Tag Archives: basketball

Dennis Banks, Hoops and Me

 

Dennis Banks AIM Leader

In 35+ years in media I’ve never been what you’d call “star struck”. I’ve met a lot of celebrities and gained access to some remarkable locations, but never asked for an autograph and RARELY took a photograph. That being said, I have ended up in some pretty remarkable circumstances. This week’s passing of Dennis Banks, aged 80, Native American activist, author, educator, actor and central player in the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, brought back perhaps the most unusual.

In February 1985 I had just turned 24 and was the morning radio host at KIOV-FM 104.7 in Sioux Falls, SD. A few months prior, Dennis Banks had ended 11 years in California and New York avoiding prosecution for his involvement in the burning of the Custer County Courthouse in Custer, SD, which preceded the world-famous occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. Banks surrendered himself to SD authorities, and was sentenced to 18 months in the SD State Prison in Sioux Falls. After all those years on the run the world’s media wanted to talk with Banks. As I remember, he accepted two media offers. One was with French Television. The other was with KIOV News Director Jerry Dahmen, who was also stringing for NBC. After the interview Jerry casually asked Banks how he was spending his time in prison. Banks said he was leading a group of Native American prisoners dedicated to living a life of traditional diet, study, spiritual practice…and basketball. Jerry told Banks the station has a basketball team of its own, and wondered if the Banks-coached Native prison team would be interested in a game. Arrangements were made, and a game was set for February.

There was only one problem: KIOV DIDN’T HAVE A BASKETBALL TEAM. However, the offer had been accepted, so we had to come up with something, and FAST. We scraped together five volunteers who I think included GM Don Jacobs, Farm Director Tom Lyon, announcers John Jacobs and Dan Iseminger, and me. I also made an impassioned call to my long-time friend Lee Erickson in the Twin Cities with an offer he couldn’t, and didn’t, refuse.

So the Saturday in February arrived, and our rag-tag 6 met at the Pen. We changed into short pants and sneakers in an unused room at the prison, were lead through a couple of cell blocks, past the cafeteria, down a long tunnel, emerging in a cavernous, double-wide underground gym. There was one way in, and one way out. To our left was a boxing ring where two inmates were punching the bejesus out of each other. On the opposite side was the court, where 15 or so highly conditioned and disciplined Native young men were warming up. The crowd was very sparse. Program Director Reid Holsen, News Anchor Lori Scheel Martell and my brother Mike made up our cheering section/gang. A few dozen Native inmates were seated behind Banks and their bench. During the shoot-around I took a minute to stop, shake hands and introduce myself to Banks. As a 6th grader I’d followed Wounded Knee on TV and through the Weekly Reader (true). I don’t know if it was the nervousness of meeting this genuine historical icon, or the impending thrashing we were about to take on the court, but I have no memory of what I asked him or how he answered.

Thoughts quickly returned to the contest when from one end of the court emerged about a dozen Native prisoners and a drum. The BIG drum. The 12 spread out around the instrument and began playing and singing. The deafening emotional echo of the two gyms only magnified the power of the song, and our sense of dread, now in full flower.

We stayed with Banks’ team for about one quarter. Then every five minutes or so a fresh five would come off the Banks bench and RUN, RUN, SHOOT and then RUN some more. They were gentlemen throughout the game, and showed us skill and exceptional sportsmanship by only doubling us up 120-60. We considered it a moral victory that none of our “Iron 6” barfed or suffered cardiac arrest until after the final buzzer.

A camera crew from KDLT-TV shot the event. Somewhere, all that remains from that day is a short TV story including me in short gym shorts and a fuzzy white-guy semi-afro talking with possibly the world’s most influential Native American activist inside an underground prison gym in South Dakota. However, from that point forward, whenever my friend Erickson and I got up a pick-up game with some dangerous dudes on an inner-city playground, we were quick to let them ALL know the skinny white dudes they were about to tangle with had played PRISON BALL WITH DENNIS BANKS FROM THE INTERNATIONALLY FAMOUS ARMED OCCUPATION OF WOUNDED KNEE. You can’t make it up.

 

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One Person CAN Make A Difference

IMG_2426(L-R: Father Steve Miles (QC’s son), QC Miles, your author)

Last night I watched a documentary about the 50th Anniversary of the Rucker Summer Basketball League in Harlem, NYC. It was the first of the summer leagues where people from kids to NBA pros come together physically and spiritually through the game of basketball. The motto of the tournament is “Each One Teach One”, which is a great description of the mentoring process. I firmly believe there are few things more powerful in steering lives down the right path than a positive relationship with a true mentor, especially for those kids who have few if any of the family ties and creature comforts most of us enjoy.

On Labor Day I had a rare encounter with a man who has spent a lifetime as a mentor and influenced hundreds and thousands of lives in South Dakota.  Among those he influenced was my late father.  That mentor? Quentin C. Miles, age 96.

Q.C. Miles was a teacher, school superintendent and basketball coach for decades in several small school districts across South Dakota.  A decorated combat pilot in WWII, Q.C. returned to SD and became a teacher and coach.  In the early-mid 1950’s Q.C. found himself superintendent and basketball coach at tiny Gann Valley SD at a time when the nearby reservation high school at Ft. Thompson closed and sent students…and players…to Gann Valley. There was conflict, much of it racial. Some wise person once told me, in so many words, “If you want to cause trouble in a small town, mess with the school and the kids.  Parents will respond with lighted torches and cans of gas”.  The first couple of years were tough, but Q.C. soon had the team at the State “B” tournament (nothing like winning to bring people together!).   Q. C. went on to successfully coach, teach and lead at schools across East River, and became an influential legend in all matters of High School Sports.

In 1957, after four years of college sandwiched between two  years in the Army, and a year teaching in De Smet, my Dad, Mom and older brother Mike (then a toddler)  headed back to Forestburg SD to teach at the same school my parents, grandparents and many relatives had all attended.. The position paid a whopping $2,450.00 (a few hundred short of the cost of a basic ’56 Chevy).  As many did to make ends meet, my parents also raised a big bunch of chickens for eggs, a bunch of calves to finish out, and sold Dekalb Seed Corn on the side.  The superintendent who hired Dad at Forestburg? Q. C. Miles. Throughout my life I heard my Dad talk about Q. C. many, many times, and how much of a mentor and teacher Q.C. was to him while starting out in his career. A few years in, Dad was offered HIS first superintendent’s job at neighboring Artesian. Where did he go for advice? To Q. C. Miles, who said while he was sad to let such a good teacher and man go, Dad would be a fool to not take the job. That started a 30+ year career for my dad, leading small town school districts in SD and MN.  I have to believe Dad’s story was just one of hundreds influenced by Mr. Miles.

Now being on the planet for 96 years, and teaching and coaching his entire working life in SD communities, Q.C. must have come in contact with tens of thousands of students, parents and teachers.  Yet he could recount interviewing my Dad.  He asked about my Mom, and even remembered her maiden name and the names of her parents.  Q.C. told me he hoped I knew.how lucky I was to have the intelligence genes from both the Tlustos and Matthews gene pools running around in me (I told him I did).  He told me stories of my Grandpa Clarence (Dad’s dad) and his tenure on the Forestburg School Board. It was my grandpa who upon meeting Q.C. told him how unimpressed he was with him, yet after the interview told his fellow board members that “We CAN’T let this one get away”. Q. C., just like my Dad, gave a lot of the credit for his school’s successes to the quality school board members he worked with.

With decades working in all those towns with all those people, Quentin C. Miles has positively influenced countless lives and communities.  On Labor Day 2017 he touched mine, and reminded me by example that however rudderless, reckless and discouraging our times appear today, there’s living proof in Watertown, SD that one person CAN make a positive difference, if he or she is willing to put in the time and effort, and inspire individual eople to become a community.