Nuggets continue relationship with Red Cloud Indian School

Basketball players from Pine Ridge Indian Reservation enjoy spring visit to Denver
by Aaron Lopez

The Denver Nuggets have turned Pepsi Center into an inhospitable place for visiting teams this season.

They happily made an exception for 10 players from southwest South Dakota.

In the midst of their NBA team-record 21-game home winning streak, the Nuggets recently welcomed members of the boys basketball team from Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The players were guests of Nuggets executive director of basketball administration Lisa Johnson, who was born at an Indian hospital near a Ute reservation in Vernal, Utah. Growing up, Johnson regularly donated part of her allowance to Red Cloud, and she later reached out to the school on behalf of the Nuggets in 2009.

“Red Cloud has been near and dear to my heart for many years,” Johnson said. “Their spirit, determination, citizenship and academic success have earned the respect of the entire Nuggets organization. It was our pleasure to welcome them back to Pepsi Center.”

This marked the third time in four years that Red Cloud student-athletes have made the 330-mile trip to Denver. Their visit was in conjunction with Native American Heritage Night at Pepsi Center.

A spring snowstorm added about two hours to a trip that normally takes six hours, but it did nothing to sap the enthusiasm once the players arrived.

They toured the Nuggets locker room and went through conditioning drills with strength and conditioning coach Steve Hess and his assistant Felipe Eichenberger. The boys also sat courtside for pregame warmups before Denver’s game against the Sacramento Kings, leading to an encounter with former Nuggets great Fat Lever.

Lever, now an executive with the Kings, and Johnson were part of a Nuggets contingent that conducted basketball clinics on Native American reservations in Colorado, New Mexico and South Dakota in the late 1980s.

One of the stops on the “Fastbreak For Life” tour happened to be the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which is one of the poorest economic areas in the United States. Pine Ridge has an unemployment rate around 80 percent and a per capita income of less than $7,000.

Seeing the Red Cloud players in Denver brought back memories for Lever.

“The kids were wonderful to talk to,” he said. “As they walked off the court, you could see how much it meant to them to receive this opportunity from the Denver Nuggets.”

Meeting Lever and touring the Pepsi Center was a precursor to the biggest moment of the night.

At halftime of the Nuggets-Kings game, the Red Cloud players took the court for a brief 5-on-5 scrimmate. They received a warm ovation from the Pepsi Center crowd as they left the floor and exchanged handshakes with several fans as they made their way back to a dressing room.

“Basketball is a go-to thing for everyone (on the reservation),” sophomore guard Kein Clements said. “It’s a big opportunity to be here. It was fun to get out there in front of thousands of people.”

After the Nuggets beat the Kings for their team record-tying 15th straight victory – and 17th in a row at home – the Red Cloud team capped its night by congratulating the Denver players in the hallway leading to the locker room.

“It was a thrill of a lifetime for them,” Red Cloud president Father George Winzenburg said. “The (Nuggets) players went out of their way to say ‘Hi.’ It was thrill to have this opportunity.”

Because Red Cloud also has produced 57 Gates Millennium Scholars – more per capita than any school in the nation – Winzenburg also was quick to point out that the players on the trip were the top academic performers in the basketball program.

“We want to encourage them not just to be athletes, but to go to college,” he said. “That’s what we’re about – sending these kids to college.”

For the time being, the visitors from Red Cloud were sent home happy.