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Writer Graves’ debut 'Rez Ball' a compelling coming-of-age story set in Red Lake Nation

Writer Byron Graves holding a copy of his book, standing outside in front of the KBXE studio in Bemidji, MN.
Tammy Bobrowsky
Writer Byron Graves recently visited the KBXE studio to talk about his new book Rez Ball.

"Rez Ball" is based on writer Byron Graves' adolescence while growing up and playing basketball on the Red Lake Indian Reservation.

Writer Byron Graves (Ojibwe and Lakota) grew up and went to school on the Red Lake Indian Reservation.

He has since moved on from Northern Minnesota and focused on writing, but he never forgot where he came from, especially the summers and high school years playing basketball.

These memories inspired his new debut novel Rez Ball. 

"It’s chess, but a million miles a second."
Writer Byron Graves, explaining what playing "rez ball" is like.

The main character in the story is Tre Brun, a teenager determined to make the varsity basketball team at Red Lake High School this year as a springboard to an NBA career.

But he and his family are still grieving the death of his brother Jaxon, the former star of the Warriors basketball team. This weighs on him as he and the team fight their way to the state championship games.

In a recent What We’re Reading interview, Graves noted the differences between basketball and “rez ball,” namely a more freestyled and fast-paced nature of the game.

“It’s chess, but a million miles a second,” Graves explained.

Growing up on the Red Lake Indian Reservation, Graves reminisced how going to a high school basketball games was like going to a show.

“We’d get our popcorn and our candy and we’d go watch these amazing basketball players doing brilliant things,” he said.

Graves noted year after year, despite playing their hearts out, the team kept getting shut out of the playoffs.

“I remember being crushed as a kid. It was like seeing Superman die," he said.

The Red Lake Warriors eventually made it to state in 1997, but lost to Wabasso in what many still call arguably the most exciting high school basketball game in Minnesota history. Graves noted people still talk about this game after all these years.

"It felt like we all won. We all published a book. We were all experiencing it. ... It was the best day of my entire life."
Writer Byron Graves

Writing and getting Rez Ball published has been a journey for Graves. He moved away from Red Lake, and at times he felt isolated as he worked on his writing and dealt with rejection from publishers.

“What was with me that whole time was that I wanted to show the youth on my reservation that things are possible," he said. "I wanted to give them a book where they could see their community and themselves."

Graves kept honing his writing craft and Rez Ball was eventually published — he's even been signed on for a second book with Heartdrum, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books.

Graves visited his hometown recently, and at his book event at Red Lake Nation College, he said the community was unbelievably proud.

“It felt like we all won. We all published a book. We were all experiencing it,” he said. “It was the best day of my entire life.”

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What We're Reading is made possible in part by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.

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Tammy works at Bemidji State University's library, and she hosts "What We're Reading," a show about books and authors.