Pine Ridge High School Boys Basketball Head Coach Casey Means huddles with his team. Photo by James Giago Davies / Native Sun News Today

Native Sun News Today: Lakota coach makes comeback with reservation team

‘Iron sharpens Iron’
The coaching comeback of Casey Means
By James Giago Davies
Native Sun News Correspondent

PINE RIDGE — If the enduring strength and spirit of the Oglala Lakota Tribe could be embodied in the face and persona of a single person, he would strongly resemble Casey Means. He would bear the scars of a hard life, but would have overcome his fears, frustrations and failures, and not only survived, but built himself into a leader and mentor capable of being a part of something bigger and better than himself.

Last spring, Casey Means had no idea he would be head coach of the Pine Ridge Thorpes, or that his team would be three wins away from a state title. He was graduated from Pine Ridge High School in 1996, had spent a couple decades coaching, and had given up the coaching hot seat, had lost his love for the job. But the family connection to an injured cousin would set a chain of events in motion that would result in the best Thorpes basketball team in over thirty years.

Off the reservation, a coach and his team can connect with each other, and their community, but however much success this produces, however deep and meaningful the association, it can never reach the scope and depth of tribal identity. The coach, the players, the fans, are connected by more than just community, or even blood, and no matter where the Oglala reside, or how dire their circumstance, when the tribe is at its best, that connection is as ancient and resilient as the vast buffalo grass prairie itself.

Over thirty years ago, the Pine Ridge Thorpes went undefeated and romped to a state championship. That is the yardstick all Oglala basketball excellence is measured by. Every generation there is one team, one group of players, and their coaches, that stands out above all the rest.

Pine Ridge High School Boys Basketball Head Coach Casey Means. Photo by James Giago Davies / Native Sun News Today

But this team started in rudderless limbo. Pine Ridge finished eighth at state last year, and after coach Corey Shangreaux called it quits, the search went out for a coach willing to take on one of the most talented teams in the state, but also one of the most difficult coaching gigs. The first hire never showed up for work, and with August becoming September, and October being the start of basketball season, Pine Ridge needed a coach.

You know a gig is tough, when perhaps the most talented team in the state, at any level, can’t find a person that will take the head coaching job. Pine Ridge is not a gentle place. Not only do these kids often come from difficult home lives, the community, the fans, can be routinely nasty to a coach, and they do not handle success or failure graciously.

But underneath all that contentiousness, is a deeper truth. There is still spirit left in the Oglala, still a love for skill and sacrifice. There remains a cultural strength, the poverty stricken reservation imposed by an alien oppressor has failed to extinguish, and it can occasionally roar into a huge flame.

Two years ago, a promising young Thorpe named Charles Schrader had a basketball roll under his feet in practice, and the result was a destroyed left knee. Rehab was slow and painful, but last April, his started working with his cousin Casey and Sean Keith, and that association led to what was to follow.

“Actually, if it wasn’t for Charles,” Means admits, “I probably wouldn’t even be coaching. His mom is Lisa High Wolf, and him and my mom are first cousins. He was coming off his injury, and he just got cleared, and he came to me and Sean and asked us to get him ready for the season, so we started in the weight room. I started getting him healthier, I got the gym from Mike (Carlow) and started running the drills and stuff. Then they hired the other coach, but he never showed up.”

These young men represent what being an Oglala Lakota is...what living our Lakota values is. There were and are...

Posted by Pine Ridge High School Thorpes Basketball on Sunday, March 17, 2019

Even at that point, Means had no plans to become the coach. Yes, he was working out with the players, only because he felt that somebody had to do that.

Means: “White River was doing their good thing, and Red Cloud was doing their thing, and I was like, these kids got something special, some one needs to work with them. So, me and Sean started to be there off season. We’d do weight room, we’d do field workout, we do it every summer, but this year we kind of hit it harder. We went all summer. Sean was coaching them in the (summer) league, but I wasn’t really ready to coach, I didn’t say I was. I was there just to help (Charles Schrader), but in the meantime, I started falling back in love with it.”

When the job was reopened, Means applied, and found himself at the helm.

“I wanted to change the culture,” Means said. “Getting these kids better by their work ethic instead of their athletic ability. So we kept the weight room going, we kept the drills going every night. It took a long time for the whole team to buy in. We had try outs, they all made it, I think this year is the first year I didn’t have to cut no one.”

One of the worst double-edge swords for any coach is a talented team, with bench depth. These reserve players could start for most other teams, and they know it. The fifteen players on Pine Ridge could form three starting fives good enough to beat much of their competition. How does a coach get them to buy into a starting five with ten role players good enough to be starters?

“Once Corey Brown came around and started buying into everything, everybody else did,” Means said. “I was really proud of Corey for doing that.”

Corey Brown is the premier muscleman in the paint for Class A basketball. But he is more than just a post up with a signature spiked red Mohawk. He can dribble, he can shoot, he can defend, and he has more than 1000 career rebounds.

Means describes Brown as a “facilitator, leader, he just wants to win. He’s very humble, always taking pictures with the little kids, always trying to do his best to help them, always trying to help our people He’s bought in to play defense, and he does it very well.”


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James Giago Davies is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He can be reached at

Copyright permission Native Sun News Today

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