- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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LAWRENCE, Kan. -- The bus bounced along the highway from Eagle Butte, S.D., to Lawrence, Kan., covering the almost 700-mile trip in about 16 hours.
Folded into one of the seats, 6-foot-10 Terrance Little Thunder tried to make himself comfortable enough to relax.
It was no use. He was far too preoccupied to rest. Every time the bus stopped, Little Thunder scrambled in his seat to make sure he hadn't lost the worn-out scrap of paper stuffed in his pocket.
Before he left his home on the Lakota Nation reservation, Little Thunder had scratched a phone number on that piece of paper.
If he lost the paper, he lost the number.
If he lost the number, he lost his last shot at a future.
He was 29 and out of chances.
"All I had was a little bit of money and that piece of paper with Coach's number on it," Little Thunder said. "I held onto that thing so tight, man. I wasn't about to lose it."
Tales of sports as salvation aren't new: A game gives the ticket out of the rough neighborhood, offers the road to escape an otherwise bleak existence.
But what if the alternative wasn't just a rundown section of a city, but a place where more than 40 percent of the population lives in poverty? Where the unemployment rate is double that of the national average and 40 percent of kids drop out of high school?
Worse, what if a 6-10 frame and a decent game -- the usual backbone to a ticket out -- didn't merit so much as a sniff from a Division I, II or III college?
What if there was literally only one place for salvation?
What would you do with that scrap of paper?
"Every time we stopped, I checked," said Little Thunder, sitting in the basketball offices at Haskell Indian Nations University. "Every single time. I didn't relax until coach showed up at the bus stop to meet me. This is my one chance. This is it."
The Coffin Complex, home of the Haskell Fightin' Indians basketbal team, sits on the back side of the winding road that twists through the Haskell campus.
Fairly nondescript, it houses one pretty cool artifact: The hardwood the Fightin' Indians play on is a 22-year-old relic, taken up from the Kemper Arena floor in Kansas City. It's the court Danny Manning and the Miracles stood on after claiming their 1988 national championship for Kansas.
But on this day, that slice of Jayhawks history is covered by a tarp. Douglas County is holding a flu clinic, and rather than squeaking sneakers, the court is crowded with people looking for H1N1 nasal mist spray.
There is no other court on campus, so the Indians are crammed in a small weight room. Practice is canceled.
"I should really let the AD have it," jokes Ted Juneau, the basketball coach and athletic director at Haskell.
Juneau is not Native American, but he is a basketball man.
He spent 33 years in the Lawrence public education system, serving as a social studies teacher, assistant principal and principal. He also coached basketball and golf and is the only coach in Kansas prep history to win both boys' and girls' basketball state titles.
It helped, of course, that one of his Lawrence High players was named Manning.
After hanging up his whistle at the high school level, he came to Haskell in 2007 as a consultant to the university's president.
But the athletic director and basketball coach both left, and when the president explained that there was only $5,000 in the budget to pay for a new coach, Juneau signed on.
"I wanted to see if I could give these kids something they had never been exposed to; I thought they deserved it," Juneau said. "They're no different than the kids at KU. They deserve a college atmosphere every bit as much."
The disparity that exists in college athletics is no news flash, but perhaps nowhere is the distance between the haves and have-nots more stunning than in Lawrence.
A mere 10-minute drive and a world away from Haskell is the University of Kansas, home to one of the nation's truly elite basketball programs.
The Jayhawks work on a practice court in a facility so new the smell of fresh paint still fills the air. The court is part of a $42 million renovation/addition to venerable Allen Fieldhouse, a renovation that's added concourse space for the fans and a tricked-out locker room and suite for the players. A wall of flat-screen televisions greet the Jayhawks in their team room to allow for multiple-game viewing, and the leather recliners are straight out of Archie Bunker's fantasy world.
Old-school blue metal lockers, scored from the Kansas football team, line the Haskell locker room walls. Wooden benches serve as seats. There's one big-screen television, a throwback floor model from the pre-flat-screen days.
It's a major upgrade from the way things used to be.
"We didn't even change in here before," said forward Kevin Begaye, who is part of the Navajo tribe in Arizona. "We'd come to practice or games already dressed."
But as Juneau has learned in his short time at Haskell, fixing the aesthetics is the easy part. Much more than money separates kids at Haskell from the kids at Kansas. There is a gulf of opportunity dividing the two with unsparing cruelty.
The kids wearing Jayhawks blue have been seasoned and scouted since they were preteens. With high schools versed in the language of NCAA eligibility and summer-league teams crisscrossing the country so they can showcase their skills, these kids have been given every chance to make it to college.
The players at Haskell are the rarity, the handful of kids who actually have graduated high school (the dropout rate on reservations is 40.7 percent), let alone made it to college.
As for basketball, they also have played the game their whole lives but they have played in a hoops black hole. College coaches don't even look for them, let alone watch them.
"In some ways it's no different than the kid in the inner city," Juneau said. "They have to fight through things like poverty, alcoholism, drugs, dysfunctional families. But what they don't have, they don't have the person who can funnel them to some topflight program and get them out. It doesn't exist."
From French Lick, Ind., to France, from Chicago's South Side to the Sudan, college basketball coaches have visited every corner of the Earth in search of hidden talent. On any given night, an inner-city point guard might throw the alley-oop pass to a passport-carrying big man, who throws down a dunk over a kid from the heartland.
Yet as much as the game has been internationalized, according to the most recent NCAA Student-Athlete Race and Ethnicity Report, only five of the 5,051 Division I basketball players were Native Americans or Alaskan natives.
On Indian reservations, basketball long has been revered. "Rez ball," a frenetic version of the game in which missed baskets are forgiven if set up with behind-the-back passes, draws thousands of people to high school gyms, some in native headdress.
"If you play basketball on the rez, you're a celebrity," said Dominic Clichee, a Navajo from New Mexico.
So why hasn't the passion translated into the colleges?
The culprit is as complicated as the history of Native Americans in this country. Reservations are a safe haven for Native Americans, a place where the cocoon of familiarity is offered in language and culture. But opportunity lies outside the reservation, making the push-pull to stay or go a constant.
According to the most recent American Indian population and labor force report published by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the unemployment rate among Native Americans nationwide is 49 percent; and 29 percent of them are employed below the poverty level.
But leaving means jumping into an unfamiliar world, where stereotypes knock down even the most optimistic.
"In some ways it mirrors what's happened to Natives in this country," Juneau said. "They're damned if they do and damned if they don't. If they try to join the general population, they encounter problems and discrimination. If they stay on the reservation, what is there for them there?"
It's more than reluctance standing in the way. It's ignorance. Current Native American players have been damned by the failures of their predecessors. Tales of former Native American legends litter the reservations, but mostly they are tales of woe.
In a 1991 Sports Illustrated article, Gary Smith chronicled the life of Jonathan Takes Enemy, a can't-miss Division I prospect who was named Montana's most outstanding athlete in his senior season, as well as Hertz Athlete of the Year.
Takes Enemy bounced around a handful of colleges, never realizing his talent or finishing school.
"You grow up, you see a lot of people on the side of the road," said fellow Montana native D.J. Fish, a sophomore forward for Haskell. "They didn't follow their dream."
Fish traveled with a summer-league team to the annual showcase events in Las Vegas a few years ago. He heard through the grapevine that some coaches were interested in him, coaches from NCAA schools.
"But then they heard I was Native and they dropped me like that," he said, snapping his fingers. "Why? I don't know. I think because there are so many stereotypes."
Or, as Begaye said: "So many people before us have messed it up. They figure we will, too."
Who breaks the cycle?
The players at Haskell are trying. Last year, the Indians won a school-record 14 games to finish second in their league.
This year, they dream of hosting the conference tournament (awarded to the highest-seeded team) and making the NAIA national tourney. They take what appears to be a beleaguered 2-15 record into conference season, but it's somewhat deceiving. Juneau intentionally stuffs the nonconference season with tougher competition -- including NCAA Division II schools -- in hopes it will better prepare his team for the important Midlands Collegiate Athletic Conference slate.
But success for the players will be measured in more than wins and losses. If they stick it out, they win. If they open the eyes of one other basketball player on their reservation, they win.
"I think there's a lot of talent on the rez; we just have to convince people to come to Lawrence," said Clint Not Afraid, a sophomore from the Blackfeet/Crow reservation in Montana. "A lot of people are afraid to do that. Why? I don't know. They don't understand it, I guess. They don't see that basketball takes them places."
Basketball took Terrance Little Thunder on a bus ride to what he hoped would be a future.
Before he came to Haskell, Little Thunder already had redshirted a season at Presentation, a small NCAA Division III school in Aberdeen, S.D. He then played two seasons at United Tribes, a tribal college in Bismarck, N.D.
He had since moved back to the reservation and was making good money as a welder and playing pickup basketball at a local YMCA. But he still had eligibility left, so when someone suggested he finish college, Little Thunder decided to give it one last chance.
"In my tribe, the Lakota Nation, a man like me is supposed to be a warrior, to himself last," Little Thunder said. "That's what I'm trying to do. I want to help the youth and be a good example to them. I want to teach them what's out there for them. When I was working, I was taking care of myself but how was I helping other people? I wasn't."
So Little Thunder boarded the bus for Kansas.
He played well two seasons ago, but a torn ACL sidelined him for almost all of last season. Still, he approached this season eagerly, working out in the offseason at Kansas against Cole Aldrich and the Morris twins, Marcus and Markieff.
"Oh, the big boy? Terrance? Yeah, he can play," Aldrich said with a smile.
Manning and Aldrich taught Little Thunder some new post moves, and the Morris twins helped with his footwork.
Manning even outfitted him with some new kicks.
"If they could see me now," said Little Thunder, sporting some sneakers and shorts from Manning. "I match. I never match because I never had anything, so look out."
That was in October.
Now Little Thunder's career is over, his final season an eight-game dash thanks to a bureaucratic mess.
When he tore his ACL last season, he had two choices: stay in school as a full-time student, which would then count as his final year of eligibility (it would be his fifth year since he's already redshirted) or attend Haskell as a part-time student and keep the extra year of eligibility.
Here's the catch: If Little Thunder wasn't enrolled as a full-time student, he would lose the medical insurance that is part of the federal government's covenant with Native American students at Haskell. He needed knee surgery.
As a part-time student, he'd retain his season of eligibility but wouldn't be able to get the surgery.
So Little Thunder opted to stay, hoping to win his case on appeal to the NAIA.
"We waited three months for the red tape before he even got the surgery," Juneau explained. "And then we applied for the hardship."
Initially the NAIA agreed there was a hardship, but would not grant Little Thunder the extra year of eligibility. Marcus Manning of the NAIA explained that under the organization's bylaws, only two extenuating circumstances allow for an additional year: pregnancy or illness. Little Thunder didn't fit either.
But after Haskell fought on Little Thunder's behalf, the NAIA changed course and granted the appeal.
The zinger -- Little Thunder could only play one term and it had to be the first term.
Consequently, his college career came to an end on Dec. 14.
In his finale against Rockhurst, an NCAA Division II school, Little Thunder had 19 points.
The holiday break came shortly after that Rockhurst game, and Juneau wondered and worried. Would Little Thunder come back?
Would everyone else, for that matter?
It's not unusual for Juneau's roster to fluctuate wildly in January, with players returning to their reservations for the break and deciding to stay there.
But the roster is intact, a shift that lets Juneau cautiously think that things are improving.
More impressive and perhaps more telling to the effect that Juneau and Haskell are having on these players: Little Thunder is on campus, taking classes and working out with the team.
It will be another year before he gets a degree, but without basketball, Juneau knows it will tough to get him back on campus. The coach vows to try.
"We're going to stay on him and make sure he finishes," Juneau said.
He's traveled so far already.
They all have.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.