Denver Nuggets host Red Cloud Indian School for 15th annual visit
The Red Cloud Indian School has been guests of the Denver Nuggets for 15 years, attending clinics and games in a yearly tradition. But for the team’s VP of Basketball Administration Lisa Johnson, the program has been an essential part of her life for decades.
“I’ve been supporting this school since I was really young,” Johnson said. “My parents had told me to pick a charity or an organization to give back to, when I was little, like 10 years old. I used to share some of my allowance money to Red Cloud.”
The Red Cloud Indian School serves the Pine Ridge Reservation, a community in South Dakota that has its fair share of economic and social challenges. According to the Red Cloud’s official site, life expectancy at the reservation is the lowest in the U.S. and is on par with countries such as India, Sudan and Iraq. There is an 80 percent unemployment rate on the reservation and high rates of obesity, alcoholism, diabetes and infant mortality for a population that is estimated to be between 15,521 to 40,000. For those in the community, finding hope can be difficult and that’s why Johnson is so deeply invested in the school.
As she rose to become one of the few women executives in sports, Johnson decided to take her efforts to a larger scale and as she calls it, “share the Nuggets” with the kids. Through an incentivized program, the Red Cloud Indian School sends its top student-athletes to a Nuggets game each year where they participate in clinics and are given a behind-the-scenes look at the organization. Last Friday, the yearly event took place during Denver’s game against the Boston Celtics on Nov. 22. The results since the collaboration started 15 years ago have been substantial.
“We’ve had Gates scholars coming out of this, we’ve had kids getting jobs all over the country [as a result] and it’s because it is an incentive,” Johnson said.
Christian McGhee, a sports coach at Red Cloud, has seen firsthand how much these trips serve as an inspiration for his student-athletes. He mentioned Alejandro Rama, who is now playing Division II basketball at South Dakota School of Mines, as a success story.
“I think trips like this help these kids see beyond the reservation because they don’t get to see a lot of people of this status,” McGhee said. “It helps them understand that there’s something outside of this reservation.”
He added, “A lot of people on our reservation follow the Nuggets…it’s almost like our home even though it’s so far away.”
Dr. Raymond Nadolny, President of the Red Cloud School, said just having an opportunity to take the kids off the reservation and introduce them to a city such as Denver, with its population of just over 700,000 people, allows them to think of bigger possibilities.
“I asked one of our students if they had ever been to a big city and they said, ‘yes, Rapid City.’ Rapid City has 70,000 people in it. For them, 70,000 is like a million,” Nadolny said. “Just the experience to come to a metropolis, much less to be on the ground floor with NBA players is a dream for many high school students, especially for someone who doesn’t have the opportunity like many of our students. It’s crazy generous [from the Nuggets and Johnson].”
When Johnson mentions the opportunities to open doors, it is fitting considering the school had its first group of girls to attend a Nuggets game in the collaboration’s 15-year run. Stevi Fallis, who plays basketball and runs track and field for Red Cloud, prompted the change from what was an all-boys program to a program for both genders.
“I just felt that the girls should come because we work just as hard as the boys and it would be a good opportunity for us too,” she said.
And groundbreaking moments like that is why Johnson continues to work with Red Cloud and organize events for the program.
“It’s almost like a dream come true for me, because I always wanted to one day, do something special for a group of kids or for someone,” Johnson said. “I figured if I can help open one door and help one kid, then we’ve done [something successful].”