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.