There are a few hundred players competing in Las Vegas Summer League. Few have come as far to get here as Damen Bell-Holter of the D-League Select squad.
Born in Hydaburg, Alaska, a Haida village of under 400 in the very southeast of Alaska, Bell-Holter is not only making a professional name for himself, but also hoping to serve as a role model to Native youth throughout North America. In addition to the basketball camps he runs every summer in rural Alaska and around North America, he’s been signed as an ambassador for the Nike sponsored N7Fund. The Fund, which raises money through sales of Native American-themed footwear and apparel, is dedicated to providing grants and other support to enhancing sports participation and competition among indigenous populations.
Basketball isn’t quite religion in Alaska’s largely Native rural communities, but it comes close. Despite the level of interest and athletic talent, players from these communities rarely move in to play even junior college ball, let alone reach the pros. Asked about the biggest obstacles preventing others following in his path, Bell-Holter identifies two: lack of exposure, but more importantly an insufficient understanding of what it takes to make it on a bigger stage.
“A lot of kids from places like where I come from don’t always know there’s something else possible. They might practice to become the best player in the village, but they don’t know how much harder they need to work to compete with guys from bigger communities. The Native kids I worked with when I was in Oklahoma (playing at Oral Roberts), they’d practice two hours and then come back and do another two hours at night session because they saw who they had to compete against.”
“It’s not just working hard on the court either. It’s not a secret that rural Native communities have a lot of problems with poverty and alcohol. Growing up, there weren’t a lot of role models around, so things like not going to school, getting drunk as young as 13 or 14, that was acceptable.”
As he grew to his current 6’9, 245 pound size, Bell-Holter realized he did need to seek out bigger locales and higher levels of competition, first transferring schools to Ketchikan, which while still a small town (approximately 8,000 residents) gave him access to game experience against bigger schools. Partially to get himself academically eligible, he then enrolled in prep school in New Hampshire.
“That year was really important for me to learn how to work hard and be dependable. I needed that to prepare for college ball, which is like a job.”
Hard work and dependability are themes he comes back to frequently when discussing his career. Going into this season he expects to be able to weigh opportunities in countries such as Germany, Israel and France, in large part because of his reputation for just those things. He credits his time with the Boston Celtics in training camp last year to help foster this word-of-mouth. “Guys like Brandon Bass and Kris Humphries have been in the league a decade. If those guys, kept working, I had to too. I made sure I was always in the gym early and always working hard. The Celtics noticed that.”
Even though he was eventually cut, this esteem the Boston organization holds him in was in readily in evidence. As we were sitting down to talk, we bumped into two team staffers, who greeted Bell-Holter warmly with handshakes and hugs. “I know that if teams in Europe or somewhere are looking at me, Danny Ainge is going to be the first guy they call, and it’s good to know he’s always going to say good things about me.”
His play with the Maine Red Claws of the D-League couldn’t have hurt that impression. “D-League can be frustrating, because in that environment, everyone is trying to go get theirs and get noticed. But it was really important for me. I played the 5 in college so I had to learn how to play the 4, show I could step away from the basket and shoot. That transition was hard for me, but I knew I needed to add that to my game for my career.” The work paid off, as Bell-Holter was a solid scorer and extremely active rebounder in Maine, earning himself the opportunity for the showcase of Summer League, and garnering interest from NBA teams as a possible training camp invitee.
“I just have to keep working hard and stay humble and I’m going to reach my goals,” Bell-Holter stated. This notion of setting lofty targets and then working towards achieving them is a large component of his speaking message to students in native communities. “I want these kids to know that it takes a lot of work, but it’s attainable. I grew up in a village of 300 on an island in Southeast Alaska, and there I was on the floor of TD Garden in Boston, shaking hands with John Havlicek.”