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Wyoming Indian Elementary School students waited for something more dear to them than candy on Halloween -- the arrival of the University of Wyoming men’s basketball team Wednesday.
The Cowboys, for the first time, visited the Wind River Indian Reservation -- home of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes -- to play an exhibition game against Fort Lewis College (Durango, Colo.). Their trip to Ethete marked the first time any UW athletics program visited the reservation. What better place to do it than perhaps the premier high school court in the state: Wyoming Indian High School (WIHS)?
Make no mistake about it. The children wanted to see the Cowboys in person, but one player in particular -- one of their own -- easily became the star attraction.
One by one, the Cowboy players and coaches entered and, when senior shooting guard Luke Martinez walked in, a buzz among the students grew. They recognized the 6-4 senior with the easy smile and smooth outside shot. He made his way to the front of the pack and was greeted by smiling faces.
What made his visit so special to these children and, for that matter, the entire Wind River Indian Reservation, is that Martinez is a Chippewa in the Turtle Mountain Tribe back home in Bismarck, N.D.
The senior social science major, who will graduate in May, felt at ease in front of the students, playfully interacting with them, even reading to a fourth-grade class.
Though this marked the first time any UW basketball team visited the reservation, it was a return trip for Martinez. Last spring, he gave the commencement speech at the WIHS graduation.
“It’s very important for me to give back,” said Martinez in the quiet of the school library. “I was in their position as a child. I had role models growing up and I just hope they look up to me as a role model to see what I’ve done.”
He talked to the fourth graders about being active and to try all sports, while also preaching good nutrition. Students coveted Martinez’s autograph as if he were a star NBA player, and he gratefully obliged.
“Anything I can to give back to the community, I will do. It’s about giving back,” Martinez said.
How the game came about
When UW men’s basketball Coach Larry Shyatt returned for his second stint as the Pokes' head coach, he talked with UW Athletics Director Tom Burman to discuss re-establishing UW’s love affair that was present Shyatt’s first time around in 1997-1998.
Since taking control of UW athletics, Burman has advocated for his coaches to conduct more outreach programs in Wyoming as a way to thank the fans for their support.
“This event in Ethete is a great opportunity for UW to reach out and bring college basketball to central Wyoming,” Burman said before the game. “We have made an effort to take our programs around the state in recent years to give fans a chance to see our coaches and student-athletes up close.
“We also feel it benefits our young men and women to travel the state and gain an understanding of how far our fans travel to support them,” he adds.
Because the NCAA regulates where Division I teams can play outside of their normal venues, UW teamed up with the Nike N7 program to bring the exhibition game to the Wind River Indian Reservation on the WIHS Chiefs’ home court. Nike N7 is the company’s commitment to bring sport and its benefits to Native American and aboriginal communities across North America.
“This gives us a chance to do what I consider the greatest thing in life we can do -- give back,” Shyatt said as he and his coaches made their way through the elementary school.
Shyatt wants his players to know that it is their responsibility to give back to the community and the state they represent.
Burman notes the goal is to take UW programs to different communities in Wyoming annually. The challenges include finding opponents willing to participate, finding facilities and complying with NCAA regulations.
“All of us at UW recognize the statewide support in the form of fan support, donations and legislative commitment,” Burman said. “This is just a small way for us to say thanks.”
This fall, the UW wrestling team will have a dual match in Cheyenne, and Coach Mark Branch’s nationally recognized team will be in Gillette next year for another matchup.
Basketball is King
In this hoops-crazy part of Wyoming below the scenic Wind River Mountains, it’s rare to see households without a basketball hoop in the driveway or backyard. Courts ranging from the well-manicured to homemade dirt courts dot the landscape.
WIHS Coach Craig Ferris, who played for the Chiefs and was a member of a state title team as a sophomore, said the rabid reservation fan base knows the game.
“They also are very passionate about their basketball, through all the generations, from grandmas to babies,” he said laughing with an obvious sense of pride.
Wyoming Indian Elementary School Principal Owen St. Clair was more than willing to invite the Cowboys to play at WIHS. St. Clair, a UW graduate, is a former player and assistant coach for the Chiefs. He played for WIHS from 1987-1990 and helped the Chiefs win the 1989 state title. He led the charge to bring the Pokes to the reservation.
St. Clair was an assistant under legendary head man Al Redman for five years and helped lead the team to the 2001 championship. Redman, who coached for more than 20 years, saw his team set the state standard, winning a record 50 games in a row.
In all, the Chiefs have won nine state basketball championships.
WIHS’s impressive home court seats 3,200 fans and St. Clair said it’s not uncommon to see an average of 1,500 at each Chiefs’ game -- and a 1,000 more when league rival Lovell and Wind River teams come to town.
“This is huge for us having the Cowboys play here,” St. Clair said. “This is the first time the Cowboys have played outside the Arena-Auditorium or the Casper Events Center. And it’s probably the first time many of the people here have actually seen them play.”
Wednesday afternoon the Cowboys went through a light workout, stretching before going into a shootaround. A few folks watched intently from the stands as Shyatt barked out orders. St. Clair and Ferris were among the group observing the session.
Starting his eighth year leading the high-scoring Chiefs program, Ferris has led the Chiefs to state titles in three of the past four years -- firmly keeping the tradition alive. His teams still play the fast-breaking, in-your-face- full-court defense he learned under Redman.
“Having the Cowboys here gives our fans the chance to see what the next level of basketball is like because they are used to only seeing the high school game,” Ferris said. “They really don’t get to see that caliber of players from Division I. Maybe this will open their eyes to a different level of basketball.”
The Game Arrives
The Pokes got off to a slow start against Fort Lewis. The passive crowd did not start to liven up until Martinez hit back-to-back three pointers. Then came lively bursts of cheers heard so many times before on this court.
During halftime, Jasmine Pickner-Bell, the two-time world champion Native hoop dancer, along with Pistol Pete and the UW cheer squad, kept the crowd going.
In the second half, the Cowboys gave the crowd what they came for. Fancy passing and a couple of monster dunks from Larry Nance Jr. and Josh Adams helped UW build a 20-point lead. And like the Chiefs, the Pokes won easily 82-61.
It did not matter that the Skyhawks were a lower division team, and that it was just an exhibition game. This was Division I basketball played on the Chiefs’ home court.
On Halloween night, under the waning gibbous moon, fans exited the building, breaking down the game like scholars of the sport, discussing isolation here and a clean assist there.
“The University of Wyoming just picked up a whole reservation of fans,” Ferris said among those happy for the opportunity to see the Cowboys on their home court.
If this was the UW men’s program Shyatt and Burman were looking to expand around the state, then the goal was met.