At Wyoming Indian High School, basketball is a family affairBy Ron Feemster January 15, 2013
One of the world’s oldest sports clichés holds that team is family. You hear it everywhere, from post-game interviews with college and professional athletes to marketing and advertising campaigns by giant sports corporations. The chorus of Sly and the Family Stone’s “We Are Family” blasts from stadium speakers almost as often as Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”
But at Wyoming Indian High School in Ethete, and in the youth leagues that feed that storied basketball dynasty, family is more than a metaphor for teamwork. It’s just how the players — and especially the coaches — are related.
Craig Ferris, the head basketball coach at Wyoming Indian, works at the elementary school and started out coaching the fifth and sixth graders, a job his father, Gordon Hiwalker, has now. Before Gordon took the job, Ferris’s mother Donna Hiwalker, coached those teams for more than two decades. Ferris’s brother, Michael Hiwalker, is the assistant coach on the boy’s basketball team. Even Tom Massey, who coaches seventh and eighth graders, counts as family according to Gordon. He is the son of Gordon’s high school coach at Lander Valley High.
“Our team is a family,” said Gordon Hiwalker, who sat in the stands Friday night watching the Chiefs beat the visiting Wind River Cougars 75-54. “We are the grandparents.”
To understand how important basketball is at Wyoming Indian, you just need to walk into the gym. The school enrolls fewer than 200 students but boasts the largest high school gym in the state, with seating for 3,000 spectators. The University of Wyoming Cowboys opened their basketball season at the Wyoming Indian gym this fall with a Halloween-night exhibition victory over Fort Lewis College.
“This is the only high school gym in the state that could host that game,” said Chico Her Many Horses, coach of the Chiefs’ state champion cross-country team. Her Many Horses likes to point out that the whole cross-country team is likely to be on the basketball court for the Chiefs, a reason the team has the wind and energy to wear down opponents with an aggressive running game.
For Ferris, 35, like many of his current players, a family outing was often a trip to a basketball game. The Ferris family — Gordon originally received the Ferris name from his adoptive family in Lander — would pile into the car and head for an independent tournament where Gordon’s club teams competed for trophies, bragging rights and coveted tournament jackets.
When they weren’t traveling with their dad’s club teams, the boys played in age-group leagues. Play begins on the Wind River Indian Reservation at about the age children can stand, or at least lean on a basketball. And from the moment they pick up a ball, they want to play for the Chiefs.
“I wanted to play for Wyoming Indian as long as I can remember,” said Ferris, who played for legendary coach Alfred Redman, before taking over the team when Redman retired in 2005. At 6-feet-6, Ferris was the tallest player Redman ever coached. The Ferris boys, who have dropped or are in the process of dropping the Ferris name and taking the traditional name “Hiwalker,” all moved on from Wyoming Indian to college basketball. Craig and Michael played at Casper College. Craig finished his college career at Eastern New Mexico University and Michael played at University of Montana, Great Falls. Reland, the youngest at 28, played at Laramie County Community College and is the only one who still plays but doesn’t coach.
After college, the brothers played on the independent tournament circuit, like their father before them, and kept it up well after they began coaching. Craig, who is in his eighth year coaching the team, used to cut practice short some nights to make it to his own games on time. But he said the time came when he had to start making the same sacrifices he asked of his players.
“Michael and I decided in my fourth year of coaching that we had to go all in,” Ferris said. “We talk to our boys about sacrifice. Giving up other activities and girlfriend time for the team. We decided to make those sacrifices ourselves.”
In the four years since Ferris and Hiwalker have given up playing and put all their basketball energy into coaching, Wyoming Indian has played in the 2A championship game every year. The team has won three out of the last four state championships.
When the family gets together, they watch basketball on TV and talk about coaching. It’s not unusual for them all to diagram plays they see on television and think about how they could work on the high school court. Everyone gives Ferris, who focuses first on defense, suggestions about what can work for his team.
“My dad coaches the young kids, where you can’t usually run an offense yet,” Ferris says. “He is always trying to come up with out-of-bounds plays to get a few easy points. I’ve used some of those plays.”
“My brother was the shooter,” Ferris said. “He coaches the JV team and the freshmen. He’s always coming up with new plays.”
Many of those plays start out in the junior varsity playbook. When the varsity adds them, they discover that the JV team already knows how to defend them. “We sometimes think it’s a good enough play to work against other teams,” Ferris said. “Even if it doesn’t work in our scrimmages with the JVs.”
The Hiwalker clan may have more coaches in the wings. Both Ferris and Michael Hiwalker married women who played the game and love it. “My wife is a referee,” Ferris said. “But she’s thinking about coaching.”
— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at [email protected]
If you enjoyed this story and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.