Native Village
Youth and Education news
February 2010 Volume 4

Haskell offers haven for hidden talent
By Dana O'Neil
Condensed by Native Village

Kansas: When  6-foot-10 Terrance Little Thunder left his Lakota reservation home, he scratched a phone number on a piece of paper. 

That number was Little Thunder's last shot at a future. He was 29 and out of chances.

"All I had was a little bit of money and that piece of paper with Coach's number on it," Little Thunder said. "I held onto that thing so tight, man. I wasn't about to lose it. Every time we stopped, I checked. Every single time. I didn't relax until coach showed up at the bus stop to meet me. This is my one chance. This is it."

Before he came to Haskell Indian Nations University, Little Thunder already had played NCAA basketball at Presentation and United Tribes in N.D. He had since moved back to the reservation and was making good money as a welder. But he still had eligibility left,  so he decided to give college one last chance.

"In my tribe, the Lakota Nation, a man like me is supposed to be a warrior, to himself last," Little Thunder said. "That's what I'm trying to do. I want to help the youth and be a good example to them. I want to teach them what's
out there for them. When I was working, I was taking care of myself but how was I helping other people? I wasn't."

Ted Juneau is the basketball coach and athletic director at Haskell. He came to Haskell in 2007 as a consultant to the president. But when the athletic director and basketball coaches both left, Juneau signed on -- for only $5,000.

"I wanted to see if I could give these kids something they had never been exposed to; I thought they deserved it," Juneau said. "They're no different than the kids at [Kansas University.] They deserve a college atmosphere every bit as much."

The disparity in college athletics is no more stunning than at Haskell University in Lawrence.

Haskell is only a 10 minute drive from the University of Kansas and the Jayhawks elite basketball program.  Compared to their' state-of-the-art field house, Haskell's Coffin Complex is antique. Old metal lockers from the Kansas football team line the locker room.  Wooden benches serve as seats. The big-screen television is floor model from the pre-flat-screen days.

Despite the locker room is a major upgrade from the way things used to be.

"We didn't even change in here before," said forward Kevin Begaye, Navajo. "We'd come to practice or games already dressed."

The field house does have one pretty cool artifact: the 22-year-old hardwood floor from the Kemper Arena floor in Kansas City. It's the floor on which Kansas won the 1988 National Championship.

But as Juneau has learned, fixing aesthetics is the easy part. Much more than money separates Haskell Fighting Indian players from those in the NCAA. Haskell's players are the rarity -- a handful Indian kids who actually graduate high school, let alone made it to college. (Reservation drop-out rates average 40.7%),

And while Native American youth play and excel in basketball their entire lives, college coaches don't even look for them, let alone watch them.  Only five of the 5,051 Division I basketball players were Native Americans or Alaskan natives.

"In some ways it's no different than the kid in the inner city," Juneau said. "They have to fight through things like poverty, alcoholism, drugs, dysfunctional families. ...they don't have the person who can funnel them to some topflight program and get them out. It doesn't exist.

"In some ways it mirrors what's happened to Natives in this country. They're damned if they do and damned if they don't. If they try to join the general population, they encounter problems and discrimination. If they stay on the reservation, what is there for them there?"

The players at Haskell are trying to forge a path for Native youth. Last year, the Indians won a school-record 14 games to finish second in their league. This year they hope to host the conference tournament and make the NAIA  national tourney. 

But success for the players will be measured in more than wins and losses. If they stick it out, they win. If they open the eyes of one other basketball player on their reservation, they win.

"I think there's a lot of talent on the rez; we just have to convince people to come to Lawrence," said Clint Not Afraid from the Blackfeet/Crow reservation in Montana. "A lot of people are afraid to do that. Why? I don't know. They don't understand it, I guess. They don't see that basketball takes them places."


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