PINE RIDGE, SD - The future on the Pine Ridge Reservation is shockingly bleak. Unemployment and alcoholism both stand at about 85 percent, and more than half the population is under 18 years old, with a life expectancy roughly 20 years less than the national average. But one basketball coach is trying to give his players hope. And here's the best part, it's working.
"You know, there's not always a lot of positive things to do out where we live," said Red Cloud boys basketball coach Matt Rama. "It isn't like we're in a town, where they can go to a boys club or go to the mall or anything like that."
But there is basketball. And so basketball is what Matt Rama is using to change his players' lives.
"We try to keep our kids playing and keep them hungry and spend a lot of time in the gym," Rama said. "We don't try to do that so much for basketball, but just as trying to keep them in a positive lifestyle and positive thinking. And if a positive thing for them to do on the reservation is to play basketball, then that's a good thing for our kids, and so it's kind of translated into a good program."
Red Cloud has risen as a very good program the last three years, with back-to-back state tournament appearances and a good shot at another one this year. And the effects of being in the gym and out of trouble have made them much more than just good basketball players.
"You know, it's not realistic to think you can get there every year," Rama said. "Is that your goal? Yeah, that's your goal. But you can realistically say, I'm going to try and have all my kids graduate every year."
Before he took over the program seven years ago, Rama says dropouts were a serious problem. But now, basketball gives them a reason to stay in school.
"Since I've been there, we've had some academic all-states, and we've never had those before," Rama said. "We've had five, and we'll have two more this year. And we've gotten the academic achievement award by the state, and that was the first time they'd ever got it in school history, and we've got that the last four years in a row. "
"I think that, academically, it's starting that, kids are going to college. We've had more kids go to college, more kids stay in college."
The kids relate to Rama's hoop earrings and laid-back attitude. And in the same way they respond to his motivation on the court, they respond to his influence in the classroom.
"I'm just trying to do things with my kids, man," Rama said. "It's fun to coach basketball, but the biggest thing of all is just trying to get kids to find some positive things in their life and positive future in their life."
"State tournament would be a great memory, but if they can be successful in the classroom, be successful in college, then that would be a great life that they can provide for their families."
And they can thank basketball, and Matt Rama, for that.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the national drop-out rate for Native American students in South Dakota is 23.8 percent. Red Cloud says its drop out rate is less than two percent.
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