A love for basketball runs deep in the Choctaw Nation
By Christian Chaney
April 3, 2023
The game of basketball is deeply embedded in indigenous culture, and its introduction occurred under less-than-ideal circumstances.
Natives were introduced to the game while confined to Indian schools in the 20th century.
The government-operated boarding schools sought to erase the identity of natives and are often remembered as a very traumatizing and dark time in history.
Teaching sports like basketball to the students at these institutions aimed to mold native boys and girls into model pupils and instill discipline in them.
However, this agenda was rejected by native athletes, and they used the sport as an outlet for the injustice they faced.
The sport of basketball was used as an escape, giving natives a taste of freedom.
Basketball spread quickly throughout the boarding schools, and the love for the game brought together Indian athletes.
James Naismith is credited as the sport’s inventor and founded the University of Kansas’s basketball program.
Neighboring the University of Kansas was Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence.
Naismith would often observe the men’s style of play at Haskell, and it is said that his vision of basketball was captured by the fast-paced way the Indian males played.
As the sport continued to gain popularity, several Indian school teams captured high school state championships, spreading pride in native communities and further growing the game.
Indian school alums would return to their reservations to continue playing and teaching the sport. Basketball brought together Natives from different backgrounds and was a place of peace and freedom that was stolen from them.
The game helped several through extreme tribulations and meant so much to so many.
The resilience of Indigenous ancestors and their credit to the game of basketball is something to be remembered and celebrated.
Choctaw Nation associates strive to keep the basketball culture and its significance to the tribe alive.
Kevin Gwin and his wife, Tammye, and District 9 Councilman James Dry started the annual Labor Day War Hoops Tournament around 25 years ago.
Gwin said when watching the softball tournaments, they noticed many kids and adults playing pick-up basketball between games.
“Back then, there was a charge for teams to enter an event at the Labor Day Festival, so we weren’t sure if it would be a success or not, but the tournament filled up on Saturday morning the first year, and it was a huge success,” said Gwin.
There are currently six age divisions for the tournament: Co-ed minis, 9-11; co-ed tweens, 12-14; Co-ed teens, 15-18; Men’s 19 and up; women’s 18 and up, and Old Timers, 36 and up.
The tournament brings in around 70-80 teams annually, lasting from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The 2023 Oklahoma Basketball State Tournament occurred during the first two weekends of March.
Tribal member athletes and coaches were part of the competition.
Coach James Kelley and his Riverside girls’ team played for the first time in the Class A State Tournament.
Riverside Indian School, the largest off-reservation boarding school in the United States, is located in Anadarko, Oklahoma.
The school’s website shows nearly 800 enrolled students representing over 75 Native American tribes.
James has been a coach at Riverside for 19 seasons.
He began his career coaching boys before becoming the girl’s head coach.
Seven of his current players have college offers, with two having D1 offers.
In the first game of the State Tournament, Riverside faced #3 Vanoss. Coach Kelley said the team had to get used to the electric environment of playing in the Big House.
The nerves subsided, and Riverside girls won in a thrilling game 43-39.
They faced #2 Caddo in the Semifinals and were eliminated after a 49-45 loss.
Even after a heartbreaking defeat, the team celebrates its accomplishments and plans to return to State next season.
“This season’s kids were exceptional. They were like-minded and believed that we could get there. They set the bar high for any other team that follows them. Moving forward next year, I am losing only two seniors. I think we can make it back and make it even further… I think some of the shortfalls we had this season will make them hungry for next season,” said Kelley.
Tribal member DJ Dill, an 11th grader from Caddo, Oklahoma, led his team to a State Championship.
Dill and his #1 ranked Caddo Bruins faced #6 Seiling in the semifinals. Dill had 29 points in the 50-40 win, and the Caddo Bruins punched their ticket to the championship.
The Bruins faced #4 Okay in the championship, earning their first state title in school history after a 58-51 win.
Dill led Class A boys in scoring with 58 points and won tournament MVP. Dill currently has one offer to play at the collegiate level.
When asked how it felt to be a state champion, Dill said, “I can’t explain how it feels, honestly. We have all been working for that goal since we were really young and when we won it felt amazing. We are truly blessed.”
Emily Robinson, another Caddo Bruin, and her teammates are now the Class A State Runner-ups. Robinson is a senior committed to Oral Roberts University.
She has played in the state tournament three times during her high school career.
“This season was so memorable to me because we played together as a team through the ups and downs, and we never gave in. We accomplished a lot by winning every tournament we were in and ending with a silver ball.”
According to Robinson, playing in the state championship is unforgettable.
“It’s a game I will never forget because I had the opportunity to finish my high school career in the big house on championship Saturday!”
Robinson made her way onto the All-Time scoring list at #18, scoring 2,431 career points.
She earned the Girls Class A Top Scorer with 80 points scored during the tournament.
Robinson and Dill both participate on the Oklahoma Choctaws basketball teams.
2023 Tulsa Memorial Senior Seth Pratt and his teammates faced the Del City Eagles in a tough matchup in the 5A state semifinals.
The Eagles knocked the Chargers out of the tournament at the Lloyd Noble Center, beating them 56-35.
The Chargers had an incredible season, with a 22-4 record.
Pratt was named All 5-A State Tournament with a 19.4 ppg average, and he is committed to Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
On January 30, he scored the 1,000th point of his career and is the new record holder for most career three points made in Tulsa Memorial’s school history.
“[This was] One of my best and funniest seasons in my high school career. Overall, I am very happy with the way this season turned out, even though we didn’t come out with the gold ball,” said Pratt.
The future of basketball is promising for the Justice Warriors.
They defeated the Kenwood Indians to become the ORES Boys Division IV State Championship.
The 7th and 8th-grade boys’ team is led by Coach Byron Lyon, affiliated with the Choctaw, Kiowa and Apache tribes.
The team comprises all native students from Choctaw, Creek and Seminole nations.
This win was the first State Championship for the school since 2012.
Basketball is still widely played by Native Americans from diverse regions and tribes.
Once used as an escape from unjustness and inequality, the game is now played as a hobby or potential college or career path.
The sport continues to bring together families, friends and those from all walks of life. Recognizing and understanding our ancestors’ contribution to the game makes it even more sacred to Native American culture.
Editor’s note: The individuals mentioned in this story are just a few of the many Choctaws who appeared in the State Tournament this year. The Biskinik would like to congratulate each Choctaw player who worked hard this season to help their team make it to State.
Photo Courtesy of Riverside Indian School
Coach James Kelley and his Riverside girls' basketball team played for the first time in the Class A State Tournament. The team reached the semi-finals, falling to the #2 ranked Caddo Lady Bruins.
The Justice Warriors 7th and 8th-grade boys basketball team recently won the state tournament in their division. The team is made up of boys from the Choctaw, Kiowa and Apache tribes.
Seth Pratt, a 6'3" guard for Tulsa Memorial High School, scored the 1,000th point of his career in January 2023 and is the new record holder for most career three points made in Tulsa Memorial's school history.