'It really does a lot of good for our hearts'Rez ball takes boys team to finals in Nebraska
By Kevin Abourezk
@Kevin_Abourezk D’Von LaPointe walks slowly toward the half court mark. He looks straight ahead, trying to get the play right in his mind. To his right, Maurice Scott suddenly breaks free from his defender and rushes toward LaPointe. As Scott rushes past him, LaPointe hands him the ball just as MaNaPe Cleveland begins running toward Scott from the other side of the court. Scott hands him the ball and turns to block Cleveland’s defender as Cleveland stops and lines up the shot just behind the free throw line. He lets the ball loose as blue-clad fans from both Winnebago and Wahoo stand screaming on all sides of the arena. The shot goes straight through the hoop, evening the score with less than 20 seconds to go before the end of the fourth quarter. A time-out and then a failed effort at a two-pointer by Wahoo a few minutes later sends the game into overtime. This is rez ball. It’s fast-paced and depends on lightning-quick teamwork. And for the fourth year in a row, it’s what got the boys from a small town in northeast Nebraska all the way to the state championships. “I just like to speed up the game because around here, a lot of teams play the slow game and try set plays up all the time,” said Jeff Berridge, head coach for the Winnebago boys basketball team. He tells his players to “run the other team out of the gym” and constantly pushes his boys to condition themselves to be able to run four entire quarters. Their game style even won them a state championship title in 2015, breaking a more than 70-year drought for the team.
This year, their championship dreams weren’t to be, as the Indians fell to the Wahoo Warriors in overtime at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Saturday. But their success this season marked the first time in Nebraska history that a reservation school has sent a team to the state championships for four years in a row. As the game ended, the teary-eyed Winnebago players collapsed in their chairs and held their heads low. Their coach patted them on the back and tried to cheer them up, one by one, as the Warriors cut the basketball nets from the rims. “I told them they have nothing to hang their heads about,” Berridge said later. “We went there and left everything on the court. Both teams played great.” For a reservation community like Winnebago, basketball is so much more than a game, so much more than a pastime or any one individual player or coach. It’s a way of life for young boys who prove their mettle on “the slab,” a painted blue concrete court in the center of Winnebago where players hone their skills day and night. It’s a way for a people who’ve struggled for generations with grinding poverty and alcohol abuse to lift each other’s spirits and find hope through a community effort to achieve success in sports.
For 17-year-old Cleveland, who will graduate this year and has big plans for college, basketball is a way to inspire his eight brothers and sisters, a way to encourage them to believe in themselves. “I want all my other siblings to look up to me because when they look up to me and see me doing it, then I want them to be like, ‘Oh, my brother did it, so then I can do it,’” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to do – set a bar so my siblings can push further than it.” An undeniable key to Winnebago’s success on the court in recent years is Berridge, a 29-year-old Winnebago tribal citizen who decided after a particularly frustrating moment on the court during his junior year to come home and teach the game to young Winnebago men. He said a racial incident occurred during a game between Winnebago and Ponca and people were thrown out of the game by police. He said his coach didn’t do anything about it, and later during a school board meeting in Winnebago, Berridge made a promise. “I love the game so I told the juniors that I would be back to coach the team,” he said. “So that’s what I did.”
But not before he went to Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, where as a basketball player he helped his team achieve its most winning season in the school’s history. All while raising a son who had been born during his senior year in high school. These days, you can find his son, now age 11, practicing with the high school boys’ team. That’s where he was the night before the team’s quarter final game against Syracuse last week, running drills and facilitating the team by running after the ball. During games, Dyami can be seen on the sidelines dancing and making funny faces at people in the audience. He’s a sort of mascot, keeping people’s spirits up and entertaining them. But he also gets the players drinks and towels when they need them. “He knows all the drills, all the plays,” Jeff Berridge said. “I can have him run a practice if I want him to.” He said having his son practice with his team allows him to be a father and a coach at the same time. And his son wasn’t his only relative present at practices this year, Jeff Berridge said. One of his starters, LaPointe, is his cousin and a cousin to assistant coach Aaron LaPointe, he said. “D’Von’s pretty much our brother,” he said.
Such connections are common in Winnebago, where family and basketball are as intertwined as the earth and the rivers. D’Von LaPointe said his teammates and coaches are his family, always pushing him to get better, run harder, practice more. He said it’s that encouragement that makes Winnebago basketball what it is today. “We’re always ready to run and play rez ball,” he said. The expectations of the players’ families, friends and community leaders also drive the players to push a little harder when things are tough, he said. “They always expect us every year to win a state championship,” he said. “It’s a lot of weight on our shoulders, but I believe we can handle it and go out there and win.”
Michelle Free LaMere, 51, said basketball has given many young men and women in the community who’ve often faced many obstacles already an opportunity to find success. “It really does a lot of good for our hearts.” Janelle DeCora, a counselor at Winnebago Public Schools, said boys and girls fill the town’s outside courts year round, day and night. She said she grew up playing basketball and now her children are growing up playing basketball. Her son, Ed Payer, a sophomore at Winnebago High School, made varsity as a freshman and this year got a significant amount of playing time, she said. She said he started playing basketball in first grade with the YMCA and has attended basketball camps each summer since fourth grade. Last week, DeCora sat in stands at Pinnacle Bank Arena cheering for her son, and chiding him for his minor mistakes. “He knows he’s grounded for missing that layup,” she said jokingly.
MaNaPe Cleveland said he and his teammates have focused solely on basketball in their high school years, forsaking other sports to hone their abilities in this one sport. He said Berridge is always willing to open the high school gym for his players and encourages them to attend fall and summer leagues to get practice during the off-season. Cleveland said he learned to love the game from going with his father, Haga Cleveland, to games in different reservation communities during the summers and watching his dad’s high school and college games on VHS. Like his dad, he plans to attend college, hopefully on a basketball scholarship. With his senior year nearly over, he said, he’s honored to have been able to play basketball for himself, for his siblings, for his father and for his people. “There are a lot of families having their own troubles,” he said. “When they come out to watch us, they get away from that hurt or whatever is going on at home.” “It means a lot to play on this team and play for the people of my community, for my family, too.”