Times are hard on the Hoopa Indian reservation,
whose tiny mall in the center of town-with its casino, grocery store, and tavern-passes in the blink of an eye
on a two-lane road that twists along the Trinity River in northern California.
Thank goodness for the Hoopa Valley HS boys basketball team. The Warriors are a California Division
V powerhouse, reaching the northern California tournament three times in six years-and twice earning a spot in
the Nor Cal title game.
In this isolated, economically deprived area, the
hoop squad brings folks together. "Basketball unites all parts of the community," says Lois Risling,
director of the Center for Indian Community Development at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California.
Hoopa Valley's boys team has become a phenomenon
in the Division V state basketball rankings, which had been dominated by small, private schools. Many of these
schools attract players from large metropolitan areas to fill their small enrollments with gifted athletes. The
lone public school in the top ten last year was Hoopa, which draws players from a tiny area that is more than an
hour's drive from even its nearest Humboldt-Del Norte League opponent.
With a population of 1,000, the Hoopa Reservation
is located 92 miles east of Eureka, a coastal city 272 miles north of San Francisco. When the Warriors beat Ripon
Christian HS (Modesto) in last year's Nor Cal semifinals, 1,572 fans rocked the gym.
Hoopa eventually lost to number-one ranked Modesto
Christian, 72-61, falling one game short of the 1999 CIF title. Better things might lie ahead this season.
The Warriors feature a full-court pressure defense
and a three-point shooting attack that every year runs opponents ragged. "We just like to play defense and
force turnovers," says mercurial, 5-10, junior guard Joe Smith, who averaged 21.2 points per game as a sophomore
starter last year. "And we'll shoot the ball from anywhere."
Hoopa Coach Inker McCovey was an assistant to Doug
Oliveira when Hoopa stunned Emery HS in 1993, to enter the Nor Cal tourney. Emeryville was then led by 6-11 Darnell
Robinson, who went on to star at the University of Arkansas. Hoopa didn't have a player over 6-2.
"I coached basketball for 20 years, and the
kids I coached at Hoopa practiced harder than anywhere I've been," says Oliveira. "One of McCovey's phenomenal
strengths is that he gets his kids to play hard all the time. They play great defense and don't ever get away from
their offensive philosophy."
Basketball gives Hoopa and its players a reason
to feel good about themselves. "A lot of kids in Hoopa just love to play basketball," says Augie Valdez,
a star on the 1993 team that won the North Coast Section Division V title. Now a coach himself, Valdez continues,
"Whenever there's an open gym, kids show up.
If you can find a place with a hoop up, there's
always a game going on."