Sherman Alexie muscles past Bob Sobotta under the basket.

Sherman Alexie Plays in HooPalousa Basketball Tournament to Raise Funds for Native Writing Fellowship

Jack McNeel
11/27/11
American Indian squad line up for a group photo

The quality of basketball being played in Moscow, Idaho, ranged from excellent to wacky to, well, something less than wacky. The players might be described in the same terms. But that was expected, simply a fun game between the Moscow SuperSonnets, representing the University of Idaho, and a team from the Spokane area called the Spokane Dirty Realists. The purpose was to raise money towards funding an annual Graduate Writing Fellowship for a Native American student/writer.

The name, HooPalousa, is a play on words, Hoops and Palouse, basketball and the region where the university is located and appropriate for a game of hoops with writers known for playing with words. It began in Kim Barnes’s graduate level novel workshop. Barnes is an award winning author herself and calls on other authors to visit the small class and talk about the process of writing.

“I have three writers coming to meet my six students, award winning authors coming out of the goodness of their hearts.” She thought a little game of three-on-three at a local grade school might be fun as she knew these men liked basketball. “I threw down some trash talk and challenged them to a game with some academic scholarly types. Jess Walter then said, ‘Why don’t I see if Sherman (Alexie) wants to come over.’ I said, do you think he’ll do that? And Jess said, ‘for basketball, yes!’”

As Barnes related, with Alexie on board, the event sort of took on a life of its own. The original idea of a three on three game quickly expanded into a regular five on five basketball game and the location was moved to Memorial Gymnasium on the University of Idaho campus. “We had to cut off the roster, so many wanted to play,” she explained.

“It’s like a carnival coming to town. Everybody was immediately on board with such excitement that it snowballed in the matter of a month that people from Spokane to Kamiah to Montana are coming. It turns out that every middle aged man thinks he’s got game. All these hidden lives. Who knew all these scholars have basketball trophies in their closets?”

“I’m very excited about this game,” she laughed. I haven’t laughed so much in a long time.”

Vandal Nation Singers

It’s game time and the mayor of Moscow, Nancy Chaney, welcomes the players and crowd, encouraging their support “for a very good cause.” University of Idaho provost, Dr. Doug Baker, also greets everyone. The Vandal Nation Singers gather around a drum in the center of the gym to sing a welcome song. The team poet, (yes, there was a team poet) Tiffany Midge from the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, turned out to also be a bit of a comedian. “I don’t know anything about basketball. Nothing. I had to Google ‘jump shot.’ I said he made a jump shot from the 30-yard line.”

The teams are introduced, roughly half American Indian, roughly half from the academic world. Two tribal chairmen are included, Chief Allan from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and Brooklyn Baptiste from the Nez Perce. National book award winner Sherman Alexie came over from Seattle. Jonathan Takes Enemy, one of Indian Country’s all-time great basketball players, who was featured in Sports Illustrated “back in the day,” was present. Dr. Aaron Thomas, Navajo, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Idaho, who has “dominated the noon-ball circuit of rugged sixty-year-olds,” suited up. Arthur Taylor, Nez Perce, and Steve Martin, Muscogee Creek, both on the staff at the University were present not only to play but to sing with the Vandal Nation Singers.

A total of nine Native players representing seven different tribes are represented. The balance are equally gifted either athletically or recognized in the writing world. Names pop up like Shann Ray Ferch who played professionally overseas. Brad Meyers, a former high school All-American who now works at the Healing Lodge of the Seven Nations. David Pendergraft who played at Gonzaga for four years and is now Director of Athletic Giving for Gonzaga. Jess Walter, author of six books and past winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Award. The list goes on.

At halftime Alexie said, “I’m having a great time. What I like is that the professors are playing really hard. They’re not backing down, they’re taking shots and they’re hitting us. I’m happy with that.”

Jonathan Takes Enemy is guarded by Sherman Alexie.

Takes Enemy is asked how it feels to be playing ball again. “It feels great. I always wanted to play against some of these players. It’s always an honor to me to play in a game like this. It’s for a good cause and I always want to contribute to Native Americans.”

At the end the Spokane Dirty Realists win, 101 to 77, but no one really cares. David Pendergraft is named the MVP, each player is given a small memento, and authors retire to the sidelines to autograph books for admiring fans.

Kim Barnes summed the night up in this way. “I don’t know that I’ve ever felt such a gathering of goodwill and generosity as I did at HooPalousa 2011. It felt historic, unprecedented, just like the University of Idaho’s American Indian Graduate Fellowship in Creative Writing -- the first of its kind in the nation.”

Sherman Alexie was also quoted on KLEW TV’s website saying, “It’s just the beginning of our effort to create this fellowship.  We’re going to keep doing this kind of thing to make sure the scholarship comes to life.”

Brooklyn Baptists, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe and a basketball player in this game, really liked what he saw.

“I appreciate that we were asked to play tonight. The University of Idaho and Moscow, the mayor herself was here, have really started something great. I think it’s got a lot of momentum. It’s going to provide a lot of awareness for Native American writing.”

“Native Americans have to express themselves, in their own words and own way, so that people will recognize what Native Americans go through in the modern day, trying to maintain their culture and history and identity, and also trying to cope with modern society and the struggles it is. I think Native Americans have always had that ability to demonstrate and explain and now this written format that the University of Idaho plans is going to be a great opportunity for a lot of young writers and older people as well.”

“I think it was a great night, a lot of good feelings, a lot of people coming together to promote Native American Awareness Month. It’s great to represent the Nez Perce and show the support we have for the University of Idaho and also for young Native writers.”

Sherman Alexie autographs a book for a fan following the game.

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