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A basketball oasis in the shadow of a powerhouse

By John Marshall
Lawrence, Kansas (AP) April 2010

Far from the din of March Madness and a long way from the bright lights, Ted Juneau is searching basketball outposts.

He’s got his eye on a 6-foot-9 difference-maker and recently encouraged him to visit. There’s a potential transfer from a Minnesota junior college who could contribute right away. He works the phones, calling players he’s heard about, listening to others seeking him out.

Occasionally, Juneau dips into Oklahoma to catch a few games and later this month he’s planning to attend a tournament in Colorado.

In the most basic sense, Juneau is like every other college basketball coach on the recruiting trail.

Beneath the surface, his job is unlike any other.

Juneau’s trail takes him to places like Rocky Boy, Mont., Navajo, N.M., and Tahlequah, Okla., not Chicago, Detroit or New York. His school doesn’t offer athletic scholarships and has the resources for one, maybe two big recruiting trips a year. His recruits come from a tiny pool of people representing just 2 percent of the total U.S. population.

Juneau is the head coach at Haskell Indian Nations University, an oasis for Native American hoops players in the shadow of a college basketball powerhouse.

“It’s truly a unique place,” Juneau said. “It’s a problem just having people know that Haskell’s here and the opportunity that they have.”

The opportunity many Native Americans can’t find anywhere else.

Located just a few miles from the University of Kansas and its storied Jayhawks program, Haskell was founded in 1884 and has an enrollment of about 1,000 students, all of whom must be members of federally-recognized tribes. The NAIA school is federally funded and is the only four-year tribal college in the U.S., making it unique in college athletics.

The basketball team is filled with former Division II and III players, junior college transfers and Native American players who weren’t heavily recruited out of high school.

The Indians play a version of the breakneck “rez” ball found on many reservations, with a wrinkle of set plays and an emphasis on defense added by Juneau, Danny Manning’s former high school coach.

Their court is the floor from the 1988 NCAA championship game won by Danny and the Miracles at Kansas City’s Kemper Arena, and they get plenty of help from the Jayhawks, including shoes from Manning and lockers from the football team.

The players share a common bond of heritage – even if they sometimes come from once-warring tribes – and the aspiration of trying to escape the sometimes sobering reality of reservation life.

“It’s a real good opportunity to get their education and continue their basketball career,” said Vince Chavez, a senior guard from the Chemehuevi tribe. “You can always branch out after this if you want to. Pretty much after high school on the rez, it’s a dead end after that. If you come here and you try to better yourself, it’s going to be better for you in the long run.”

It’s not an easy transition.

Life on a reservation is often a closed circle, with huge, close-knit families providing a support system that spreads over the tribe like a warm blanket.

Many Native American basketball players have tried to leave the circle, only to feel like outcasts because of how they look, their language, beliefs and customs. They often return home and give up on basketball forever.

Dominick Clichee is one of the few who made it out and stayed.

The senior from the Navajo tribe in New Mexico earned a spot at Division III Clark University in Worcester, Mass., and played two seasons there before transferring to Haskell. The transition was difficult, but Clichee stuck it out, transferring only after the Clark coach who recruited him left for another job.

“Everyone back home is pretty much my family, so I grew up with family cookouts every weekend, everybody coming over – my aunties, uncles – then to get put out there where I didn’t know anybody except my coaches and my teammates, that was a big culture shock,” he said. “But that’s where I pride myself on being who I am because I was able to go through that and stay there, finish out and have a successful academic career.”

According to a recent Bureau of Indian Affairs report, the national unemployment rate for Native Americans is 49 percent, with 29 percent falling below the poverty line. The graduation rate at many reservations is below 50 percent, the dropout rate as high as 90 percent.

The players at Haskell are a guiding light to an oasis, an opportunity to escape the reservation while still living among other Natives.

“When I was coming out of Montana, I was still pretty well known and I’m doing well, still going to school,” said D.J. Fish, a 6-foot-5 forward from East Glacier. “It shows people that you can leave and be able to stay a while and actually do it. If you see somebody else do it, you know you can do it.”

The problem for Juneau is getting the players to take the initial leap.

Many Native American players are ill-prepared for life off the reservation. Some stay for family, others want to avoid the why-would-you-go-there scorn of their people. Others don’t have the educational background to continue on to college.

Juneau has little money or time for travel to see recruits and no scholarships to offer, other than the financial aid given to every Haskell student.

So as the rest of the college basketball goes mad about March, Juneau sits in his office inside the Coffin Complex, phoning recruits, returning calls from potential players, communicating on Facebook, doing whatever he can to spread the word of Haskell to basketball’s outposts.

“A lot of our recruiting becomes word of mouth, kids contacting us, us encouraging kids to come to school here regardless of whether they play basketball or not,” Juneau said. “It’s not always easy, but we find a way to make it work.”

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