A "Native Notes" blog post by Ron Feemster
originally published January 17, 2013
For Alvin Spoonhunter and the other young players on the Wyoming Indian High School basketball team, Luke Martinez was the symbol of what was possible.
The team blasts through one of its toughest practices of the year on Wednesday afternoon, banging under the boards, trying hard to follow coach Craig Ferris’ orders not to cuss in front of me, a guest and reporter. Mostly, they succeed. Ferris hasn’t talked to the boys about Martinez, but he knows they are thinking about him.
Until his recent arrest and suspension from the Wyoming Cowboys basketball team following a brutal bar fight, Martinez, a Native American from Bismarck, N.D., was leading his team on an unexpected run of Division I victories and a possible spot in the NCAA tournament in March. Martinez, who played in the Wyoming Indian gym with the Cowboys at an exhibition game in October and spoke at the elementary school up the road, was living the dream of every player on the Chiefs.
“I see a Native player at a big school and I know we can make it,” Spoonhunter says. He is still soaked in sweat after practice. He holds a basketball at his waist. “It’s like Tahnee Robinson in the WNBA. It helps you keep working. You get the sense that you can make it. They did it.”
Robinson, from Ft. Washakie, in 2011 became the first Native American drafted by a Women’s National Basketball Association Team. She currently plays in the Premier League in Israel.
Despite the fact that media around the country are condemning Martinez for allegedly kicking a man in the head when he was down, it is difficult at first to coax a critical word out of Spoonhunter.
“He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he begins.
“And doing the wrong thing?” I ask. Spoonhunter ducks his head and begins dribbling the ball behind his back, right hand to left to right.
“Yeah, I guess.” The dribbling picks up speed. Right left. Right left. Right left. Spoonhunter avoids looking at me for another few seconds. Then he holds the ball for a moment.
“I think it’s a pretty bad thing that he did,” Spoonhunter says. “What he did, I don’t know it might come out. He made a bad decision.”
Native role models are sometimes in short supply on the Wind River Indian Reservation, so I imagine it’s especially hard to see one fail. Especially when the player who steps into Martinez’s shoes on the Cowboys will not be a Native player.
“What about you,” I ask Spoonhunter. “You’re a role model for all of those boys on the fifth and sixth grade team. What about when you were a fifth grader? You dreamed of playing for the Chiefs?”
The dribbling starts again. And stops.
“Yeah,” he says. “One kid came up to me. He said he wanted to meet me. He wanted a picture.”
I smile. “And how would it be for him if you were in the kind of trouble Martinez is in?” I wait for an answer. He doesn’t dribble the ball.
“It would be devastating for that kid,” Spoonhunter says. “For all those kids.”
Other players are still shooting around on the court, even after practice has ended. One of the bigger players is boosting a short freshman toward the basket, helping him dunk the ball.
“It’s bad what happened,” Spoonhunter said. “But I still want to see him back out there. I want to see him back on the court.”
Being a role model is tough. So is having one.
Read more about coach Craig Ferris and the basketball program at Wyoming Indian High School.
— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was as a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at firstname.lastname@example.org.