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Originally published Saturday, November 28, 2009 at 7:01 AM

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In Wyoming, basketball drives reservation's pride

The gym is adorned with championship banners, expectations are high, and the players gasp and burn their way through sprints during the first days of basketball practice at Wyoming Indian High School.

Associated Press Writer

ETHETE, Wyo. —

The gym is adorned with championship banners, expectations are high, and the players gasp and burn their way through sprints during the first days of basketball practice at Wyoming Indian High School.

The afternoon is growing late and the sun casts long shadows across the snowcapped Wind River mountains. Inside the brick gym, the Chiefs - winners of the 2A state championship in March - run more drills, more sprints. Theirs is an up-tempo, run-and-gun game, and stamina is critical to their chances for a repeat.

Basketball is king on the Wind River Indian Reservation - a 3,440-square-mile expanse of mountains, valleys and rivers that's home to the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes. And the Chiefs, who have built one of Wyoming's most successful high school basketball teams, are the pride of a community beset by poverty, alcoholism and related social ills.

Hundreds of raucous Wyoming Indian fans made the 130-mile drive to Casper to see the 155-student school take its seventh state title. At the final buzzer, the players, some of them with their hair in long pony tails, were mobbed by friends and family, young and old, seeking autographs and pictures.

The community celebrated the championship with a potluck dinner at the high school gym, said head coach Craig Ferris. They watched a video of the title game, and the players donned war bonnets and were honored with a victory dance.

"As Native Americans, we're very, very family oriented and community oriented, and I think (basketball) is just another reason for the community to come together," Ferris said. "Kids see the players that play now and they want to be a part of it. It gives the community something to cheer about, something to rally around."

Ferris, 32, who won a state championship as a player with Wyoming Indian in 1995, said his first championship as a coach brought relief, along with pressure to win another one.

"That's the thing about our fans - they're never satisfied," Ferris said. "Last year we were 29-1 and we got in trouble for losing that one."

Many of Wyoming Indian's players come from families whose names echo in basketball lore around the reservation. Their relatives are emblazoned in the school's 56-foot-long trophy case.

"The whole atmosphere around here - it's basketball first," said Caleb Her Many Horses, a senior on this year's team. "I always wanted to be a part of a state championship and be a Chief."

"It's pretty much the only thing to do on the reservation, play basketball," said Slade Spoonhunter, a 17-year-old senior and returning starter from last year's team.

Success tends to breed interest. About 60 Wyoming Indian students, boys and girls, are playing basketball this year, more than double the participation in any other sport.

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Basketball is popular across Indian Country in North America. The Native American Basketball Invitational, an annual summer tournament in Phoenix, drew 64 teams this summer and 86 in 2008, said GinaMarie Scarpa, co-founder of the tournament.

The founders started the tournament in 2003 to help connect college scouts with high school-aged American Indian players, she said.

For all of Wyoming Indian's success, its players haven't enjoyed commensurate collegiate opportunities.

Basketball fans rattle off the handful of players who've gone on to play at junior colleges or universities. Some who have tried have dropped out citing culture shock and homesickness.

"They are just another fish in the sea (in college), but it's also not home, either," said Owen St. Clair, principal of Wyoming Indian Elementary School and a member of the Chiefs' 1989 state championship team.

St. Clair said Chiefs players are held in "high honor" on the reservation. "Well, you go somewhere else, you're not going to get that," he said.

Ferris, who played at Casper College and Eastern New Mexico University en route to degrees in criminal justice and psychology, said he's trying to change his players' mindset about college.

"I set my goal as using basketball to help pay for my education and college," Ferris said. "When I first came here, I think it was something (the players) thought they couldn't accomplish. A lot of them think that after high school, they're done."

Some players recognize that sports could be their ticket to education and escape from the potential pitfalls of reservation life.

The unemployment rate on Wind River Indian Reservation is 80 percent and most of the jobs are hard labor, according to the Tribal Employment Rights Office.

Health problems plague many tribal members. The average life span on the reservation is 49 1/2 years, compared to the national life expectancy of 76 years, according to the federal Indian Health Service. In 2008, alcohol or drugs contributed to half of the deaths on the reservation.

Spoonhunter, the Chiefs leading scorer in this spring's state championship game, said basketball motivates him to keep his grades up so he can stay on the team and get into college.

"Basketball is a big influence," he said. "It's like my key off the rez for an education."

Her Many Horses, who won the Wyoming 2A cross country championship last month, said he's being recruited for cross country but he also wants to play basketball in college.

"If you have grades, schools will look at you and you can actually go out to other places and experience those people."

But first there's the season at hand, which tips off in early December.

The Chiefs are relatively short, averaging about 5-foot-10 inches. But what they lack in height, they make up for in speed.

"Offensively we try to spread the floor and draw their defense out to give our guys the opportunity to create shots and driving opportunities," Ferris said. "If they've got a couple of big guys, we make them guard us out on the perimeter. Defensively, we usually try to press full court to keep them from getting the ball into their big guys, because we're so short. It's hard to defend once they get in their half-court set."

The Chiefs figure to be the favorites to take the state title again, said Rich Murray, head coach of Niobrara County High School in Lusk, which lost to Wyoming Indian in the 2009 state championship. The Chiefs' frenzied full-court press forced Lusk into an uncharacteristic 25 turnovers.

"If somebody beats them, somebody played a really good game," Murray said. "They're not going to have a lot of size again. But they jump really good and they jump really fast, so that makes up for it."

Said Ferris, "Every time we make it to state, they always say, last one off the reservation turn off the lights. That's my favorite saying. That's how it is."

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