November 12, 2011 in City

Basketball organizer is taking a novel approach

By The Spokesman-Review

HooPalousa, a basketball game between the Spokane Dirty Realists and the Moscow SuperSonnets, will be Tuesday at the University of Idaho’s Memorial Gym at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free, but the event is planned in support of the University of Idaho’s American Indian Graduate Fellowship Fund in Creative Writing.

The Hall of Writerly

Stereotypes includes lots of miserable physical specimens. Fat, lazy smokers. Sickly readers of musty, seven-part French novels. Afternoon groomers and daytime drinkers.

But Spokane is home to a different literary type: the basketball-playing writer. You’ve heard of authors Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter – the region’s literary laureates who are also longtime basketball friends and friendly basketball rivals. Spokane is also home to Shann Ray Ferch, an excellent short-story writer and poet, Gonzaga professor and former college basketball star, and someone who’s played a lot of ball with Alexie and Walter.

Now, the region’s lit-hoops vortex is swirling together in a most interesting way. Kim Barnes, an author and professor of creative writing at the University of Idaho, has organized HooPalousa, a basketball game involving some of the region’s most celebrated authors, in Moscow on Tuesday night. The game is intended, in part, to create some fundraising momentum for an endowment to establish a scholarship in creative writing for American Indian students. Barnes calls it “an affirmation of that magical place where writing stories, playing basketball and Native American culture converge.”

“I think it’ll be fun – and there’s so much goodness around it,” said Ferch, whose collection of short stories, “American Masculine,” won the Bakeless Prize.

The game is billed as a contest between the Spokane Dirty Realists and the Moscow SuperSonnets, and though the rosters are heavy on writers, there are a few ringers.

“I think the key to an event like this is getting REAL BASKETBALL PLAYERS to fill in the gaps … otherwise it’s like coming out to watch dentists do ballet,” Walter wrote in an email.

So the Dirty Realists will have former Gonzaga standout David Pendergraft. The Moscow team is bringing Jonathan Takes Enemy, a Montana legend whom Alexie calls the “Michael Jordan of Indian basketball.” Two tribal chairmen – Chief Allan of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and Brooklyn Baptiste of the Nez Perce – will also play.

“It’s not just a basketball-writer thing,” Alexie said. “It’s a Northwest all-Indian basketball thing.”

The game grew from a series of coincidences. Barnes teaches a small novel-writing class for graduate students and often invites authors to speak. She doesn’t have a budget to pay them, but she’s able to draw them to the Palouse for “a beer and a bed,” she said.

This year, she invited Walter to her class, and that invitation soon grew to include Sam Ligon, a Spokane author and professor at Eastern Washington University with an interest in teaching a novel class here. Then Ferch was drawn in as he looked for opportunities to read from his new book.

“I’m thinking, ‘What can I offer these guys besides a beer?’ ” Barnes said.

She knew Walter and Ferch played basketball and considered putting together some 3-on-3 games with UI professors and writers. Walter suggested bringing in Alexie.

“It just snowballed,” Barnes said. “Now I had six students and four authors.”

Bringing the tribes into the picture was a logical expansion. It fits a university mission to create more opportunities for American Indian students, and it draws on a tradition of reservation ball. If the UI can raise enough money to fund a scholarship, it will be the only one of its kind in the region – a perfect fit for a school geographically situated near so many reservations.

“There’s so much talent out there and so many voices that need to be heard,” Barnes said. “I kept thinking about what Sherman has always said: We need these voices to be brought forward.”

Alexie lives in Seattle now, where he says he’s the oldest player in his regular game by 10 years. He and Walter are probably the best-known authors we can claim here in Spokane, but Alexie said Ferch is the standout on the court. He played college basketball at Montana State and Pepperdine, and pro ball overseas.

“In terms of basketball skill and writing skill, I don’t think there’s anybody close,” Alexie said. “He is such a good basketball player and such a good writer. He’s probably the writer-basketball all-star of the world.”

Ferch was a Montana high school star back in the 1980s, when he and his brother Kral played for their dad at Livingston’s Park High. Ferch played against Takes Enemy – and has written about him, as well – and the games from that era remain legendary: 100-point affairs before packed houses.

“A lot of those games were more intense, crowdwise, than when I played at Pepperdine,” Ferch said.

HooPalousa might be slightly less intense. There’s a spirit of fun around it, a good bit of trash-talking, and a lot of good-natured boasting. When I called Chief Allan, he said, “So you’re doing a story about my amazing skills?”

He said he’s eager to play in the game and support the cause of creating opportunities for Indian artists.

“I think that’s wonderful, and that’s one of the reasons I volunteered,” he said. “In tribes, I think we have so many people who are in the arts, who are creative, and I think we should try to emphasize that.”

Ferch isn’t the only one with a background in high school ball. Alexie recently tweeted this, about his days on the Reardan High team: “If I could time-travel, I’d play high school basketball again. And again. And again.”

Though he’s older now, he said some things haven’t changed.

“People remember that skinny kid who shot a lot,” he said. “Now I’ll be that fat guy who shoots a lot.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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