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From the sports archives

I was reading an article today on the Daily Beast, about Wyoming’s best high school basketball team, Native American life, poverty, and growing up with ambition fueled by sports. You can find it here.

The story reminded me so vividly of one that I had written myself, about 12 years ago, while working as a sports reporter for a daily newspaper in Northern California.

It takes place in a little reservation town called Covelo, within Mendocino County’s Round Valley. Simply driving there – and back to Santa Rosa again – for this basketball game was an experience that will stick with me for life.

Like the writer of this Wyoming piece, the weather en route to the reporting was dramatic. It was a freezing cold January day, threatening to snow if any precipitation began to fall from the sky. As I returned from Round Valley to a deserted Highway 101 in the middle of the night, a work crew along the narrow mountain road had lit a giant bonfire, both by which to see to work and to keep themselves warm.

It was much later that I started reading CJ Box novels, but it now reminds me of one of his scenes, where the landscapes are often so still and black that you can disappear into them, and every headlight might draw attention.

Here is the story, called “Support on the Court.” I might have given it a different name. Basketball was this little community’s bright spot – and not just on a cold winter’s night.

(Originally published Feb. 5, 2002.)

COVELO – On a frigid winter night in Round Valley, the full moon illuminates snow-covered hillsides and barren farmland, but a brighter glow emanates from downtown.

The handful of businesses and shops that line Highway 162 as it runs through Covelo and onto the Round Valley Indian Reservation are deserted, but take a left on Howard Street and go down two blocks to the high school and things are jumping.

It’s an icy Tuesday night in January, but more than 200 people pack the round-roofed gymnasium, watching four basketball games back-to-back. They cram onto the four rows of bleachers across the north side of the gym. It’s the league home opener against Potter Valley for the varsity and junior varsity Mustangs, girls and boys, and their fans are out in force.

“This community loves these kids and it loves sports,” said school principal and counselor Renee East, who greets each of the high school students by name as they walk by her in the gym. “You’ll never find this gym more packed then on a night like this.”

Usually, it’s standing-room-only at Round Valley games, and people leave work early to get a good seat. The grandmother of one of the varsity boys arrives at 3 p.m. to find a place at the top of the bleachers, even though her grandson won’t start playing for nearly five hours, at 7:45.

The draw of basketball in Round Valley is not new. Many of the people in the stands played for the Mustangs when they were in school. But the teams have taken a different role in the community as of late, providing not just entertainment, but motivation for the athletes to explore a world beyond their tiny hometown.

The population of Round Valley, including the town of Covelo and the checkered reservation lands, is 1,057. The 2000 Census showed a nearly even split between those living on reservation property and the town of Covelo. About 85 percent of the school’s students are American Indians.

Varsity girls coach Kim Stillwell, who played basketball in Round Valley, said the sport gives kids a chance for recognition and realization. “Basketball helps them to realize the opportunities they have and helps them to go on to colleges and junior college,” said Stillwell, who graduated in 1981.

She’s the aunt of one of her players and spends early afternoon games watching over like a mother hawk, observing not just the athletes on the court but the flock of younger children who shoot around between halves.

American Indian scholar Greg Sarris, who grew up in Santa Rosa and now holds an endowed chair of English literature at Loyola Marymount University, said sports have become increasingly important to communities like Round Valley, for people of all ages.

“It’s one of the healthier ways men and women in Indian communities can distinguish themselves,” said Sarris, who serves as chairman of his tribe, the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria. “Playing sports and being focused is a shot in the arm as far as self-esteem and worth.”

Stillwell, who works at the Round Valley Inn when she’s not coaching, tries to get her team into as many tournaments as possible so the players can see new places and experience new things. Basketball and the Future Farmers of America, a program in which students raise animals and learn about agriculture, are the primary chances kids have to travel, Stillwell said.

A future after high school

Principal East, who played basketball at Santa Rosa Junior College, has seen a change in the mentality of the school’s student-athletes since she began teaching at Round Valley nine years ago. At that time, she said, only 15 to 20 percent pursued higher education after high school. On this year’s varsity girls team, all seven seniors are planning futures of school, work, travel and perhaps even more basketball.

The school has had success breaking the cycle of unemployment that often typifies reservation communities. Of the 2001 graduating class, everyone went on to a college, junior college or trade school program, joined the military, or got a job.

About 50 of the school’s 120 students are involved in athletics. More than 30 of those play basketball. Knowing they must keep their grade-point average at 2.0 or higher helps, East said, though four basketball players and a cheerleader were through for the season after semester grades came out.

“There’s a lot more focus this year as far as accountability for their grades. Most of them realize there’s not a lot of resources there and they’ve got to go out and get a job or education to pursue the resources that they want,” East said.

That mentality flourished on the girls varsity team. Five players returned from last year’s North Central League III championship team, an honor that has made their team one of the school’s premier athletic programs.

Senior forward Trista Freeman, a key player for the Mustangs who has been invited to play in a Las Vegas junior national game this spring, said fan support brings success. And fan support has grown stronger since last season’s league title.

“Half our crowd comes to our out-of-town games, too,” she said. That means the Round Valley fans usually outnumber the home-team fans.

In the blue and white home gym, though, which has a 12-foot high Mustang painted on the wall, the advantage is overwhelming. During the JV girls game, Round Valley is down by one point, 36-35, with 35 seconds remaining. The small Potter Valley crowd tries to start a rallying call of “de-fense,” but gets drowned out by the uncoordinated cacophony and bleacher banging coming from the Mustangs’ fans.

When the JV boys team runs out to warm up just minutes after the girls’ game has ended, it’s not to blasting rap music, but to the jarring screams of their fans. The younger the players, the louder the yells.

“It’s our boys playing,” said sophomore Patricia Cortez, who is watching the game from the unofficial student section in a corner of the gym. She and her friend Danielle Bettega come to every home game, even though they aren’t on the team. Being on the high school roster isn’t the only way to participate.

“Everyone here plays basketball, some just aren’t on the team,” Bettega explains. She has asthma that keeps her off the court.

Family atmosphere

Some fans don’t have children or grandchildren on the court, but an assortment of relatives they keep up with. Iian Hoaglen has four cousins on the girls varsity team and a niece who’s a Round Valley cheerleader. He and fellow retiree Hank Gonzales arrive at around 3:15 to see the games, bringing padded pillows to make the bleachers more comfortable.

“It’s the only team we’ve got here,” Hoaglen noted. He’ll go on the road for some games to cheer his cousins — leading scorer Liz Oliver, Freeman, Teresa Bettega and Monica Whipple.

Fans and the athletes speak of the basketball teams as ambassadors of sorts, spreading the word that Round Valley’s reputation as a place where kids run wild is not accurate.

The locals prefer to believe that incidents such as cars being egged and tires slashed are due to boredom, for which basketball is the primary antidote.

“It might be a nice place for older people to retire and stuff, but it’s not a town for young kids,” said Misty Watts, a senior on the varsity team.

Kept in line by basketball

East says that’s not a problem Covelo faces alone. “You’re going to have problems no matter where you go in this world,” she said. “There are aunts, uncles, foster parents and grandparents here. Native or non-native, it makes no difference. These families are supporting these kids.”

Freeman admits she has been kept in line by the sport. “If I wasn’t playing basketball, I’d probably be messing up,” says Freeman, who may attend Mendocino College after high school. “Playing basketball made me want to go to school, keep my grades up, and gave me something to look up to.”

Ken and Connie Watts have seen basketball give their daughter Misty a jolt of ambition. She’s planning to attend Butte Junior College in Chico next year.

If she wasn’t playing basketball, Watts probably would be home watching TV, she said.

“All the people on the basketball teams have a good attitude,” said Watts, whose father played basketball at Round Valley. She’s sitting in the bleachers before the girls game, visiting with friends and cheering on the JV team.

“We’re trying to rebuild our rep to be good.”