Current and former Native American college athletes said they carried their tribes’ expectations as well as their own when they made the leap from high school to college sports.
In a televised session for South Dakota Public Television, Mackenzie Casey, Christian McGhee, Amanda Carlow, all of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and Sunni Busch and Keith Moore, both of Rosebud Indian Reservation, discussed their lives off the reservation and on the basketball courts of Chadron (Neb.) State University, Northern State University, University of Texas Pan American, and South Dakota State University, during a panel discussion on the eve of the Lakota Nation Invitational, which begins today at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.
“They’re the ambassadors for our tribes,” said Tex Claymore, associate director of admissions at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. Stacy Phelps of SD GEAR UP said the interactive panel discussion would highlight the opportunities available to athletes in college.
“All of you are talented athletes who can use that skill to get college degrees,” Phelps said to the high school students sitting in the bleachers.
Before several hundred Native American high school basketball players, the three university students and two graduates returned to center court Tuesday to recall their playing days at the Lakota Nation Invitational and how it offered them an opportunity to play in college.
They revealed their experiences of homesickness, time management struggles, developing work ethics, study habits, having to prove themselves again and again, and their inspiration to stay in college.
McGhee, a sophomore and captain of his team, said his first month of college was tough. There’s no one to wake him up, tell him to go to school, to make dinner.
“I thought about going home every day for the first month. I didn’t know anyone. All my friends had gone to a different school, and my Mom and Dad wouldn’t let me come home,” he said.
On the court, it was somewhat better, but different, too.
“It’s not like high school when you’re in the starting lineup. In college, you have to prove yourself every day,” McGhee said.
“In basketball, I was playing against people who were bigger than me, stronger than me, faster than me and better than me,” he added.
The only place that had any feeling of familiarity was in the classroom.
“In the classroom, everything was the same,” McGhee said.
Yet, his dedication, hard work and the love for his game paid off.
One afternoon after a hard practice, McGhee’s coach called him over to tell him he was starting that evening. It was something he says he’ll never forget.
“My first start. I called home to tell my parents and I just started bawling,” McGhee said.
Casey had to work through his freshman year as well.
“My coach didn’t give me a scholarship right away. He wasn’t going to waste money on a kid who wasn’t going to keep his grades up,” Casey said.
Casey had originally planned to go to a junior college when he received a call from the head coach at SDSU, inviting the young athlete to join his team that was going to advance to Division I status and play against the best players in the nation.
“I wanted to play the best in the division,” Casey said.
Casey said it was a difficult transition. He struggled with time management allowing enough time to attend classes, eat and go to practice, then studying. All of this brought on anxiety that his grades would fall and he would become ineligible to play.
“It was hard for me to ask for help,” he said.
But he did, arranging for tutoring and finding ways to organize his study periods.
“Another thing to remember is to stay away from partying. Coaches see that, and it will affect your study habits, too,” he said.
Casey credited the SDSU Native American Club with helping him to adjust.
“It’s good to have that feeling of home. If you find Native students at your school, befriend them,” Casey said.
The memories that he carries include his team’s first Division I win. He recalls standing on the court in Kentucky with 27,000 fans in the stands.
“Even though they booed, it felt good. It was intense,” Casey said.
Richard Lamont of Wamblee asked Casey about his experiences playing in a Division I team at SDSU.
The former Red Cloud standout talked about his first time to board a plane and fly with his team to games, the big-time arenas, watching basketball stars like Shaquille O’Neal sitting in the audience watching them play and pitting himself against bigger, stronger players but without fear or regret.
“Never, never quit. What helped me was thinking about those who looked up to me. It helped me to set an example for them,” Casey said.
Contact Jomay Steen at 394-8418 or firstname.lastname@example.org.