Steve Kerr, Rez Ball, and Hope in Sport

“Sports is a refuge but not a hiding place from the world of violence.”

Golden State Warriors basketball coach Steve Kerr said that in an impassioned press conference right after the Uvalde shootings. Or someone retrieved an old quote to go along with his new press conference tirade about gun violence and Congressional inaction.

It doesn’t matter when he said it. The knowledge that Steve Kerr’s father, who in 1984 was the President of the American University in Beirut, was killed by a gunman, gives him creds beyond his basketball celebrity.

And what interests me is the confluence of sports and public affairs—and that of professional basketball and rez ball.

Someplace in the middle of Brothers on Three, Abe Streep’s book on the Arlee, Montana Warrior’s basketball team, there is the notion that the style of ball played by professional teams is growing close to that favored on reservations across the country: fluid and fast-paced offense off of relentless pressure defenses; feed the sharp shooter; make the “threes’ that open the middle; and “team ball” with sharp passes as strong as sharp shooting.

Team ball in an age of celebrity sports has become almost an anachronism, but I’ll note that Titus Yearout of the Idaho small schools state champion Lapwai (Nez Perce Reservation) team—a team that went undefeated and beat most teams by 40, a team that sportswriters said would have beat any team from any division in the state—was named player of the year the second year running. And Titus’s scoring had dropped from over 22 per game the previous year to 15 this year. Turns out a new scorer emerged, and Titus fed him while he rebounded, played defense, made steals and assists. The judges noted that.

You kind of have to think about Steve Kerr’s players—about Curry and Thompson and Green trading off high point games and winning with the crisp pass to an open three.

But it’s more than hoops that makes Steve Kerr, his Warriors, and rez ball reflect each other. It’s the team game, as I said, and it is sport—basketball in this case—lifting players and a community. When the Arlee Warriors, the Montana Flathead Rez team, were on the road to their second straight state championship—the year of Abe Streep’s book—a suicide on the reservation shocked the team into dedicating their state run to suicide prevention on the rez. In the middle of the championship run, they stopped to make a video about it.

For the kids from Arlee High School, basketball was a refuge from lives that were often hard, lives with racial discrimination and public stereotyping added to the normal adolescent hurdles of broken families, poverty, and self-destructive alternatives to academics and athletics.

Kerr’s basketball “refuge” is on a grander scale. His Warriors are about to play for the NBA—National Basketball Association—championship. And he emerges from that refuge to take on congress and the gun lobby. He hasn’t forgotten what happened to his father, and he wants all of us to step up and stop the gun violence that is plaguing the country. This violence of course includes the violence against Native women and the suicides on reservations.

Those of you who know me know that I was a middling jock in high school and college—not so talented, but I sure loved it. Kept playing town team basketball until early forties, and coached soccer and baseball—T-ball to Legion—on and off and on for 40 years. I believe in sports, that playing them keeps body and mind strong. And I remember that Jackie Robinson broke a major league color barrier and Karl Malone broke a color barrier in Utah. Sports have been a way ahead for many Black Americans, and a source of pride for millions more.

Basketball is now doing its thing for Native Americans. Rez ball is finally really opening college basketball—and college—to Native players.

I also know that two teams—basketball with dozens, football with scores of players—can play against each other with pride, with great emotion, and sometimes even anger, and still talk to each other the next day. Can agree on the game as they disagree on the way they play the game.

Maybe sport offers a way for the Great American Divide of today to find its way back to a more collegial competition and a measure of civility. Changing sports but not message, I think about the movie, “Invictus.” The divide in South Africa in 1995 was no smaller than our divide today. Watch Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela use Rugby and the storied—and long all-White—South African Springboks to bring his racially divided country together.

Bravo for Steve Kerr. For basketball. For sport.

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