Former Warrior player Byron Graves authors 'Rez Ball' to entertain and inspire youth

Sep. 16—Byron Graves was in the crowd at the St. Paul Civic Center cheering on the Red Lake Warriors in their unforgettable game against Wabasso in the 1997 state basketball tournament semifinals.

Now 42 years old, Graves says that game, which Wabasso won 117-113 in overtime, was part of the inspiration for his first published novel,

"Rez Ball,"

which came out this week.

"That's kind of how 'Rez Ball' starts," Graves said. "The main character is watching a game similar to that game. He's not on the team yet. I was a freshman then. The place was packed. There wasn't a light on, as they like to say, on the entire reservation. Not even the gas station was open."

Graves will be at Four Pines Bookstore in downtown Bemidji for a signing event at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 16. A ticket is needed for entry; tickets can be purchased at the store or online at

"Rez Ball" may be purchased at Four Pines or online.

This fiction novel tells the story of Tre Brun, a young basketball player who is happiest when he is playing basketball on the Red Lake High School team while dealing with memories of his big brother, Jaxon, who died in an accident. Jaxon's former teammates offer to take Tre under their wing, and he sees this as his chance to represent the Red Lake Warriors all the way to their first state championship.

Reviews of "Rez Ball" have been positive.

Writing for,

Luis G. Rendon called the novel "a slam dunk that joins stories like Friday Night Lights in depicting the alchemy of young people dreaming beyond their circumstances and working hard to change their lives."

Author Byron Graves will be at

Four Pines Bookstore for a signing event

at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 16, in downtown Bemidji.

Graves, whose full-time job is with T-Mobile in the Denver area, has been delighted and relieved by such praise.

"This is my first book," he said, "so it's always kind of terrifying when you wonder what people are going to think. Did I do a good job? Was it entertaining? It's been really affirming and comforting to see that people have really taken to it."

Graves was a freshman in 1997 when Red Lake's Warriors stole the hearts of most Minnesota basketball fans. He went on to start for the team for the next three years, which included two more berths in the state tournament.

"Basketball was a huge part of my life from 1992 until 2000," Graves said. "I had really been just into video games and comic books. It kind of disappointed my sports-loving father that his first son would rather play Nintendo than go shoot hoops or play catch. But then I fell in love with basketball during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics seeing the Dream Team with Jordan, Bird and Magic. I was instantly hooked."

In his sophomore season, Graves found a way to contribute to a team loaded with state tournament returnees. His role was to rebound, defend and scrap.

"I was coming into that as a newbie, still not sure of myself as a basketball player," he said. "Am I as good as some of these other guys who I've seen who are my heroes now, and can I play alongside them? So it was perfect timing, and it inspired a lot of 'Rez Ball.' The younger kid trying to fit in with a group that's already established."

It didn't take long to answer those questions.

"Before I got sent back to JV or the bench I had to figure out what I could bring," Graves said. In his second varsity game, he remembers snaring 16 rebounds in the first half.

"From that point, I was like, 'That's what I'll do.' So I was defending the best offensive player on the other team. I was diving on the floor for loose balls. I was the energy guy. I was going to do anything and everything I could to make sure my teammates could shine and give us the best chance to win. I loved that role."

Graves graduated from Red Lake in 2000. He enrolled at Rainy River Community College for one year and attended Bemidji State University for a short time.

"It was challenging to pick a major," he said, "and it felt like the clock was running super fast. I just couldn't slow down time or my thoughts fast enough. I thought I was taking a brief break from college, and then I just never went back."

Graves moved to the Twin Cities and began a career in the telecommunications industry, but returned to Red Lake often. He moved to Colorado after falling in love with the mountains and climate, and while not working at T-Mobile he finds plenty of time to write.

"(The job) allows me to still have energy and mental fortitude at the end of the day and on the weekend to do my writing," he added.

In preparation for his next book, which he plans to publish next fall, Graves has taken up skateboarding.

"It's another young adult story centered around an Ojibwe teen who's going through a tough time," Graves said. "He falls in love with skateboarding and learns lessons about how hard skateboarding is and how much focus it takes. I picked up skateboarding to write this book. So I busted my butt a few times.

"I found, and it made its way into my writing, that when I'm on a skateboard it's like meditating because I have to put every thought of mine into a clear mind. The second I think about anything else I could fall. It's a clear state of mind that this kid falls in love with."

Graves hopes his books can teach life lessons, especially to his target audience of Native American teenagers who haven't seen themselves in a lot of stories before.

"I try to have a diverse set of characters, and mainly Native Americans, so kids can see that," he said. "But also as they're being entertained, (they might) find out some of these lessons without it being too cheesy or over the top. I feel like teenagers can smell that a mile away. Some of these lessons I'm trying to share took me a lifetime to wrap my head around."