Skies are Nuggets blue for students from Red Cloud

Basketball team from South Dakota makes second trip to Pepsi Center

The video cameras rolled as Marcus Camby rode a stationary bike in the Nuggets weight room.

Right on cue, the former Nuggets center delivered an impromptu public-service announcement.

“How’s school going?” Camby asked. “Make sure you keep your grades up.”

The students from Red Cloud High School, nodded enthusiastically. If it wasn’t for their work in the classroom, they never would’ve found themselves having a conversation with an NBA player Friday night at the Pepsi Center.

For the second straight year, the Red Cloud boys basketball team was invited to play at halftime of a Nuggets preseason game. Six players from the girls’ team also made the seven-hour trip from Pine Ridge, S.D., as part of a reward for their academic and athletic achievements.

“It’s a pretty big opportunity for us to come to the game,” said senior forward Brandon Two Bulls. “I was excited for this since they told me two weeks ago.”

Before their chance meeting with Camby, the students went through a workout with Nuggets strength and conditioning coach Steve Hess. Two players, including senior guard Kiley Weston, won individual challenges and received a shoe signed by Nuggets point guard Chauncey Billups.

“Basketball’s a really big thing on the reservation,” Weston said. “Everyone on the ‘res’ knows we came here. We’re like VIPs.”

With an average graduating class of about 45 students, Red Cloud is a private school located in one of the poorest economic areas in the United States. Alcoholism affects nearly every family, and 80 percent of all Pine Ridge residents are unemployed. The reservation's per-capita income of $6,286 is the second-lowest in the nation.

Despite the socioeconomic hurdles, Red Cloud students dream big. The school boasts 45 Bill and Melinda Gates Millennium Scholarship recipients – the highest per capita in the nation – and every Red Cloud student volunteers in the community.

The school also excels athletically while competing at the Class A level in southwest South Dakota. Two of the players from last year’s district championship team are now playing for Chadron State, an NCAA Division II school in Nebraska.

“In Pine Ridge, there are two seasons,” said Colleen McCarthy, Red Cloud’s major gifts officer. “Basketball season and the rest of the year.”

With that in mind, the experience of playing on the Pepsi Center court was priceless. The boys and girls exchanged high-fives with the Nuggets as they ran onto the court for pregame warmups. At halftime, Two Bulls threw down a dunk during the 6-minute intrasquad game, and Bobby Hernandez punctuated the night with a slam of his own in the closing seconds.

“It’s a thrill and a delight for the kids to come,” said school president Father George Winzenburg. “This is a really big deal. The primary emphasis is academics, but this is a nice blending of basketball and academics. They’re good students in good standing in school. This is a way to open their eyes, broaden their experience and see the opportunity in front of them.”

The relationship between Red Cloud and the Nuggets started two years ago when Nuggets executive director of basketball administration Lisa Johnson sent a box of T-shirts to the school and a note to stay in touch. Born at an Indian hospital near a Ute reservation in Vernal, Utah, Johnson used to donate some of her allowance to Red Cloud as a child.

She and Nuggets senior manager of fan development Doug Fulton hope to bring the Red Cloud students back on an annual basis.

“These kids are absolutely incredible,” Johnson said. “They are so wonderful. They are outstanding students and athletes and just a delightful bunch of kids. When we had them last year, it was probably the most enjoyable group of kids that Doug Fulton and I have worked with. Their enthusiasm and excitement spread to all of us. That’s why we’re so happy to have them back.”

The feeling was mutual.

“Sports have a big impact because that’s where we learn discipline and some of the lessons we learn in the classroom,” Winzenburg said. “We’re very grateful to everyone associated with the Nuggets organization.”

Their short time on the Pepsi Center court capped a whirlwind day for the Red Cloud students. There was only one real drawback.

All other field trips this year are going to pale in comparison.

Contact Aaron J. Lopez at