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Last year the Red Lake Warriors were one of the big stories of the state boys basketball tournament. It was the first appearance at state by an all Native American team, and Red Lake's play and sportsmanship made the Warriors the talk of Minnesota. But the celebration ended soon after the tournament when one of the players was stabbed to death, a tragedy that hit the town hard. But Red Lake has regrouped, and the Warriors are preparing for another run at the state title.
RED LAKE EVEN LOOKS LIKE A BASKETBALL TOWN. It's a windblown, underdog kind of place. Trashy gutters. Sagging hoops in every yard. Barbed wire swaying atop a chain-link fence, circling the school.
But on the court, the Red Lake Warriors are nobody's underdog. Tonight they're shellacking Nevis; the seventh-graders won by 70, the eighth-graders are up by 30 so far. B-team and varsity games are still to come. Nevis assistant coach Brian Wormley says there's no dishonor in losing to Red Lake - why, it's a tradition, one he was dipped in one devastating game-day years ago.
Wormley: We got blown away in the seventh-grade game, I don't remember the score, but the eighth-grade game - they were jammin' on us and everything. It was 60 to five at halftime, and 110 to 10 at the end of the game. It was a shock.
Though Red Lake has long had good teams, the Warriors came to wide attention only last year. Basketball fans across Minnesota witnessed the first pre-game drum ceremony ever performed at the state tournament. The Warriors then lost to Wabasso in an overtime game that broke scoring records. In the stands tonight, it's hard to find anyone who wasn't at that game.
Various fans: It put Red Lake on the map, you know. The first Indian team ever to make the state tournament. ...Just the whole frenzy, going down there, having our car decorated, the Red Lake Warriors.... We love our team, and there's some cute boys on there!
But this season has been more complicated. More sober. Just two months after Red Lake's momentous appearance at the state tournament, one of the Warriors, senior Wesley Strong, was stabbed to death after a graduation party. The team dedicated this season to his memory. Delwyn Holthusen, the Warriors' center and most visible star, is Wesley Strong's cousin.
Holthusen: He was gonna come back this year, 'cause he was a credit or two short; he was gonna be our manager. He was like a big push for us. When we were low or anything, he was this up-tempo kid, make us all happy and push us to play harder. Brings back tears to me, man, chokes me up.
Strong's death has been a powerful team motivater, but it's also been more than that for the team and the community. Doug DesJarlait, the Warriors' coach, calls it a reminder of what's wrong on the Red Lake Reservation. Too little discipline, DesJarlait says. Too much alchohol. Too many smart kids who won't try college.
DesJarlait: I was the youngest. My mother told me, "Well, you're eighteen now, my job is done." She more or less broke my plate, I guess. Which they oughta be doing a lot more nowadays. A lot of people are afraid to leave the reservation. 'Cause of the racism or whatever that you see on the outside. They're afraid if they leave, the reservation won't be here when they get home.DesJarlait's like his mother, a disciplinarian. When his players got cocky earlier this season, believing too much about what they were reading about themselves in the newspapers, he benched his starting five. The team had a couple embarrassing losses. Right now, the Warriors are 20 and three, ranked tenth in the state in Class A. But there are new pressures this year, from a hometown anxious for more success.
DesJarlait: We could go 30-0 and there'd still be people in the community who'd think it wasn't good enough. I love the game, yeah, but I hate a lot of the stuff that goes with it. The long hours. The expectations on the kids. The parents who know the game better than coaches. I don't like that.Still, for many in Red Lake, this is much more than just basketball. Sitting high in the bleachers is Delwyn Holthusen's father. Played some ball himself, 35 years ago. Fresh from the post office, Holthusen senior holds up a handful of college recruiting letters to his son.
Holthusen senior: All over the country... Michigan, Nebraska. I wish him a lot of luck. I hope he stays clean and everything. I do what I can to help him along.
But that's the future. Here's what the Warriors want more immediately. They want to beat Nevis - no, they want to pound Nevis. Give the graduating seniors plenty of minutes for the home folks. And they want to get back to state, to play the drums again with all Minnesota watching.