Dave Strain, left, with Marty Waukazoo, Strain, legendary former coach of the Rapid City Cobblers, described Marty as his greatest player in 28 years of coaching. Courtesy photo

Native Sun News Today: Lakota basketball star continues to inspire

From trailer court to basketball court
Waukazoo keynote speaker at OLC graduation

KYLE— A hundred and fifty-one students received their degrees at Oglala Lakota College Sunday morning (June 16), and before the packed house, OLC President Tom Shortbull proudly congratulated them on their accomplishment. He then introduced the keynote speaker, Marty Waukazoo, by first comparing himself to Waukazoo as a basketball player— “I was good, but he was great,” and although many in attendance did not know it, the tall, angular, 70-year-old Waukazoo is arguably the greatest basketball player the Lakota nation has ever produced.

That alone should not be enough to qualify Waukazoo to speak before a class of graduating college seniors, but after basketball, he was graduated from Black Hills State in 1973, and after a transformative period of soul searching turmoil, Waukazoo also went on to become CEO of the Native American Health Center in Oakland, California, and over the next 37 years he would direct the expansion of that agency from 17 to 350 employees, and oversee a budget increase from $88 thousand to $35 million, and health clinic expansions into Sacramento and Fresno.

By all measures, Waukazoo has led a successful life, but like most Lakota lives, there is a deep story the surface details do not touch, a story that began back in North Rapid in the early 1950’s.

“We were living in a trailer behind the Mother Butler Center when I was 3-4-5 years old,” Waukazoo said. “Fifteen feet from the gymnasium. Every morning I would go in, and I was an altar boy for Father Collins. I would go serve Mass from 6:00 to 6:30. At 6:30 he’d give me a glass of milk and a day-old donut. I’d eat that and drink the milk and then he’d take me out to the court and had me try to make baskets and one day I did make a basket. I must have been four years old, and he called the Rapid City Journal, they came over and took a picture of me and all that, and that’s where I really developed. Years later I asked my parents, why did we live in a trailer house behind the Mother Butler Center, and my parents told me because they wouldn’t allow Indians to park their trailers in the White trailer court. From that adversity I became a basketball player. It’s kind of how adversities give you a gift, and that gift is basketball.”

"South Dakota's Most Exciting Basketball Player": Martin “Marty” Waukazoo, a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Image: Anthony / Friendship House of San Francisco

Waukazoo started playing for Mother Butler when St John’s Catholic School wouldn’t let him play with boys in the Seventh and Eighth Grade, because he was too young, “but I was better than those guys.” He said Mother Butler didn’t have a very good team, but they did play St John’s, and “we beat ‘em.”

At North Junior High, Waukazoo found himself the only Lakota player on the team, but something happened about that time, that would dramatically alter the course of Waukazoo’s basketball career: Dave Strain was hired as Rapid City High School’s basketball coach. “He’s been very special in my life all these years,” Waukazoo said. “He’s really had an influence in my life.”

Waukazoo was a perfect fit for Strain’s system: fast break transition, tough man-to-man defense, and selfless, hustling play. Strain had built a pipeline from South and North Junior Highs to the High School, and the Lakota boys at North figured prominently in his system. Strain had a lifelong familiarity with Lakota basketball, particularly the brand played on Waukazoo’s home reservation, Rosebud.

At this time the Cobblers were a truly dominant basketball powerhouse, always at the state tournament, often in the championship game. But Waukazoo made the varsity as a sophomore, even though he was rail thin and would grow about three inches before he was a senior. As talent laden as the 1965 and 1966 teams were, they failed at the ultimate prize, upset in the early rounds, and with Jim Linz, another Cobbler great, injured in 1967, Waukazoo was now the sole blue chipper when the Cobblers went to the 1967 state tourney in Sioux Falls, a tournament that would again have a lifelong impact on Waukazoo’s internal circuitry.

Sportswriter’s dubbed 1967, the Year of the Indian, because Waukazoo, Pierre’s Bruce Bad Moccasin, and Pine Ridge’s Will Garnier all made first team, the only time three of the top five have been Indian. Miller was the opening round opponent, sold by the media as a sentimental, small school “Cinderella,” destined to upset the big school powerhouses from Rapid City and Sioux Falls. They were no match for Strain’s Cobblers, and especially no match for Waukazoo, who lit them up.

“Strain was never one to run up a score,” Waukazoo said, explaining why Strain pulled him from the floor. What neither Strain, the team, or Waukazoo expected was for the crowd to boo Waukazoo. Strain wrote a detailed article some years later, explaining that dark moment in Sioux Falls, and making no bones it was racially motivated. Waukazoo hung his head on the bench, perplexed, unable to really process what was happening, “I don’t know how to describe it. I didn’t understand (the booing), I didn’t know what was going on. It didn’t make sense to me. But it did hurt.”


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James Giago Davies is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He can be reached at skindiesel@msn.com

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