LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) - Moments before tipoff, fans in Allen Fieldhouse whip up more than the usual amount of frenzy. Texas is the visitor, first place in the Big 12 is on the line, and the noise meter records decibels approaching a jet engine’s roar.
Less than two miles away, south on Naismith Drive to 23rd Street and a few blocks east, another college basketball celebration has begun, one steeped in tradition and heritage. Three players from Haskell Indian Nations University are lined up at midcourt to be recognized before their final home game.
They receive their jerseys in a frame, a time-honored tradition in college basketball. But along with that, Bo Schneider, Grant Proctor and Ron Rousseau are each draped in a star quilt, heralding a new beginning. Tony Kills Crow, the father of Haskell head coach Chad Kills Crow, chants an honor song.
“The day is sacred,” the song begins.
Their time at Haskell has been rewarding, the players say. But the real news here is that these three players have made it to this point. Roster turnover has been common. Schneider arrived on campus four years ago after playing at Lawrence Free State.
“I came in with four or five other freshmen, and we had this unwritten pact we’d go through this together,” Schneider said. “I’m the only one left.”
Schneider and the other two seniors, Rousseau and Proctor, who started their post-high school careers at other colleges, comprise what Kills Crow calls a “special group.
“I’m as proud of this team as I’ve coached,” the coach said.
As the Big 12 men’s basketball tournament featuring Kansas and Kansas State begins its annual four-day run at the Sprint Center, the program at Haskell is winding down for the offseason. But challenges remain year-round.
Students drop out at Haskell for reasons typical at most colleges, such as homesickness. But at Haskell, where tuition is free to the 1,000 students who represent some 140 tribal nations, as well as natives of Alaska, Kills Crow has also confronted issues more commonly found on reservations.
Some Haskell newcomers have never been away from home. Others arrive from environments where academics just weren’t stressed. Some bring personal issues.
To Kills Crow, though, one problem rises above the rest, and he’s been working to solve it since becoming the program’s head coach four years ago.
As a way of recording progress, Kills Crow clicks on this year’s team picture on his desktop and starts pointing.
“Doesn’t drink, doesn’t drink, doesn’t drink,” he says.
By the time he’s done, he has covered nearly the entire roster.
Those driving to Jayhawks games from the east, traveling along Kansas Highway 10, pass Haskell and its football stadium. But few recognize the latter for what it is: an enduring symbol of past athletic prowess.
In the early 20th century, Haskell’s football team appeared on the schedules of many of today’s big-time programs, such as Notre Dame, Nebraska and Texas A&M. The undefeated 1926 team outscored its opponents 558-63, winning at Michigan State 40-7 and tying Boston College for its only blemish.
In 1970, Haskell became a junior college. It went back to four-year status in 1988 and today competes in the NAIA Division II Midlands Collegiate Athletic Conference.
Kills Crow’s relationship with Haskell spans the NAIA years, but even he contributed to the trend of roster turnover. He arrived South Dakota to attend school and play basketball in the fall of 1994, and two semesters later he was gone.
“I was warned, ‘Don’t go to Haskell,’” said Kills Crow, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. “It was just a party school. And I thought, ‘Isn’t every school a party school?’”
But Haskell was unique.
“So many who were coming here had never really left the reservation before,” Kills Crow said. “They were 18, 19 years old with freedom, and there was alcohol all around. I saw the damage that was doing to my friends and my teammates. It was very intimidating to me.”
John Learned saw the same thing when he served as Haskell’s volleyball head coach and assistant football coach in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“Those were problems then and they have continued,” said Learned, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes who coordinates sports events for Native Americans. “Kids who have little experience away from a reservation, it can be overwhelming, and sometimes they don’t feel accepted into the dominant society.”
After one year Haskell, Kills Crow left for Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla., and before graduating worked with the women’s program there. The coaching seed was planted. He worked in Oklahoma and Colorado high schools before accepting an invitation to return to Haskell.
There wasn’t exactly a job to offer, but there was an understanding: He was being groomed to take over for former head coach Ted Juneau. In these formative years, Kills Crow attended clinics, was introduced to Kansas coach Bill Self and the Jayhawks staff, and sat in on KU’s practices, absorbing all he could about becoming a college coach.
But, again, Haskell startled him. It was as if time stood still.
“Basketball players were the outlaws of campus,” Kills Crow said. “They were the partiers - very irresponsible young men. They did what they wanted. They could come to practice if they wanted. Once, they walked out of practice, just quit.”
When Kills Crow became the head coach in 2009, one player told him he was only in Lawrence to play basketball.
“‘You have to be here for reasons other than basketball,’ I told him,” Kills Crow said. “That goes against everything I’m trying to do with this program. But he just checked out of school.”
Others were booted from the team, and the turnover was heavy. Yet Kills Crow says he hasn’t lost contact with most of those who’ve left. To the contrary, the coach said, he has made sure to stay in touch and help them through school or wherever they landed next. But they weren’t going to be part of the program’s foundation if they couldn’t toe the line.
“I was looking in the phone book to see who I could get to fill a roster that year,” Kills Crow said.
That first team, and each one since, heard the same lecture about accountability and responsibility.
Kills Crow’s No. 1 rule: “Don’t lie to me. If you’re having problems in class, if you’ve been out the night before drinking, if you’ve done anything like that, you tell me the truth. We’ll deal with it. You’ll run, maybe be suspended, you’ll face repercussions. But the trust remains.
“If you lie to me, and I find out, we’re done.”
If Kills Crow’s concern with alcohol seems extreme, it’s because of his experiences … and statistics.
A 2009 study by the Centers for Disease Control found that Native Americans have higher rates of alcohol use and frequency of use compared with other ethnic groups, which leads to more drinking-related problems, such as auto accidents, homicides and suicides.
Kills Crow doesn’t shy away from these issues on the recruiting trail. Combating negative imagery comes with the territory for coaches selling their programs. But he has to dig in more than most.
“Parents will tell me that if a kid goes to Haskell he’ll become a drunk,” Kills Crow said. “I tell them that I didn’t drink, and I don’t drink. Some of the kids on my team this year drank. Most did not.”
This was a day for hugs, and ceremony. In the locker room before the game, as with all games, the players burned dried sweetgrass, which is considered sacred, and prayed for their team and opponent.
“I’ve learned a lot about the traditional ways and respecting our heritage,” said Schneider, a member of the Assiniboine Tribe.
Farewells filled this final home game. Before the starting lineups were introduced, the seniors stood at midcourt, accepting embraces from teammates and the women’s team, which had just finished its game.
After the men’s game, the same three players returned to midcourt, and anybody in the stands could come down for handshakes and hugs. Parents, school personnel and the student body climbed down the stands and formed a line that snaked around the court.
Tony Kills Crow, the coach’s father, repeated his song.
The senior players’ journey away from basketball had begun.
“We haven’t lost our Indian ways,” Chad Kills Crow said.
Information from: The Kansas City Star, https://www.kcstar.com
Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.