Adapted from “Brothers on Three” by Abe Streep. Copyright (c) 2021 by the author and reprinted by permission of Celadon Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC. This excerpt and photo may not be republished without the express permission of Celadon Books.

The locker room was all-white, tile floors and painted walls, the flash from cameras refracting off a mirror decorated with a flyer for a suicide-prevention hotline. All but three of the tags on the bottom had been torn off. Will Mesteth, Jr. (Séliš/Oglala Lakota/Diné) sat quietly, his hair shining in a double braid courtesy of his mom. Will’s cousin Phillip Malatare (Séliš/Cree), the Warriors’ other senior captain, also had a new haircut, a Supercuts fade. He was all wired even though he’d spent the morning hunting deer. Lane Schall, the Warriors’ sixth man, pulled the silver cross off his neck and the state championship ring from his finger. Greg Whitesell (Diné/Lakota), a junior guard and the son of the school’s superintendent, sat quietly, headphones on, bobbing his head. He didn’t believe in letting the opponent see your feelings. Zanen Pitts, the team’s head coach, a first descendant of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), wore a black shirt and slacks, black cowboy boots with red stitching, and a gold buckle he’d won at the Crow Fair. A knife was clipped to his right pocket. He instructed the team, “No more talking, just sit here and think about how you’re gonna win.” He left. It was silent, save for the click of a camera shutter.

The Missoulian was here — a reporter and a photographer — along with me and Jordan Lefler, a CSKT descendant, filmmaker, and Arlee graduate who produced highlight videos for the school’s sports teams. Just minutes remained before the first game of the Arlee Warriors’ 2017-2018 season, during which they would attempt to defend their state championship. Their opponent tonight was the Rocky Boy Northern Stars, from the Rocky Boy’s Reservation. Outside the door, the gym hummed with buzzers, whistles, and a couple thousand voices. They had come from as far as the Fort Belknap Reservation, six hours to the east, in the high plains. Phil’s mom, Becky, sat at the front entrance raffling off a handmade quilt for the Booster Club. Next to her was Arlee’s new athletic director, Amy Bartels. A white woman raised in Great Falls, Bartels had a master’s degree in athletic administration from Gonzaga and was now tasked with overseeing Zanen’s basketball program. “I like his enthusiasm,” she once said. “I don’t ever see him take a break.” She did allow that, because of the nature of her role, “I’m always going to drive those guys crazy.” Phil’s father, John Malatare (Séliš/Cree), had assumed his seat by 3:30 p.m., to watch the earlier contests. It was almost seven now, nearly time for the Warriors to take the floor.

In the locker room, Francis Brown LoneBear (Northern Arapaho/Séliš), the Warriors’ assistant coach, known as Franny, broke the spell. He bellowed to Isaac Fisher, the team’s towering, lean center, “You ready, motherfucker?”

Isaac, a CSKT first descendant, bounced up and down, his head nearly hitting the ceiling, saying, “Yeah, I’m ready!”

Zanen reentered, dribbling a ball, the cameras turned on him. “Aight. Sit down and shut up. You good, Will?”

Will messed with a headband. “Should I go under the braid or over?” 

“Leave it,” said Phil.

“Over,” said Zanen.

“Done,” said Franny. “Time to play ball.”

Zanen went over the game plan. They were to start in a man-to-man half-court defense, then, upon scoring a layup, they would enter a full-court man press. That meant that Isaac had to sprint back after each basket to defend the far hoop against Rocky Boy’s talented post player, Kendall Windy Boy. “Kendall’s been balling,” Zanen said. Isaac looked a little nervous.

“This is the right now,” said Phil. “First game of the season. You’re gonna come out nervous, a lot of us are gonna be nervous, but the game is gonna come.”

Zanen interrupted. “We’re not nervous.”

Softly Phil said, “I’m nervous.” His palms were sweating. They always did before games. His teammates appeared relieved. The camera shutters clicked. Zanen reached down and opened a box, revealing sleek hooded warm-up shirts, red-and-white, with a warrior head on the chest. The boys’ nerves melted away in a chorus of hollering. Zanen choreographed the team’s entrance, instructing the boys to fan out onto the floor once Allen, Big Will, Sean, and the rest of Will’s family hit the drum. “I want everyone to know,” Zanen said, “the champs are here.”

The boys fell silent, and Zanen prayed:

Our Father in heaven,

We bow our heads humbly before you

For the great opportunity that we have to play this game.

To separate ourselves from the world.

We ask, Father,

That Thou will bless us with strength and wisdom

And give us the ability to be safe.

Bless our opponents

That they also can come out and perform at their highest potential. That they can be safe as well.

And most of all,

Let the refs keep up.

Then the drumming started.

For a while, people had said I needed to watch a real game; that it was hard to describe and that video couldn’t catch it. Superintendent David Whitesell’s assessment of the game’s brutal truth stuck in my mind, and Don Holst, the principal at Arlee elementary school who formerly coached the University of Montana Grizzlies, told me that the boys would challenge some college teams. Zanen said, “These guys are wicked, they’re like wolves, they’re like a tuned-up sports car, they’re coming at you a thousand miles per hour.”

But I was by now accustomed to the coach’s hyperbole. Though I had not been around for the previous season’s championship run, I had seen the team during the summer and in practice. Phil was dominant, clearly, Will and Greg highly skilled, Lane and Isaac and Darshan Bolen incredibly athletic. But I had not yet seen Zanen’s Ferrari. I imagined the games couldn’t be too different from the ones my father coached in New York City public school leagues. My job was to describe the Warriors’ play, and that was potentially perilous. Tensions simmered between the community and the press stemming from a history of outside journalists either applying a bore-like focus, without consent, to trauma, or romanticizing the culture. Even in my excitement to see the boys play, I was wary that my characterization of the competition — that my characterization of anything — might prove me to be, as Anna Whiting Sorrell, of the Tribal Health Department, once put it, “another one of those.

Then the ball went up and my heart rate rose as I ran from Malatares to Mesteths to Fishers to Whitesells to Hayneses to Pierres, handwriting shifting in and out of legibility. For months afterward I would look at a recording of the game, hoping to reinhabit the experience with the aid of a pause button. On the screen it looked like nothing much — fast breaks, lots of space, too many turnovers. The distance of the replay obfuscated the way the boys moved at full speed in elliptical, curling lines, rather than the sort of straight routes favored by most coaches. Something else was missing, too, the thing that boys who keep certain feelings inside let out when they discover the right venue. I’d return to my notes and find this:

will steal to phil race back pass to lane 2 will lane take out one guy lane blocked off pass greg all over floor greg from way out isaac out walk not called lane miss 3 will steal will sprint back . . . spinning floating and one steal layup will steal phil give and go phil layup will QB pass phil over back almost its an art . . . i’m screaming.

On some fast breaks the ball did not touch the floor, touch passes flying between Greg, Lane, Will, Phil, Dar, and Nate Coulson, when he got in the game. Will’s shot was off — he scored just 6 points — but his defense was overwhelming. In the second quarter, Phil deflected the ball and took off toward midcourt while Will chased the ball down, caught it, turned, and in one motion fired a crisp pass toward center court. Phil then tapped it up ahead in between three defenders before blowing past two of them, taking off into the air and whirling into a funnel. The crowd gasped. Zanen screamed, “Careful!” A defender hit Phil, and he laid the ball softly in the hoop.

The tape missed the sound Greg’s body made when he hit the floor after taking a charge from a larger boy. The heaviness of the thud. I thought about his head, but he was back up in an instant. The tape caught Isaac’s dunk — him rising, with the game tied in the fourth quarter, to catch the ball and slam it through the hoop, in a decisive and momentum-shifting play. But it missed the expression on his auntie’s and uncle’s faces — the way their mouths opened and eyes widened. And how, after the game, an eight-point victory, the grown-ups so tenderly converged on the boys, those juvenile constellations of hope. “My boy,” said Les Fisher, Isaac’s uncle, “Isaac.” Will hugged his mom and siblings and grandparents. Will Mesteth, Sr., a tribal policeman, said, to his son, “You’re putting too much pressure on yourself,” and the kid nodded silently. Someone complimented Greg on a move he’d made, a floater. He pointed to his father, David, and said, “He taught me that.” For a moment, the superintendent’s face changed. His expression usually carried a heaviness. Now, all that weight evaporated into some fresh happiness. Zanen approached Nate Coulson, who was alone. Nate had worked hard to become academically eligible. “Glad you’re eligible?” the coach asked. “Feels good, huh? You did really good. I’m super proud of you.”

In the locker room, Zanen had turned to Isaac and said, of the dunk, “That was fricking crazy, dude!” Franny said they had too many turnovers, and Phil took the blame for that. Then Phil turned to the starters and said, “You did great, you did great, you did great.” To Isaac, he said, “Man, way to fricking grow some coconuts!” Joyful laughter echoed around the room, then someone started to clap. Others joined in, and the sound rose, speeding up, a thrumming crescendo. Phil’s voice cut in, “Love you, boys, brothers on three.” He intoned, “One, two three,” and the team chanted, “Brothers.”

Will slipped out alone. The Missoulian reporter approached Zanen to talk about Phil, who had scored 36 points: “I think I see a D-One player.” But Zanen gushed on about Isaac.

Isaac’s auntie, Roberta Lafley, approached with a light in her eye. “A long time,” she said. “Something that’s been waiting a long time, you know what I mean?” She said, “It’s finally happening.” A freshman named Sage Nicolai said, “Write down, ‘Sage is the coolest; Phil is the suckiest.’” So I did.

Then I ran into David Whitesell, the heaviness back in his face. “Very few go undefeated. How do you survive a loss?”

The next morning, the front page of the sports section of the Missoulian showed Phil in the air, splitting two defenders, beneath the headline RETURN OF THE KINGS. In the locker room before the next game, the boys were excited about the headline. Phil and Cody Tanner debated who was better, Michael Jordan or LeBron James, and Lane Schall and Dar started cutting up. Will was less psyched after his poor shooting performance. His hair was different today — cornrows — and he’d made a footwear adjustment, swapping out red Kyrie Irving sneakers for retro Jordans. In his pregame speech, Zanen seemed to sense the tension. He made a point to note Will’s defense in the previous game. “When you’re eighty,” he said, “ain’t no one gonna know the stats. Every record is gonna be broke. But they’ll never get the back-to-back state championships. That lasts forever.” Will silently tied his shoes.

Phil said the boys should beat their opponent, a school from near the Fort Belknap Reservation, by 20. Zanen said, “Listen. We only can win this as a family. Don’t get selfish. We ain’t entitled to nothing. Here we go.” Then silence and prayer.

Zanen said he did not rehearse his pregame prayers. As a young man, he had felt crippled by nerves when speaking in public. Then, while in Colorado, on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, someone had suggested he let the spirit talk through him, stating, in Zanen’s recollection, “God will make sure you say what the people need to hear.” So that’s what he did. But he always used that line — “Let the refs keep up” — and it sent a current through the room. Like the coach, it was brash and defiant. It was also full of truth. The game as the Arlee boys played it was analogous to the one elsewhere in the state and across America, though guided by its own principles. But the vast majority of Montana’s officials were not from reservation communities. In 2012, the Montana High School Association (MHSA), responding to inquiries from tribal communities, conducted a series of listening sessions and cultural-diversity workshops. There had been discussions over the years to ensure a tribal official’s presence at every state tournament game, but no such policy had been enacted. Zanen, with his cowboy ethos of self-determination, was reluctant to blame race for any societal issue. “I get tired of people using it as a crutch and people being ignorant enough to treat people bad because they’re a different race,” he said. He also firmly believed that most refs had no idea what his team did. Frequently, the officials blew their whistles in anticipation of fouls that didn’t materialize.

In this tournament, that was not the case. Before the team took the court, Zanen noted approvingly that the officials had let them play the night before. Today, the defense was even more devastating. By the second quarter, the Warriors were up 24. Phil took a breather, approaching the end of the bench, where a kid named Anthony served as the team’s water boy. As Phil approached, Anthony froze. He looked as though he were witnessing a meteor shower over a parting sea. Phil paused and said, “Oh — you getting me water?” Anthony snapped out of it, poured, and they slapped hands.

Will’s shot was off, but he seemed to steal the ball whenever he pleased. “Give it to him, give it to him!” said his grandfather Allen Pierre (Q’lispé/Kootenai), in the crowd. “Oh, I just can’t wait till he gets hot.” Will scored, then raised one hand above his head with two fingers looped. In between munches of popcorn, Allen gestured back, explaining that it was a symbol for his family. He started to sing softly, then said, “I remember when Willie was little and I used to hold him when his dad was playing.”

At halftime, Franny said, to the other coaches, “They finally figured it out.” Another assistant coach advocated keeping the pressure on, to work on the elaborate defenses against a quality team. But things went slack in the second half, partly due to an ankle injury Greg suffered. Phil left the game in the fourth quarter and approached the end of the bench. Before the buzzer sounded, Adam Hiatt, the coach of Montana Tech, a college in Butte that competes in the Frontier Conference, approached: “We’ll chat.” Phil nodded and Hiatt left. After the final buzzer sounded, Phil took photos with the fans — “Let’s take a picture with Phillip!” giggled some girls. Lane Schall bellowed, “Kings are back, baby!” Then, in the locker room, Phil lit into the team: “That was probably the shittiest half of ball. We got to get better every game. Our defense is good. Our rebounding sucks. Turnovers sucks.” Phil blamed himself for that. Zanen blamed himself for not calling time-out so they could regroup and win by 40.

After the game, Becky Malatare said Hiatt was ready to sign Phil to a full scholarship. She liked that Tech was a smaller school with good academics. Hiatt was committed to Phil, calling him “the best player in the state.” But Becky knew that Phil was holding out for the Division I Griz, which had invited him to walk on to the team. Phil hoped he might earn a scholarship, or at least some assurance of his place on the roster. He was under the impression that the invitation to walk on meant he’d have to try out for the team, and communication had been scarce. He hadn’t heard anything from the university since the summer. “The Griz aren’t really making contact,” Becky said. “I dunno.” The Griz had recently signed a player named Mack Anderson out of Bozeman to a scholarship. He was tall, but did not nearly have Phil’s record. A sophomore from Missoula had also, somehow, already committed to the Griz. How could a sophomore commit to the Griz? Becky didn’t understand: “It’s kind of a tough thing.” She wondered if the discrepancy was because her son was tribally enrolled and therefore eligible for a tuition waiver. Or maybe Phil needed to win state again.

Adapted from “Brothers on Three” by Abe Streep. Copyright (c) 2021 by the author and reprinted by permission of Celadon Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC. This excerpt and photo may not be republished without the express permission of Celadon Books.

“Brothers on Three” follows Arlee Warriors players Phillip Malatare and Will Mesteth, Jr., along with their teammates, coaches, and families as they balance the pressures of adolescence, shoulder the dreams of their community, and chart their own individual courses for the future. It’s a story about high school basketball, community and the contemporary American West. And it’s about boys on the cusp of adulthood, finding their way through the intersecting worlds they inhabit and forging their own paths to personhood. —Celadon Books

Author Abe Streep will discuss the book at Fact & Fiction in Missoula on Sunday, Oct. 10, from 5 to 7 p.m.

Montana Free Press editor Brad Tyer talked with Streep in late September. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

MTFP: Let’s start off with a softball. What is this book about to you? 

Abe Streep: This book is about a truly remarkable team of young people who represented and uplifted their community in a beautiful and strong and distinct manner. That’s concise. I mean, it’s about more than that, too. It’s about history. It’s about the place we now call Montana. It’s about recruitment in basketball. And it’s about excellence. 

MTFP: How did you find this story, and how did you find your way into it? 

Abe Streep: I heard about the Arlee Warriors when I was living temporarily in Missoula in the winter and spring of 2017. I was traveling on a reporting trip for a magazine. I was driving through the Flathead Reservation to Kalispell and I saw a small sign saying that the Arlee Warriors had won the state championship. This was shortly after they won. And I did some cursory research on my phone about the team and saw that they had a number of really good players, including Phillip Malatare, and there was an article that I came across mentioning his sort of mind-boggling statistics and the presence of a Division I coach at one of his games. And so that was the beginning of it. 

MTFP: Are you a big basketball fan? What about that sign said, “I want to look into this”? 

Abe Streep: I am, I love sports. I grew up reading a lot of sports books and my dad was a high school basketball coach. I was not much of a basketball player. I couldn’t dribble with my left hand. But I love the game. So that was the beginning, and when I look back at that now, I sort of wince because I initially proposed an article about this excellent team that was largely tied to the college prospects of one player, Phillip Malatare. And to frame the story in those terms was to really miss the story, miss the essence of this team, to miss what they represent. 

That was the beginning of a long and life-changing process and journey. The resulting article did cover Phillip’s college ambitions, and it also covered what happened during that 2017-2018 season. There’s a lot more in the book that becomes sort of the narrative, and it covers the other players and also, of course, the team’s remarkable efforts to uplift their community using videos to discuss mental health and suicide prevention. 

MTFP: Can you talk about how your initial understanding of the story evolved over the process? 

Abe Streep: I think that at a certain point when I was reporting, it became clear that there was so much going on with this team. For one, the joy of their games. Before and after they played, they would often say “brothers on three, family on six,” and then they would count “one, two, three, brothers; four, five, six, family.” And they were family. The team is family. And then they would go win by 60 points. The gyms were packed and the game was just thrilling. And the team played this amazing and often misunderstood style of ball. Their defenses were really elaborate and, you know, if you’re getting into basketball X’s and O’s, what they did on defense was really complex and required a lot of understanding and coordination between the players. And so they wore the other team down until they, in the words of their coach, “unleashed,” and then time would speed up and things would get very, very exciting. 

When I started reporting, I was not initially aware of the context under which the team had won its first championship, that they had won in the midst of a suicide cluster that directly affected the community. I soon became aware. And I often anchored myself with something that one of the parents, who’s a prominent character in the book, told me: It’s about these boys. It’s about these boys from Arlee. You know, they were high schoolers. They’re young men now. They were high schoolers, and when you’re in high school, you change a lot, you’re changing like the weather.

So the story, of course, changed. And what happened during that 2017-2018 season was really astounding, and to me, they were carrying so much and did it with such grace, the coaches and the players. And I thought that there was more to say about that season, about when they won, and that that season was this expression of greatness and excellence. There was joy and also sorrow.

By the time the article I wrote was published, the team had begun to get a lot of attention for the videos they made and their efforts to bring awareness around mental health and suicide prevention and wellness. And I had this sense that there was more to say about all that they accomplished and about what was to come. And I also was not sure that I was the person to do that, and I have thought about that a lot. 

MTFP: So let’s talk about representation. Obviously there’s a discourse in publishing, and in journalism, about the responsibilities that come with telling the stories of a community that’s not necessarily your own. 

Abe Streep: I think the responsibilities are great and not to be taken lightly. I think you have a great responsibility when you’re attempting to convey a story that someone else has entrusted you with, and I think that responsibility is amplified because of the history of this country when you’re an outsider working in a reservation community. I talked to the young men who are at the center of the book, and to their families, and the ballplayers — they were so much more than ballplayers — were in favor of me moving forward, and so I moved forward with their encouragement, and I took a lot of deep breaths when I was doing that. I still do. I still wake up wondering if I was the person to tell this story. And I ultimately put my best foot forward and I did my best. 

And I also was aware that there were and are a great deal of structural obstacles that these kids and young men keep navigating with dignity and humor and grace, and that some of those issues might be deserving of attention. And I think that was also part of the reason why I thought there was more to say. 

I also think that to see young players as state champions is an amazing and wonderful thing, an empowering thing, and to see young people as state champions who are also coming into their own as adults making powerful decisions about how to be in the world is perhaps more empowering. And that was something that I saw happen over the course of this book, this reporting. 

Abe Streep has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Outside, The California Sunday Magazine, WIRED, and Harper's. His writing has been anthologized in Best American Sports Writing and noted by Best American Essays and Best American Science and Nature Writing. He is a recipient of the 2019 American Mosaic Journalism Prize for deep reporting on underrepresented communities.