BOZEMAN – Last March, Zanen Pitts stood to the side of the court and watched as Box Elder’s Brandon The Boy took time to shake hands, hug, pose for pictures and sign autographs with nearly every community member following the Bears’ state championship win.
Saturday night, Pitts witnessed a similar scene with his spectacular junior Phillip Malatare.
Moments after Arlee won the first state basketball championship in program history, rallying past and holding off a resilient Manhattan Christian squad 71-67, Malatare stood at center court surrounded by Warrior fans wanting to thank the guard for bringing a title to the reservation town.
“People don’t understand, in the boundaries of the reservation it’s so tight. Everyone is family. You know everyone’s issues, you know everyone’s dreams and stories and legends and legacies,” said Pitts. “Indian country is so tight and basketball is a way of life. It’s what gives everyone the opportunity to escape from negativity and they are proving to you that this is bigger than life, it is life. It’s what gets people to escape from negative things.”
Pitts didn’t even attempt to hold back the tears. Yes, this was an emotional win against a well-coached and hard-working Manhattan Christian program.
Yes, this was the first title for Arlee, the town of barely 600 where reports have shown nearly one-third of families live below the poverty line.
Yes, this made up for last year’s loss to Box Elder in the Class C championship game.
But collectively, Arlee’s win was about more than those individual elements.
“To our reservation this is so big. I’m tired of seeing all the negative stuff around there and I want to see more kids with basketballs in their hands, living on the blacktop and pounding the ball and doing this,” Pitts said. “These are moments the kids will have for the rest of their lives. They’re changing legacies for these young kids. I’m so tired of all the bad things that happened and that’s why we rode the ride and rode the wave of making everything better for everyone else. This was not for these boys, the boys said this was for everyone on the reservation and every kid around Indian country.”
It certainly didn’t come easy.
Manhattan Christian, which was routed by Arlee in the Western C divisional championship, came out firing under head coach Jeff Bellach. The Eagles set the tone with their daunting zone defense and highly-efficient offense.
Still, Arlee slowly chipped away with senior Tyler Tanner knocking down buzzer-beating shots at the end of both the first and second quarters. Pitts barely waited for the second one to swish through the net, turning and heading off the court, all emotion removed from his face.
“It was a state title game and everyone was trying to do too much. Everyone was settling for the 3-pointer and we weren’t relying on each other, playing like brothers and looking to razzle and dazzle. That’s who we are. We’re not a slow-down team who wants to go blow-for-blow. We want to turn loose and be free and move without the ball and spot up closer to the 3-point line and that’s what they started to do and it started to open up and they started to believe in each other,” said Pitts. “The bright lights, it’s a big deal with a lot of pressure but the weight has been lifted off our shoulders. There was so much pressure in our community to get this and guess what? To all the haters, I have two words for you: state champs. To all the believers, I have two words for you: thank you.”
Arlee always believed. Believed in their Warriors and believed in their coach, the former Ronan basketball star trying to give the reservation town a break from everyday life.
There’s no reason to believe Pitts and Arlee can’t qualify for a third consecutive state championship game in March of 2018. Malatare returns. Will Mesteth and Greg Whitesell return. Talent certainly remains.
But Pitts broke down discussing his senior class, particularly the MontanaSports.com Most Valuable Player, Tyler Tanner.
“That’s my boy, man. That’s my boy. Tyler Tanner. I miss him already,” said Pitts. “He’s such a good kid and everything that we’ve been through – we’ve been through a ride and a roller coaster all four years. We rode the wave and now we’re number one. I couldn’t have done it without Ty but I couldn’t have done it without all 16 boys all the way down to those guys who get waters and help with the jerseys. I could not have done it without them.
“Alex Moran, he hit that shot for his mom right there,” he continued, pointing to the corner of the floor. “She passed on and his dad told me four years ago when I got this job, ‘Remember that before she passed she said that these freshmen, when they are seniors, will win a state title.’ I’ve thought about that everything fricking night man. When I lay down, I think about what he said or she said and I knew I would give her that dream. And guess what? We’re number one.”
So, while Malatare continued hugging every member of the community, while Tanner clung to the shiny state championship trophy, Pitts soaked up every last moment. The celebration could last all night as far as he was concerned.
It was worth the wait.