Taunie Cullooyah played on the first state championship basketball team – girls or boys – in Cusick High School history in 2005, while her infant son was in the stands being cared for by family and friends.
Today, she’ll be among many of those same folks watching her son Louis – now a 17-year-old senior – playing for second-seeded Cusick in a State 1B quarterfinal against eighth-seeded DeSales at the Spokane Arena at 2 p.m.
When Louis’ team played on Saturday in a regional game at University High School, which the Panthers won 63-57 over Lummi Nation, it seemed as if the entire town of Cusick was there in support.
“Definitely not everyone,” Taunie Cullooyah joked. “We’re not this tiny.”
In this 2005 photo, Cusick senior point guard Taunie Cullooyah greets her 6-month-old son Louis Cullooyah in the stands after the blowout of St. Michael’s in the Cusick gym. (The Spokesman-Review photo archive)
Still, there were plenty of friends, family, students and community members there to support the Panthers.
“They’re all out here,” she said. “We’re all supporting our boys. We all watched them play growing up, right? So we’re just all proud of them.”
Louis is looking forward to the experience.
“It feels good, coming from a small school to be playing in a big tournament,” he said. “Last year we didn’t get to have state and we probably would have made it. So this is cool.”
His mother, who is enrolled with the Kalispel Tribe, said basketball is something their community rallies around, as she traded hugs, handshakes and knowing glances with just about everyone that walked by.
“I think most of us live for basketball,” Cullooyah said. “I mean, we all grew up playing and our parents came to support us, and now their grandchildren.”
Cullooyah was a 17-year-old point guard when she helped lead the Panthers to their first title in 2005 – a 67-50 win over Almira/Coulee-Hartline. Louis was born the previous August.
After Louis was born, “my whole life just flip-flopped,” Cullooyah told The Spokesman-Review at the time. “I live my life the way I want him to live his.”
She described how community members would take turns watching Louis while she was on the court, and she would occasionally look up to wave or to find who had him at the time.
“It’s a community thing. That’s how we are out on our reservation,” she said on Saturday. “It’s a big community. We couldn’t have done it without everybody stepping up and doing their part. Like they say, ‘It takes a village to raise a kid,’ and that’s just how it is up there.”
Cullooyah’s and Louis’ roles have flipped, with her in the stands and him on the court.
“I just think it’s cool being in the same boat as my mom, getting to see what she got to feel,” Louis said.
Like many parents, Cullooyah became emotional when her son’s team qualified for the state tournament.
“I cried when I first found out,” she said. “I didn’t think I would because I’m not – I’m emotional behind closed doors. But yeah, I cried as soon as I knew they were gonna make it to state because they just play so well together. And they all just love each other.”
Louis cracked the starting five this season, and Cullooyah’s coaching has been a big part of that.
“I’ve been working real hard on my game the past five years,” he said. “I didn’t start off like my teammates did, so they’ve put in a lot more work than me.”
“I told him, you know, he’s come a long way these last couple of years,” she said. “To see him make it to starting five from where he was at a couple years ago. … It was so much work we put into it.
“But to see him come this far, I told him, ‘I’m already proud of you. I’m so proud of you and I want you to go out, have fun, play your game. Have fun with your team, because these memories are going to last forever.’ ”
Things haven’t been easy for Louis – or his mother. Louis’ father was in the picture initially, but is no longer.
“I haven’t seen or heard from him in a few years,” she said.
“I let my son know that I’ll always keep the door open for his dad to visit,” she said, mentioning that Louis’ father occasionally has brought him gifts through the years.
Cullooyah has four other children . Her sister died three years ago, and Taunie takes care of her three young children as well.
“Growing up, (Louis) missed out on a lot,” she said. “I was on the pow wow trail. He missed out on a lot of basketball. We were on the trail a lot. A lot of the old team pictures, you’ll see he’s barely in there.”
Cullooyah described Louis when he was younger as a “timid player” before hitting a growth spurt and coming into his game recently.
“You know, my competitive drive, I just want him to be the best he can be as a player, no matter what he’s doing – or anything he’s doing,” she said. “I want him to work hard at it.”
Cullooyah spends most of her time coaching or driving one of her eight children to practice or a game. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Basketball is year-round for us,” she said.
“I always tell them, ‘You guys are so lucky. I wish I had a mom that knew about basketball and lifting and exercise and fitness as much as I do.’ I would have loved that. Me and my sister pushed each other growing up.”
On top of everything else, she and Louis were asked to head up the sports program at the wellness center in Cusick.
“We’re getting that together, and we’ll see how far that goes for the community,” she said.
Cullooyah said all the memories of her state basketball experience came flooding back after Louis’ team qualified.
She’s heard from teammates she hasn’t seen in a while and has had a chance to reconnect.
“One of my other teammates, the baddest that was on our team, Kim Bluff, she was out here,” Cullooyah said. “We get to watch these games together. She called a couple of the players that we used to play with and told them, ‘Hey, you guys should make it over to the Arena to watch our kids play.’ Because they all know who Louis is.”
Louis was obviously too young to remember his first trip to state. That doesn’t keep others from bringing it up.
“He doesn’t remember at all,” Cullooyah said, chuckling. “But yeah, he likes the attention. I mean, in a good way. Everyone always teases him, like, ‘Dang, you were here at state, you know, however many years ago watching your mom.’ ”
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