Life on the Rocky Boy reservation can be unforgiving.
But during the winter months, the bite of the frosty air and the problems of the day are left behind when you enter the gym. High school basketball invigorates the community, and the Rocky Boy High School Northern Stars shine the brightest.
For three years, Kendall Windy Boy manned the paint for the Stars, using his athletic 6-foot, 7-inch frame to dazzle crowds with dunks, crafty passing, and rim protection. He scored 20 points and grabbed 29 rebounds in an 80-70 win over Lodge Grass in March to lead the Stars to a third-place finish at the State B tournament.
Those type of performances earned him a spot on the all-tournament team and the District 1B all-conference and all-state lists.
“It was a lot of fun, a good experience,” Windy Boy said of the tournament.
With sharpshooters like Ben Iron Eyes and Kordell Small on the team, Stars coach Adam DeMontiney didn’t call a ton of plays for his center. But he didn’t have to. Windy Boy always found a way to the ball.
“(Kendall) was probably the biggest guy in the conference, and everyone is going to look at him and try to stop him,” laughed Demontiney. “It’s hard to try and box out a 6-7 kid.”
With Small and Iron Eyes graduated, expectations were high for Windy Boy’s upcoming senior season.
But it was over before it even started.
At the April Montana High School Association meetings in Helena, Windy Boy stood in front of the MHSA Executive Board to explain why he should be allowed to play one more year of basketball.
He was 19 years old, set to turn 20 in December before the start of the 2018-19 high school basketball season.
Section 7 of the MHSA handbook states: “No student is eligible to participate in an Association contest who has become nineteen (19) years old on or before midnight, August 31, of a given year.”
Windy Boy and advocates from Rocky Boy pled his case, requesting a waiver to play one more season. The board voted 4-3 against, effectively ending Windy Boy’s high school athletic career. For a student whose identity is intertwined with basketball, it was tough to hear.
“I was upset. I was thinking if I was non-dominant or not a starter or a threat on the court, they probably would’ve given (the waiver) to me,” he recalled. “But it is what it is. I kind of knew it was going to happen. I just had that gut feeling.”
It was another blow for a young man who’d absorbed many in his lifetime, starting at home.
The pitfalls of living on the Rocky Boy reservation are well documented. Windy Boy had first hand experience at a young age.
“Childhood was very difficult, because my mom was on drugs, my dad was on drugs,” he recalled. “I had to take care of my little sister. I moved in with my grandparents, and they got old on me and passed away. I just kind of bounced around from house to house, knowing my mom was out there every night doing her thing, on drugs and stuff. My dad wasn’t even in the picture.”
A troubled home life led to trouble in the classroom. Those problems along with a learning disability led to Windy Boy repeating the second grade.
In junior high, the strain of looking after his one-year-old sister Aidan Rose and staying on top of school work proved too much.
“He was really far behind academically, and a lot of it had to do with attendance,” explained Rocky Boy junior high teacher Teresa Olson. “The first year when he was in the seventh grade, there would be days he wouldn’t show up, and we would find out later when he got up to come to school, no one was home to take care of the babies. So he stayed home to take care of the babies and couldn’t come to school.”
His teachers tried to work with him, understanding what Kendall was going through at home.
“He’d be tired at times, so he would want to sleep through the class,” recalled Rocky Boy math teacher Ruby Stafford. “I got to admit, I allowed him once in a while. Sometimes emotions would come to the class. I told him, ‘K, can you do this?’ And I kind of got that, ‘Ugh.’ ‘That’s all right. I’ll just let today pass and we’ll get through it.’”
The educators at Rocky Boy junior high saw a promising young student who tried his hardest to keep up but was struggling to tread water in the classroom. They met with administrators and created a plan to hold him back another year in junior high.
“We tried to decide, ‘What was the best thing to do for Kendall? What would make him most successful in life?’” Olson recalled. “We decided that he needed another year to catch up on his skills, so we kept him in the junior high and it really made a difference.”
Windy Boy, two years behind his classmates, caught up quickly. And it wouldn’t be long before he found success as an athlete as well. On the basketball court, Kendall found a purpose. And he also found a new home.
After living with teammate Kordell Small for a time, he moved in with coach Demontiney and his family before his sophomore year. In Demontiney, Kendall found a stable male presence and a role model — something he’d never had before.
“I told him if he needed a place to stay, you can come stay at my house. It’s always open. My son being the manager and my whole family being around the team, he came in and is just like one of my kids,” Demontiney said. “And that’s what we told him, is we want him to be a kid. You don’t have to be the man of the house.”
“I try to give him a life that he hasn’t had.”
Windy Boy said he learned a lot from both coach Demontiney and his wife, India.
“They took me in, took care of me,” Windy Boy said. “They helped me out a lot. They pushed me in school, pushed me on the court and how to be respectful outside, off the court, and all that.”
With that recipe, Windy Boy was soon thriving on the court and in the classroom. The staff at Rocky Boy high school were amazed by the change.
“(Windy Boy) is really an awesome kid. He’s got a big heart, he’s really good-natured. He’s got attitude that — he doesn’t have this the-world-owes-me-anything attitude,” Olson said. “His attitude is, ‘I’m going to work for what I can get. And life may have thrown me a few curve balls, but I can overcome this and I can get it done.’”
And that’s why when the MHSA ruled he couldn’t play his senior year, Kendall took it in stride. Sure, he was disappointed. But also hopeful for what came next.
In his appearance before the MHSA board, Windy Boy read from a letter detailing his childhood struggles, his progress off the court and his commitment to earning his diploma.
When his waiver was denied, Windy Boy burst in to tears. Moments later he stood up, composed himself and shook hands with every member of the board, thanking them for hearing his appeal.
One member of the board remarked that they had never seen anything like it before.
Those who knew Windy Boy weren’t surprised. Olson had traveled to Helena to be there on his behalf.
“It shows respect. It shows responsibility,” she said. “It shows that he isn’t thinking just about himself, that he’s thinking about the other people that are interacting with him, as well.”
It wouldn’t have been difficult for someone in Windy Boy’s shoes to let a decision like this derail their life. But he kept pushing forward.
“He was very disappointed,” Olson said. “But then he decided that he was going to focus and get his senior year done. He didn’t lose any of his enthusiasm, and he didn’t lose any of his drive just to get through school and do the best he can.”
This year, Windy Boy is dual enrolled at Rocky Boy and Stone Child College and is on track to graduate high school in the spring, while playing basketball for the Bear Paws.
Windy Boy still wants to play basketball at a four-year college after he graduates high school. He’s currently taking Applied Psychology and Intro to English Comm at Stone Child and wants to major in architecture.
More importantly, he wants to be a good role model for other young athletes and students on the reservation, including his sister, now six years old.
“It’s kind of important,” he said. “I want to set an example for kids that went through my childhood. Anybody can do it. Just got to work at it and keep going. Just be kind, respectful, responsible and all that. Do what I got to do to get there.”
- Reported by Tom Wylie/MTN Sports