MISSOULA — It’s easy to spot Two Eagle River’s biggest victory of the boys basketball season on the schedule since it won only one game this past year.
But a more important victory for Two Eagle River came off the court. The Eagles turned a positive corner when they went the entire season without having a player take his own life.
If that happened to almost any other team, it would be the norm and hardly merit a mention. But Two Eagle River, an alternative school of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes that had an enrollment of 89 students last spring, has had a boys basketball player die by suicide each of the two prior school years.
So the win-loss record didn’t reflect the most profound win. It was a win that kept families and friends intact.
“It’s great to finish the season on a positive note,” said Camas McClure, who completed his first season as the Eagles’ head coach and his third with the team. “Despite how our season ended, despite what our losses may have said on paper, we actually did pretty good. We competed every single night. The boys showed a lot of heart. They kept their heads up.
“I can’t tell you how many times this whole season parents, players, fans, people around the community had support for our program. They notice our program is changing in a positive way. It’s making me happy, our organization happy. Whatever we’re doing, it’s working.”
McClure, who’s coached seven seasons overall, refuses to take sole credit for the positive change.
A 24-year-old Salish tribal member, he spends only a few hours a day with the players during practices, games or bus rides since he’s currently a student at Salish Kootenai College studying early childhood education and doing an internship with the State Tribal Education Partnership.
The reserved and soft-spoken McClure is quick to credit others at the school and counselors called in by the tribe to provide help to the students and faculty.
As he’s gotten to know people who work at Two Eagle River, he said he’s been able to ask them to check in on or keep an eye on kids who he thinks may be struggling. That includes his assistant coach, DJ Piapot, a former Two Eagle River player and current teacher.
“Things have calmed down a bit,” McClure said. “I feel the support of the counselors at the school and tribe and members around the community have really been hitting hard. It’s definitely what they need, especially going through these hard times with students at a young age committing suicide.”
Suicide on reservations is hardly a rare thing. The suicide rate among American Indians and Alaska Natives was 21.5 per 100,000 people, which is more than 3.5 times higher than that of the racial or ethnic groups with the lowest rates, according to a 2018 CDC report. Nearly 36 percent of those deaths by American Indians and Alaska Natives were among people who were 10 to 24 years old, compared to only 11 percent for whites in that age range.
The Two Eagle River basketball team experienced the first of two suicides in a 10-month stretch when Josiah Anthony Nichols, a starter during the 2016-17 season, died at 16 years old on April 24, 2017. As the Eagles were winding down the following season, Walter Raymond Reddick, the team’s first player off the bench, died by suicide at 16 years old on Feb. 20, 2018.
“When I found out that happened, I couldn’t believe it,” said senior Travis Pierre, who started the past two years and played the past three at Two Eagle River after transferring from Ronan. “But this season, I tried to dedicate my season to both of those guys. I think the whole team did, too. It hurt the team, though, too because those players should have been playing with us the past two years. It’s hard to not see them at school. It hurt us deep down inside. All we could do was play it for them.”
This past season, Pierre wore pink Under Armour shoes with roses and wrote the initials and birthdays of Nichols and Reddick on them. He had gotten the shoes from former Two Eagle River player Brendan McDonald, who he said bought the shoes along with Nichols since they both planned to wear the same style shoes during the 2017-18 season.
It was Reddick’s death between the district and divisional tournaments that prompted Arlee to create a suicide awareness video, which ended up going viral with over 1.1 million views.
After Arlee won its second consecutive state title, star player Philip Malatare told the Missoulian, "This is for Two Eagle,'' when talking about the Warrior Movement.
The Warriors have since been sponsored by Nike, were featured in the New York Times magazine — which had been a work in progress since before the video — and were showcased on NBA TV.
Arlee’s video did lead to Sen. Jon Tester securing a $50,000 grant meant to help with improving mental health services at Two Eagle River. McClure also acknowledged that Arlee tried to involve Two Eagle River in a sock sponsorship deal.
“Nothing is wrong with what they’re doing,” McClure said. “The youth definitely have to speak up with letting everyone know things are going to be OK. But let’s speak up together, be together as one.”
McClure knows the feeling of suicide and depression that can accompany youth on the reservation. He contemplated ending his life after he transferred from Ronan to Arlee as a sophomore in the 2009-10 school year.
“Just transferring to a new school felt real scary,” McClure said. “Just constant arguments from my dad and step mom at home. I just couldn’t concentrate in school. I wanted to play ball, but I wanted some guidance in my life. I never had guidance. Having a learning disability in math and English and even Asperger’s Syndrome, that kind of made me feel like (expletive) sometimes.”
As McClure recalled the story, he had texted a friend saying he was going to end his life. His friend didn’t have the quickest response, waiting until the next morning to tell the Ronan principal, who reached out to Arlee to check in on McClure, who was fortunately still alive.
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“I ended up seeing this counselor over at the tribal mission,” McClure said. “I went there until I felt like I was comfortable and not thinking those thoughts. All I needed was some support from my friends and family. They gave all that love and affection.
“I swear things were just going right for me there on. I was doing good in school. I was able to play ball. It just seems like everything was falling into place. That’s how I kind of got here was just telling my story.”
While McClure played at Arlee, the Warriors took fourth place at state in 2010 and second place in 2011. After he graduated in 2012, he jumped into coaching at the local middle school and served as a volunteer coach for Arlee under J.R. Camel and later Zanen Pitts, the current head coach.
McClure left to be an assistant coach at Two Eagle River for the 2016-17 season. He was hired as the head coach on June 6, 2018, with Piapot as his assistant.
“I try to set the example for them as that male role model because a lot of these kids don’t have dads or even just a male figure to look up to,” McClure said. “I’ve been told by the parents or just family members in general that you’re a good role model to these kids. It makes me feel good that I’m doing my part. These kids mean the world to me. I love these guys like they’re my brothers or even my own kids.”
Two Eagle River had a documentary crew following them around this past season. McClure described it as inside look at life on the reservation through the lens of basketball.
“I feel our story is the real story,” McClure said. “We’ve been through so much as a program. I feel like what we’re doing with building this program is going to change the world."
He added: “We want to show that you’re here for a reason, that you’re on this earth to do great things.”
The documentary is in the production stage and is being produced through UPROXX, a Los Angeles-based entertainment and pop culture website, said Jamie Elias, who’s leading the documentary crew.
Elias, who has no connection to Montana, had first heard about Two Eagle River and its connection to suicides on Facebook. She reached out to McClure through the social media platform, visited Pablo, Montana, and the idea of a documentary became a possibility.
“We saw the epicenter was at Two Eagle,” Elias said. “The more me and him talked, the more special I realized Two Eagle was.”
Elias and her team of two videographers have come out six times so far for the filming of their documentary. They’d spend one to two weeks at a time with the team.
“Obviously, there has to be a light shined on how to prevent suicide,” Elias said. “We feel that basketball plays a big part in that for these kids. What we found is it’s keeping them busy and giving them a purpose and joy.”
While some kids grow up wanting to be star NBA players, McClure envisioned himself as a head coach.
He got his first shot this year, and it resulted in a 1-19 record as he was learning what it was like to run the show.
“It may not have looked like a good season, but it was, and we were humble,” said Pierre, who is planning to attend Salish Kootenai College next year and major in forestry. “We weren’t always known for winning, but we knew who we were playing for and what we were playing for. All of us, we wanted to make that one person in our life proud. We did that this season no matter what the score was. Hopefully I made Josiah and Walter proud, and hopefully I made my family proud, too.”
McClure will lose four seniors from this year’s team. He'll have three starters and seven players who could return, in addition to incoming players or transfers, as he tries to lead the Eagles to their first winning season since the 2011-12 school year.
“I would say he coaches with love,” Elias said. “He finds community with the boys.”
As a coach, McClure has to care about his team’s win-loss record as a statement on his coaching ability. But McClure also sees his impact as a coach as going beyond the court, instilling a message he heard growing up about not listening to someone who tells you that you can’t do something special with your life.
“I want them to succeed,” he said. “I want them to realize there’s more to life than just the reservation. They can go out and go to school and become something of themselves. If they do decide they want to come back to the reservation and help out the people in any way, I’m going to be proud of them for that.
“But it’s OK to leave the reservation, just go see the world, just experience it for yourself because it’s scary out here. It’s scary as an adult, especially with lately what’s been going on. I want those kids to walk out with an education and do something with their lives and not be going down the wrong path, whether it’s drinking or doing drugs or making a fool of yourself.”
McClure knows what success is like from his time at Arlee. He coached all-state players like Tyler Tanner, Philip Malatare and Will Mesteth, and was a volunteer coach on teams that made the state tournament in three of four years from 2013 to 2016.
McClure’s players don’t have the name recognition or awards of those stars. But as long as their names continue to show up in box scores instead of obituaries, it’s a starting point toward building a winning culture.
“These guys, it’s more than family. It’s like a brotherhood,” McClure said. “They’re always looking out for one another. They back each other up. They encourage each other a lot, don’t let anything get by them. We say, ‘We’re your brothers. We’re here to help.’”
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at Frank.Gogola@406mtsports.com.