Francis LaPlant, 18, of Browning. As a junior, LaPlant played basketball at Lodge Grass High School on the Crow reservation, where there is a mighty tradition that has produced legendary players like Elvis Old Bull and Jonathan Takes Enemy. Earlier this year, LaPlant was one of eight Montana players chosen to compete in a national prep tournament in Phoenix, Ariz. He currently lives with his aunt and uncle outside of Browning; his mother is two years into her recovery from alcoholism. His stepfather, a man he idolized, was stabbed to death three years ago. LaPlant's dream is to play college basketball.
Ronnie Ledesma, 21, of San Jose. His mother is Italian, a gynecologist. His father is Native American, a cop. Ledesma was a starting guard last season at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. He has never faced discrimination, he says, because most people don't know his ethnicity. "I get asked a lot if I'm Filipino."
Mike Marquez, 19, of Fresno. He was supposed to be on last year's team, but he was shot in a drive-by. When he arrived at the hospital, he showed no vital signs. There must be a reason, he says, why life was taken away, then given back. That wasn't the case for Cody Berry, a participant in last year's program, who was murdered last December.
Dale Johnson, 27, of San Jose. At 6-2, 245 pounds with a ponytail flowing down his back, he was the heart of last year's team. He was introduced to the sport by Darin Williams, an assistant coach and starting goalkeeper. Williams met Johnson while refereeing a basketball tournament: he tossed Johnson out of the game for unruly behavior. Williams, who runs the NASC team handball program in Fresno, was impressed by Johnson's tenacity and asked him to give the game a try. In his life, Johnson has overcome alcohol, the suicide of a brother and a two-year prison term for assault. He plays a key inside position called circle runner.
EagleDay ends his story of the Ghost Dance. A player offers a prayer and then Foster, in a crystal voice, sings a Lakota song that says to look for the coming of the spotted eagle, a helper who will protect them.
In their first practice, it is difficult to see how this team can come together in a week. Balls slip through hands, passes soar high and wide and end up in the bleachers. Movements are not fluid, and footing is uncertain. Foster, though, remains undaunted about how far the team has to go. The players must learn not only the rules, techniques and strategies of the game, but gain a sense of unity and purpose as well.
In the past, EagleDay was concerned that Foster was "a little too Zen." But Foster is convinced that the most important quality he can convey as a coach is a "love of the game," and the way to do that is to relate the sport to the players' lives. "I want you to really concentrate on the ball handling when you're tired," he tells the team during a break. "There are going to be moments like at a Sun Dance or some arduous ceremony, where you think you're not going to make it. You're going to make it, you're going to be fine."
Later, at a team meeting, he describes the camp's larger purpose: 'Each of us represents the tragedy, the challenges, the opportunities, the difficulties, the joy and sorrow of our communities. By the end of this week, you're going to know one another as handball athletes, but more than that you'll know each other as Indians. Winning and losing take care of themselves if we take care of ourselves, if we walk in a balanced way and take care of each other."
Practices are twice daily. By the middle of the week, the team's improvement is marked. They are beginning to understand Foster's dictum that "the ball is precious." Of all the metaphors Foster employs, the image of the ball is central. It must be protected and cared for. For Foster, the ball represents many things: On a poetic level, it speaks to a sense of balance and proportion, but on a practical level the team that controls the ball usually wins. As the week progresses, the passes are more crisp, the shots more accurate. Catches are being made on the run and movement occurs with purpose. The players are learning patience.
Ideally, players would have been brought in for several of these camps, and the team would have competed in tournaments before the national championships in Oklahoma City, now days away. The problem, however, is funding. It is difficult to find corporate sponsorship for a group and game few people know about. Although the council is trying to establish a base of tribal, private and USOC funding, so far most of its annual budget of about $100,000 a year has come from the council's chairman, Gene Keluche, who has poured $300,000 of his own money into the program. This year, the council allocated $20,000 for team handball.