The education began one August evening on the basketball court of all places. There, among a handful of other teenagers at an outdoor park on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana, Paul VI basketball players Joshua Reaves and Tyler Scanlon engaged in a pickup game of “rezball.”
Short for “reservation basketball,” the style of play is characterized by an aggressive, up-tempo pace that’s akin to what Reaves and Scanlon play at Paul VI. But after their first few trips up and down the floor, the Division I prospects realized that even they may be a step too slow for this bunch.
“We got run out of the gym the first time we played,” said Scanlon, a sophomore. “They played so fast, the defense was always a 2-3 zone and after a made basket, there was no inbounds pass; you just took the ball right from there. It seemed like everyone could shoot and there was a lot of talent out there.”
With their view of Native American reservation life limited to the sparse references in school textbooks, the pick-up game experience was one that Reaves and Scanlon could not fathom when Paul VI Coach Glenn Farello asked them to serve as counselors for the third annual Northern Cheyenne Basketball Clinic in August. But as they learned that night and thereafter during the three-day camp, being a teenager in the nation’s capital and a youth in one of the country’s native areas has its similarities.
“It’s different out there, but it’s also the same,” Scanlon said. “A 15-year-old kid out there is the same kid everywhere else in America. That was our common bond; not necessarily basketball, but that we were all kids who enjoyed doing the same things.”
Alick Dearie, who played and coached under Farello during his days at Eleanor Roosevelt, also gathered this when he first travelled to the reservation four years ago with Joe Kunkel, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe. The two were connected through a mutual friend as Kunkel searched for support in forming a program to heighten awareness on how architecture can positively impact the growth of reservations. Once Dearie, an architect, noticed all of the Air Jordan shoes and basketball shorts worn by the Northern Cheyenne kids, he and Kunkel began brainstorming a basketball camp as another way to connect with the community.
“There are not a lot of support mechanisms for tribal youth growing up, so they often turn to experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and suicide rates are incredibly high,” Kunkel said. “Basketball is a great outlet tool for tribal youth. You can see the fire in their eyes light up when they play.”
Upon his return home, Dearie called Farello about helping direct the basketball camp. Little did he know that each of the first two years would draw 100-plus kids, ranging from 6 to 18 years old, which opened the door for several of Farello’s assistant coaches, along with Reaves and Scanlon, to participate this summer.
“It was important for me to not only get some players to share their basketball expertise with kids their age, but also share in the culture and see life outside of their own limited scope of the D.C. area, where not much is said about the reservation community,” said Farello, who is working to bring some of the Northern Cheyenne youth to Paul VI’s basketball camp next year.
When the coaches and players arrived to set up on each of the three days at Cheyenne Tribal High School, the gym was already packed with campers decked out in Phoenix Mercury jerseys and cradling basketballs provided by the WNBA and NBA Cares program.
“The way they teach us is so much fun that it makes you want to achieve,” said 17-year-old Tionne Carlson. “I’ve been going for three years now and there’s never a dull moment.”
Once Farello introduced his players to the group, it wasn’t long before the kids began asking the 6-foot-3 Reaves and 6-foot-5 Scanlon if they could dunk, challenging them to shooting contests and showing them their newest moves.
“It’s an awesome feeling to see their faces light up and bring up the energy of the camp,” said Reaves, a junior. “They were so willing to learn whatever was necessary to get better, and that’s not something you see very often with kids that young or even our age.”
The passion generated by the camp is still reverberating among students at the Northern Cheyenee Tribal School, where for the first time ever, tryouts will be conducted for the varsity team due to the high number of players expected.
“The camp made me want to practice more whenever the gym is open,” said 16-year-old Darius Willard. “They preach basketball and academics and to be drug and alcohol free. We learned to have balance in life.”
Reaves and Scanlon also found enlightenment outside of the gym. Along with their coaches, the two soaked up the Northern Cheyenne culture through visits to historical landmarks, such as the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn, and by participating in a ceremonial sweat on the last night.
The spiritual cleansing ritual took place in a hut of sorts, with heated stones producing scorching temperatures while tribal members sang and chanted prayers. Initially, Reaves and Scanlon doubted they could endure the hour-long ceremony.
“By the third or fourth round, I thought I was done,” Reaves recalled. “But I looked at Tyler and we both said ‘We can do this.’ It tested your inner strength and reinforced the sense of community that’s there.
“We went there to teach them basketball, but we probably learned more from them.”