Because everyone at Lummi will be wanting to know about the Blackhawks.
"They put Lummi on the map in Washington state," says tribal chairwoman Evelyn Jefferson, who checked herself out of the hospital with a bad case of bronchitis to be here. "They've really brought the community together. Enrollment is up, people want to be at Lummi now, and these kids are part of that."
Tribal elders are here, guests of the tribal council who brought them by the busload and picked up their hotel tab. The former tribal chairman drove all the way from Lummi. A counselor at the youth home is staying with the kids around the clock for the weeklong tournament. One Nez Perce kid had nearly 20 family members make the trip from his reservation at Lapwai, Idaho, to cheer him on.
These are the people who know that for these kids, this isn't just about basketball. It's about survival.
"They will listen to coaches," Magrath says. "They have more power and influence than Dad." And for a lot of these kids, their coaches are their dads, and their team is their family. "It's not about rehab," Magrath says. "They need the whole-meal deal, to give them the family structure, the values they never got."
For all its beauty, the reservation north of Bellingham can be a tough place to grow up. "We are seeing kids with 12, 13 foster placements," Magrath says. "Addicted parents that are not emotionally or even physically present or available to them. Kids who are forced into parenting at a young age. We are talking about 16-year-olds who started using when they were 8 or 9."
Bug is playing today with the permission of a judge, who allowed him to finish the season before checking into a local detention center for walking away from court-mandated drug treatment at the youth home. Basketball, the judge reasoned, was too important to take away.
"It's like I go out on the court and just pray," Bug says after the game. "It just makes me feel good inside. It makes my cravings go away.
"It's like church to me."
THIS TRIBE IS fighting for its life.
The average age at death here is 60 — 18 percent younger than for other Washington residents. In more than 40 percent of all births at Lummi, alcohol or other drugs bathed the baby in utero. About 20 percent of the babies born here have teenage mothers — more than double the state rate. Kids at the tribal school had the state's highest unexcused-absence rate in 2005. The year before, only 34 percent of the students graduated from the tribal high school on time. The dropout rate hits nearly 30 percent in 10th grade. And one of every 10 kids on the reservation is in foster care.
It wasn't always like this.
Former tribal chairman Darrell Hillaire drives past his childhood home and remembers when the biggest danger kids faced on the reservation was the bike shared by about 30 kids on his street. "It had no brakes, so we'd go in that ditch to stop," Hillaire says.
That was before blackberries grew over the dead boats in front yards all over the reservation, washed up by a gutted fishing economy.
It was back when people never locked their houses, in case the cousins needed a snack. It was before those same relatives might rob the house to buy drugs.
"I call it the two faces of Lummi," Hillaire says. He's proud that of some 500 Indian nations across the country, Lummi is one of the few that is home to an Indian college. The reservation has a new tribal school that would be the envy of any community. The tribe is self-governing, and it's been a leader, nationally, in protecting and celebrating native sovereignty, arts and culture. It recently expanded its successful casino, adding a hotel that is a regional draw.
"Those are the good faces of Lummi," Hillaire says. "That's when I think of being a proud nation, and we are intent on not leaving anyone behind."
That won't be easy.
The tribe's other face started showing in the early 1990s, when the fishing economy cratered, the tribe's first casino closed amid scandal, and the tribe's demographics shifted to a population with fewer elders and more young people. More than a third of this tribe is 19 years old or younger. Many of those kids are growing up without intact families. Some are raising themselves.
The tribal council launched a major anti-drug offensive in 2002. It's thrown everything from reviving banishment laws to launching a sports program to yank tribal kids back from the abyss.
"If we don't do this now, everything else won't matter," Hillaire says. "What difference does it make having millions of dollars from the casino if we don't have wellness? Or building these beautiful new schools, if the kids don't go to them? Or having tribal sovereignty, if we are not well. It's true for all of Indian country? And if we don't deal with it, we will be feeding addiction.
"We are victims of a lot of failed Indian policy. But at some point, we need to move it forward. We are not put on this Earth to suffer. We can thrive, and we will. We are, in some aspects."
Like on the court.
THE BLACKHAWKS rip into their cheeseburgers and fries, giving this Jack in the Box in the suburbs north of Seattle a post-game workout, just like any teenagers.
But when they share the same straws and tease each other that it's OK because they're all related, this crowd of kids celebrating their win on the court stands apart.
Most of these kids have played sports together since they were in elementary school. For some of them, touring with the Blackhawks is one of the few times they've ever left the reservation.
"We grew up together," says James Adams, 17, who graduated from Lummi High School this year. He transferred from Ferndale High, the public high school nearest the reservation, and became co-captain of the Blackhawks. Like others on this team, he's felt more at home in the tribal school.
"At Ferndale, we were like The Minority. And they were expecting trouble from us. So I gave them more. With our teachers (at the tribal school), we have a special kind of relationship; they are our friends."
His has not been an easy growing up. "I went to the coach and asked, 'How do I get my son, through you, through high school?' " says Adams' father, Garnet Adams, a commercial fisherman who rarely misses a game. "He had to play. From my standpoint, it's what it was going to take."
Adams met one of his friends on the team, Allen Revey, while the two were living at the Lummi safe house, an alternative placement for Adams after a brief stint in juvi for minor drug offenses.
"If there wasn't basketball, there would be nothing but drugs," Adams says. "It's the only reason people go to school. The only time I was clean and sober on my own without treatment I was with these guys.
"You have a lot of time to think when you are in a cell. You think about life. I thought about my future, and it didn't seem like it was getting better; I had to start over three times since starting high school. Sports has been the biggest thing; I knew I was meant to be something. I couldn't waste my time being bad anymore. It's wanting to play, wanting to be good in school, not be on the outside so much. Without playing sports, I'd be lost."
Revey, 18, is the only one in his family to make it to high school. He says he never thought he'd even live this long: He wears the names of two brothers, one on each basketball shoe, already killed by drugs and gang violence. His mother walked out of the hospital where she was in rehab after sending Revey to the cafeteria to get her some Jell-O. She never came back.
"I knew she had run out on me. That was one of the longest walks of my life. Part of me still loves her, though," Revey says. "That's why Jell-O is one of my favorite foods."
Placed in foster homes, Revey bolted by eighth grade and started living on his own. Found out by the police, he refused to return to foster care and lived until his 18th birthday at the Lummi safe house.
He says he dealt drugs until an eighth-grade teacher turned him around. "She didn't give up on me," Revey says.
Revey made valedictorian but lost the title after joining other students in some minor vandalism at the school. He still is headed to Western Washington University in the fall. Basketball, he says, is also part of the reason why. "It means the whole world to me. That's how I became what I am today. It's how I became a good student. Sports basically saved my life. My team is my family."
Revey, a star shooter for the Blackhawks, quit the team partway through the season when he and his 15-year-old girlfriend were surprised to learn they were going to be parents. He needed to work to save money for the baby.
For Blackhawks basketball coach Darren Johnson, it was just another wrinkle in the fabric woven tight by the bond he feels with these kids.
Formerly a coach at Lynden Christian Academy, this was his first year coaching the team, and he felt he had to earn the kids' respect. "I'm new. I'm white. And this was a little different from what I was used to," Johnson says.
He still remembers the first game, when he went down to the locker room at halftime for the traditional pep talk and found it empty: The players were all talking to their family members in the stands.
He says he learned technical fouls for peccadilloes such as bad language wouldn't cut it: "If I did that, I wouldn't have a team. I give a lot of push-ups."
He and athletic director Jim Sandusky quickly learned just how much basketball means to these kids. Most places he has ever worked, students start getting antsy by the end of a two-hour practice, Sandusky says. "Here I could run an all-day practice, and if I had food here, they'd be there. They don't want to go home, for one reason or another."
He noticed that when kids were in the safe house, with regular meals, a bed of their own and a reliable ride to school, their grades went up.
One day, Sandusky asked some of the kids he coaches a question: "I said, 'I need an honest answer: If we built a dorm here, and there was food and you could sleep there, how many of you would take advantage of it?' Almost before I got the last word out, it was boom, every hand went up; they didn't even think about it. It was, 'I hate it at home. My uncle is always dealing drugs. My mom is never there, and there is never any food. My brother's there, and he's always drunk.' "
The tribe intends to build the $1.6 million academy for high-school boys and girls by the beginning of the next school year.
Meanwhile, both men keep doing the little things that matter in this, the shoestring league of basketball. Sandusky not only runs the department, he grills the hotdogs at the canteen at games and shakes the oddly yellow powder over the popcorn. Johnson washes the boys' uniforms in the laundry.
"Without quantity time there is no quality time," Sandusky says. "Lots of times, I'm the guy locking the school gate at 10 o'clock at night."
IT'S A LACKLUSTER first half, some of the drabbest basketball the Blackhawks have played all year. Is it the big dome? The towering stands? Something about this first state tournament game in the SunDome is dimming their mojo. Johnson notices. Down in the locker room at half time, he lets the guys shake off the tension with a little rap music and horsing around. Then he gets down to business.
"I want Lummi guys diving for that ball. I want hustle. We've got to play tough basketball," Johnson says sternly. "Gentlemen, we played a terrible first half."
The guys get the message.
Back on the court, forward Carter Lopez blows off his injured knee and drives for the basket. Forward Jordan Wilson, at 6 feet 2 inches, one of the team's bigger guys, bloodies his nose he plays so hard.
Bug? He seems transported, flying down the court and back. Fouled, he steps to the line. The Lummi stands go still.
"Stay within yourself," Hillaire whispers as he watches, his jugular visibly pounding with tension. And then one after another, Bug sinks every foul shot. Four in a row, silky smooth — the points that decide the game. It doesn't matter that the team crashes and burns the next day, losing its chance for the state title.
For in those moments, as the ball swishes through the net, Bug, and every Lummi watching, knows what it feels like to win.
Lynda V. Mapes is a Seattle Times staff writer. Alan Berner is a Times staff photographer.