Professional basketball player Damen Bell-Holter, a Haida from Hydaburg, visits sixth-graders at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School to give an inspirational speech on Friday, Dec. 8, 2017. Each sixth-grader, 178 in total, received a free lineform designed basketball during the event. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Professional basketball player Damen Bell-Holter, a Haida from Hydaburg, visits sixth-graders at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School to give an inspirational speech on Friday, Dec. 8, 2017. Each sixth-grader, 178 in total, received a free lineform designed basketball during the event. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Spreading holiday cheer, one basketball at a time

Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School sixth-graders went home on Friday with more than fresh homework. Thanks to an assist from Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, the roughly 160 youth also had with them a snazzy basketball and experience meeting a professional basketball player.

Hydaburg native Damen Bell-Holter, 27, gave a short motivational talk on the principles that allowed him to reach his dream Friday morning in the DHMS commons.

Sixth graders filed into the commons several minutes after 8:30 a.m. After a brief repose, a towering figure wearing a black Nike knit cap and sweatshirt emerged from the nearby front office.

“He’s right there! He’s right there!” one sixth grade girl seated at the very rear of the commons said to her friend.

Teachers stood by on the fringe of the room, while a school cook in a black chef coat came to lay eyes on the distinguished guest.

Before saying a word, Bell-Holter lifted his cellphone before him and panned the audience with it. After stressing the importance of respect for others and oneself, Bell-Holter moved on to accountability.

“My best friend Claude (Young), he’s my biggest fan,” Bell-Holter said. “Every time I accomplished something, every time I did something cool, he’s clapping for me. Every time I do something wrong, he’s telling me I’m not working hard enough. He’s telling me I’m a slacker. He holds me accountable. So here’s the thing — show me your best friends around you, and I’ll show you your future. Surround yourself with people who build you up. Surround yourself with people who make you feel good about yourself.”

“Every single day, Claude would tell me, ‘Damen, you’re going to the NBA, Damen, you’re going to play on ESPN,” Bell-Holter added.

In his closing statement, Bell-Holter offered the secret to being a Claude for someone else.

“Wake up every single day and ask yourself, ‘What am I going to do for those around me?’ Not, ‘What can they do for me?’” Bell-Holter said.

After the forceful talk that took about 10 minutes, a moment of chaos ensued.

Bell-Holter dragged an oversized plastic bag down the middle of the commons. The 6-foot-9 Oral Roberts University product then opened it before everyone, revealing dozens of black, red and blue Trickster Company rubber basketballs.

A student in the second row stood and raised both arms in the air in celebration of his early and unexpected Christmas present. Shrieks rang off the walls as boys from the audience began rushing from their metal chairs to grab a ball.

Audrey Noon, a sixth grader with Dave McKenna’s class, likened the scene to a “pack of wolves going after fresh meat.”

“I was like, ‘What is happening?’” Noon said. “Kids kept going up and attacking the bag.”

Bell-Holter instructed everyone to stay in their seats, and an orderly distribution of close to 200 basketballs from multiple sources took place. After everyone had received a ball — which retail for $25 on the Tricker online store and were donated to the youth by CCTHITA — a long line formed for autographs.

Jackson White, a sixth grader in Jeanie Wolfe’s class, was near the front of that line. White, whose favorite players include the NBA Warriors’ Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, said it was “pretty exciting” to meet a professional basketball player, “knowing he played against people that have been in the NBA and played against people that are famous.”

Bell-Holter finished a four-year career at Division I ORU in 2013. He signed with the Boston Celtics later that year, but was cut from the NBA team before the start of the season.

Bell-Holter went on to play for the professional teams Hungary, Turkey and Finland. The Hydaburg man told the Empire he’s now taking a break from basketball to give back to people who need to hear his story, such as Alaska Native and Native American youth.

“At this point, basketball has already done its job,” he said in an interview at the school. “Basketball’s got me to school, basketball’s traveled me all around the world and basketball gave me the opportunity to be here right now. So if I could go share my journey full-time now, that’s what I’m going to do.”


• Contact sports reporter Nolin Ainsworth at 523-2272 or nolin.ainsworth@juneauempire.com.


Professional basketball player Damen Bell-Holter, a Haida from Hydaburg, tosses basketballs to sixth-graders at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School at the end of his inspirational speech on Friday, Dec. 8, 2017. Each sixth-grader, 178 in total, received a free lineform designed basketball during the event. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Professional basketball player Damen Bell-Holter, a Haida from Hydaburg, tosses basketballs to sixth-graders at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School at the end of his inspirational speech on Friday, Dec. 8, 2017. Each sixth-grader, 178 in total, received a free lineform designed basketball during the event. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Olivia Lake, left, and Dakota Wyzykowski present professional basketball player Damen Bell-Holter with gifts of a gallon bag of “Annette Island” black seaweed, a package of kippered salmon “Hawaiian Strips” and a jar of sea asparagus during his visit of sixth-graders at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School on Friday, Dec. 8, 2017. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Olivia Lake, left, and Dakota Wyzykowski present professional basketball player Damen Bell-Holter with gifts of a gallon bag of “Annette Island” black seaweed, a package of kippered salmon “Hawaiian Strips” and a jar of sea asparagus during his visit of sixth-graders at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School on Friday, Dec. 8, 2017. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

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