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Players of the past

Was thinking the other day, who the smartest man who ever lived was, and I realized given how long men have walked this planet, it was probably some guy got stepped on by a mammoth forty thousand years ago.

That made me wonder about thousands of years of tribal history up to the time the last Indian was forced onto a reservation. How many people with the ability to have been legendary basketball players, never saw a basketball? The best Native basketball player ever would have had to play the game, but the most gifted Native basketball player ever, probably lived before Columbus landed, but he died never knowing about the game, which didn’t exist at that time anyway.

Even the ability of players of the recent past is clouded by the passage of time. The demands and standards of those times were far lower than today. A good football player could wait until a week before practice before even looking at a football, never lift weights in the off-season, never go to football camps, smoke cigarettes, and still be a force on the field.

People wonder why Natives did so well in football during its formative years, and that is why. Because athletes in general played athletics when it was time to play. They did not dwell on it to any great degree once the season or competition was over. In fact, such obsession was socially frowned on, actually seen as a form of cheating. Had you been seen training in the off-season, your coach would have counseled you that you were dishonoring the university. It is hard for fans today to understand what a different world the storied athletes of history operated in.

There was an outstanding basketball guard who was graduated from Rapid City High School in 1956. His name was Vince Whipple. He was the first Native ballplayer in South Dakota who received extensive coverage, including lots of quality photographs, and this was because he set the tournament scoring record at state his senior year. If we could transport Whipple through time so he was a senior at Rapid City Central today, there would be some obvious changes; the three-point stripe, and the ball is much more user-friendly than the ball Whipple used, better grip, superior control. Players did not fancy dribble like today, very few behind the back or between the legs dribbles. Players shot the ball differently, turning their body sideways and launching the ball like a shot put. But despite all those differences, after a brief adjustment period, Whipple would play at the same impressive level he did back in 1956. Basketball players, once they get the basics down, really don’t need a whole lot of tinkering to play at modern standards.

Football is a different story. You can have never played football, take up the game at training camp in August and be All-State by October. Seen it happen, and more than once. But if you take your average lineman from 1956 and put him on the line in 2022, he will get blown back and pushed around and be fairly ineffective.

Football is easy to learn, but like no other sport, if you train off season and attend camps, and wrap up people when you tackle, and block until the whistle, players that don’t will not be competitive against your team. This is why we see Pine Ridge able to outplay Winner in basketball, but be mercy ruled easily in football.

For whatever reason, a player from the past would struggle to be as effective in today’s football, but not have near as much trouble adjusting to today’s basketball. Must be an expression of a fundamental truth about both sports. But somewhere back in the ancient ice caves of Europe, or on the baking hot Serengeti of East Africa, there was a guy who probably never played any sport, including pin-the-tail-on-the-mammoth or zebra, who would dominate the paint in basketball and crush the quarterback in football.

(Contact James Giago Davies at

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