ARLEE — Arlee senior Greg Whitesell was the first to approach and give Zanen Pitts a hug at the boys basketball team’s end-of-season banquet Wednesday.
Seniors Isaac Fisher and Lane Johnson also made their way up to the coach in the school cafeteria outside of the gym.
Pitts, who led the Warriors to two state titles in six seasons and founded the Warrior Movement, had just announced to his players and the parents in attendance that he wouldn’t be returning for another season.
“I’m sick and tired of this administration,” Pitts told the team. “The administration literally just tore my passion apart for the game.
"It’s constant aching. My gut twists every time I get phone calls. And now some of the new people that they’ve hired as the athletic director to go from what we already were going from and the new school board, the ones that were re-elected, I’m not going to put up with it anymore. I’m tired of it."
Pitts said he was encouraged to quit five different times.
"They threatened to fire me and they told me to go different places," he said. "I don’t want to coach anywhere else. It doesn’t even interest me. I literally love Arlee.
"But I don’t want you guys to look at me and think that I’m dissing on you or I’m leaving you. They destroyed me and my family. It’s been the hardest seven years of my life. That’s why I wanted you first to know that if it wasn’t for our solid, awesome family and your support, we wouldn’t be able to be here now.”
In winding down his two-minute speech, Pitts said that walking away was difficult because of the strong bond he has with his players.
"I’m sorry guys, but I can’t do it anymore," he said in addressing his players. "They broke me finally. If there’s anything I can do to help, I will always help you. I don’t want that to ruin it. I was really hoping we could hold on to it.”
Pitts was approved by the school board to return for a seventh season as the head coach and eighth overall but won’t be accepting the offer. He declined to go into any more specifics after he spoke to the team since the focus of the banquet was player accomplishments.
He did offer one other thought:
“It’s nothing the kids did,” Pitts said. “I love them. I’m bummed out about this situation, but I’m not going to continue to coach under the circumstances for people that don’t want me here.”
Pitts, 33, guided Arlee to back-to-back State C championships in 2017 and 2018, its first two titles in program history. The Warriors became the first Class C boys team to make four consecutive appearances in the state title game, doing so from 2016-19. They posted a 140-18 (.886) record under Pitts, and their 48-game winning streak was the longest in Class C history.
“You guys, for what it’s worth, this isn’t me saying this, the facts say that you and the team that won three in a row (Belfry, 1952-54) are arguably the two greatest dynasties in Class C history. You guys and your parents,” Pitts told the team.
“Take that with you. You young guys, you’re a part of it. No one can take that from you. At least we got beat by a team that we respect. That’s what’s cool. I wouldn’t have wanted to do what we’ve done with any other team. Just remember that when you get old."
Pitts was chosen Montana Class C boys basketball coach of the year after the 2017 and 2018 basketball seasons. He helped produce two Class C State MVPs — Tyler Tanner in 2017 and Phillip Malatare in 2018 — and had eight players earn 16 all-state awards: Josh Reed, Patrick BigSam, Tanner, Malatare, Will Mesteth, Whitesell, Johnson and Fisher.
Arlee made five state appearances in Pitts’ time leading the team and won three divisional crowns, five district titles and five conference championships.
Whitesell said he had an idea Pitts would be resigning at some point after the season.
“I’ve been coached by a crazy amount of coaches just because how much ball I’ve played, and he’s definitely the wisest of them,” Whitesell said. “I can’t even put it into words. He’s just made me into the basketball player I am. He’s helped me become the point guard I am.
"Everything he’s done for me and Arlee and the community, the tribe, the reservation, everything, he’s a legend. It wouldn’t have been possible without him. Everything we’ve accomplished, the awards, winning two state championships, going to four, he’s been there the whole way. It would be wrong not to call him family.”
Pitts, a Pend d’Oreille first descendant, oversaw the Warrior Movement, which was launched in Feb. 2018 to help raise awareness for suicide, mental health, bullying and school violence. The Warrior Movement went viral with a video that reached 1.1 million views and has since been sponsored by Nike, been featured by the New York Times magazine and on NBA TV, and secured a $50,000 grant from Sen. Jon Tester for mental health services at Two Eagle River.
A rancher, Pitts will continue running the Warrior Movement, a 501 (c)(3) non-profit that’s not affiliated with the school.
“It’s moving forward at 1,000 miles per hour faster now,” he said. “We got lots of things in store. Mission Valley flag football league, we’re partnering with them. We’re working on a tournament, an educational basketball tournament in Missoula. We’re working on developing scholarships. We’re starting to working with Nike more.
"The school didn’t support it. They were very frictious against the Warrior Movement. So now it’s like we’re unleashed. I don’t have to be biased toward things just for Arlee either. I can start expanding into all the schools a lot quicker. We want to help everyone, all the schools. There’s lots of schools that already represent the Warrior Movement logo.”
Whoever succeeds Pitts will have a tall task in the small, basketball-hungry town. The Warriors will be moving up to Class B next season and are graduating seven seniors, including three all-state players.
Pitts will still be coaching the Warrior Movement all-star team that’s going to play in the Native American Basketball Invitational in Phoenix later this month. A former basketball standout at Ronan, Pitts is done coaching high school basketball for the time being.
“I’m not going to coach basketball anywhere. No desire to coach basketball anywhere else,” he said. “I’m happy in Arlee, leave my legacy here and don’t taint it somewhere else. I have no desire to go work anywhere else. It doesn’t interest me.”