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ARLEE — Phillip Malatare doesn't remember the first time one of his friends or members of his family committed suicide. 

But he remembers first learning about it. 

As "Beautiful Girls" by Sean Kingston came over the radio when Malatare was a kid, his dad told him what the line about being suicidal meant. 

"He's like, 'Suicide is when you're feeling hopeless and you're feeling like you don't belong,'" Malatare recalled. "'You try to take your life.'"

Malatare took that message with him, but he didn't know just how much his dad's lesson would factor into his junior and senior basketball seasons. 

With Malatare and Will Mesteth leading the charge, the Warriors couldn't have asked for a more productive season as Arlee took home nearly every possible accolade. District 14-C champions. Western C Divisional champions. Class C state champions. And as the cherry on top, the Warriors won all 26 of their games on their slate, extending their win streak to 48 straight.

Arlee welcomed its boys' basketball team back from Butte with open arms on Sunday afternoon. The school bus was escorted by tribal police, a game warden, several dozen cars full of fans and multiple ambulances. 

After the lengthy parade through town, the fan line of handshakes, hugs and autographs with the team was so long that it took over a half hour for everyone to get their turn. 

The Flathead Indian Reservation community needed the positivity boost. 

"They're playing for a bigger purpose than just basketball," Arlee coach Zanen Pitts said. 

Two weeks before the Warriors began postseason play, a shockwave hit the reservation as one of its teens from Pablo committed suicide. 

Malatare said everyone on Arlee's basketball team knew the young man well, saying that when the Warriors and the Eagles played each other, he'd be a great sport and always shake their hands.

"This was for Two Eagle," Malatare said. "... That's who we were doing it for."

This was far from the first suicide-related tragedy members of the Arlee basketball team have faced in their young lives.

There were multiple suicides that occurred across the reservation during last year's basketball season and there have been several over the course of this year's slate too.  

"We don't have enough fingers to talk about all the people we know who've done it," Pitts said.

But they wanted this one to be the last.

In 2014, Montana had the highest rate of suicide in the United States and the Treasure State has been in the top five for nearly 40 years. And the highest rate of suicide in the state — and nationwide — is among Native Americans. 

The Centers for Disease Control reported in 2015, 34.3 out of every 100,000 18-24 year old Native Americans commit suicide, and those numbers are likely to be undercounted. And 40 percent of all Native Americans who die by suicide are between the ages of 15-24. 

"This is my home. These are my people," Malatare said, looking around the parking lot at Arlee High School. "All across this reservation, we all look after each other. We have each others' back. I'm just trying to help people out and I'm just trying to make a difference around here."

The morning after learning about the heartbreaking loss of a fellow teen, one of Pitts' basketball players approached him and asked what they could do.

After some discussion, Pitts reached out to Jordan Lefler, Arlee's media producer, and his dad. The two of them wrote the message that turned into the first video that the Warriors shared on Feb. 24, ahead of the Western C Divisional tournament in Hamilton.

That message: "We, the Arlee Warriors, are dedicating this divisional tournament to all the families that have fallen victim to the loss of a loved one due to the pressures of life. We want you all to know that you will be in our hearts and in our prayers as we step onto the floor to represent our school, community and our reservation. As a team we rely on each other to get through the challenges on the court and in life. 

"To all the youth on the Flathead Reservation, we want you to know we stand together with you. You are on our team. Seek out good things. Find your passion. Be involved on the court or in life. And remember, you're the future. Please help us share this message and join our team as we battle against suicide."

Lefler said he thought that they might get 1,000 views, but that video was watched more than 134,000 times and reached 4,375 shares on Facebook. 

But it wasn't enough. The impact wasn't large enough. 

"There's a bigger message we could do that was more enticing, more exciting for kids to want to be able to watch so the message could get to them easier," Pitts said. 

So Pitts and his wife, Kendra, the Leflers and team members went back to the drawing board. 

"I called Jordan and I said, 'Jordan, are you ready to use the Holy Ghost in the right ways?'" Pitts said, crediting their shared Christian faith as to how the message came across. "... I told him, 'I want you to use the Spirit when you write this. Try to do something powerful that's bigger than us. That's more from God.' He and his dad came up with it and my wife and I, we tried to use the Spirit the best we could to make the revisions we did and here we are."

The result: a 3-minute long video incorporating a longer message paired with basketball that's set to Logic's "1-800-273-8255," a song released in 2017 about suicide that reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. 

The video starts out with Malatare dribbling two basketballs alone on the court while wearing his No. 4 jersey and war bonnet. He sets the balls down and starts off the message:

"All throughout history, Warriors protected and fought for their people. Now more than ever, we need Warriors."

Malatare kicks one of the balls to junior guard Greg Whitesell, who says, "Today we are bombarded by technology meant to make our lives better. However, we often find ourselves feeling like we don't measure up. So please, rise up."

Then Whitesell passes the ball to sophomore post Isaac Fisher, who dunks and hangs on the rim while saying, "Many are bullied or made to believe that others have the perfect life or are much better off while we suffer. Please don't hang around and do nothing."

The rest of the message is as follows: "This can lead to a feeling of hopelessness. Many think that suicide is the answer to the way out but the truth is that we all struggle. You just have to dive into someone's life and help. The perfect life portrayed online is not reality. It's time to stand up as Warriors. To fight for each other and ourselves we can win this battle against hopelessness. Get involved. Become part of a team either on the court, in the classroom or part of a movement in your community. Find your passion and seek out positive teammates and role models.

"You are the future leaders of America and we need you. You have the strength, you just have to make the choice to fight. And remember, if you are struggling, let us fight for you. We fight for our people. That's what being a Warrior is all about. Please share this message as we stand up to stop suicide across America. We are the Arlee Warriors. We are dedicating this state tournament to fight against suicide."

Lefler wondered if a longer video would gain the same — or more — traction but the messages of support that followed came in droves, outpacing the first video exorbitantly. 

The second video has 758,000 views, 938 comments and 29,763 shares and counting. 

One of those shares came from Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, who wrote: "These student athletes embody what it means to be teammates (and) Montanans. We're all in this together and we need to look out for one another. Mental health care is just as important as physical health care and I'm so proud that the Arlee Warrior basketball team decided to take a stand and raise awareness about the issue of suicide. These are Montana's next generation of leaders."

People reached out via Facebook or directly to Pitts from all over the United States and in corners of the rest of the world including Argentina, Canada, Colombia, Japan and England. 

People from Oregon were trying to get plane tickets to go to Butte to watch Arlee's championship game. And several of those commenting on the video were teachers who said they were showing the video in their classes.

"I don't think these boys realize what they've done," Pitts said. "I don't think it's hit them yet. I don't think they understand that they've already reached more people than are in the state of Montana.

" ... It'd blow your mind the amount of messages we've received. We've received thousands upon thousands upon thousands of messages of stuff. It's unreal."

Malatare added: "You can either sit back and do nothing and just let it keep repeating itself, or you can stand up and try to fix it. We're trying to save as many lives as we can, but every life is precious."

On top of the comments, shares and other statistics surrounding the viral video, the Warriors were recognized by the Montana chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (ASFP) and received a suicide prevention certificate on Saturday morning. 

The ASFP partnered with Butte Cares, a community prevention coalition in Butte, to present the certificate. 

"I think it's really inspiring," said Dorea Wilmoth, ASFP's Montana Board Chair. "When you lose somebody to suicide, it changes your entire outlook on a lot of things. It's something that you have to draw from your inner strength and move beyond. It's not something you get over."

Wilmoth added: "The impact I think is to be determined for them, and I think it's a great start to something really good for Montana. We need our youth to be involved in the solution and involved in speaking out and reducing stigma and to be part of the impetus to say, 'Something's gotta change.'"

Pitts, like Wilmoth, doesn't want the conversation to end when the viral aspect of the video goes down. 

"We've gotta have enough messages out there that it touches every type of person," he said. "This message will hopefully touch the people within the sports world. But there needs to be a message out there for the kids that are in the math world or the art world. That's my thing, I don't care who you are: find a way to touch the people that are in your circle and find a way to step out of your circle and get into another circle just enough so that you can make a difference."

And the best way, in Pitts' eyes, is to tackle the suicide epidemic is as a team. 

"We all can bring people together," he said. "That's our whole thing is rise up together. It takes more than one person. It takes all of us because we're different. It is special. It's exactly what I think we're supposed to be doing right now. I know that because I feel it's correct. My gut doesn't twist in the wrong direction. My heart is really light and it feels like it's exactly what we're supposed to be doing."


— If you or someone you know needs support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Amie Just covers Griz football and Missoula-area preps. Follow her on Twitter @Amie_Just or email her at

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