CHADRON – In a sport like basketball, one so consumed with statistics, Christian McGhee, all 5-foot-7 of him, didn’t want to become one.
That’s why the diminutive Native American guard from Pine Ridge, S.D., who is known as much for his work ethic and tenacity on the court as he is for his ability to nail long-range shots, has stuck it out with the Chadron State College men’s basketball team since stepping foot on campus in 2008.
It just took him a couple days to figure that out.
“It was really hard when I first got here because I didn’t have anybody to talk to or connect with,” said McGhee, who is one of three team captains this season. “No one could relate to me. Pine Ridge is 98 percent Native American and there weren’t Native American kids here and so I wanted to quit. I felt like I didn’t belong and that I’d never be comfortable, but I wanted to play basketball.
“I realized I’ve never quit anything in my life. I wanted to do something a lot of people don’t. It’s only four years out of my life. Why not? Playing at the college level is an experience that a lot of Native Americans don’t get a chance to do. I’ve always wanted an education and I didn’t want to be another statistic. I wanted to be a successful role model for my people.”
McGhee has made the most of his time. He’s appeared in more than 100 career games and is enjoying his best season in his final go-round. He’s currently averaging a career-high 5.3 points a game and is shooting 35 percent from 3-point range.
He’s been even better during the Eagles’ renaissance – CSC has won 10 of its last 12 games and has qualified for the conference tournament for the first time since 2002 – by being their fifth-leading scorer despite coming off the bench. He’s averaging 6.8 points a game and he’s shooting a blistering 45 percent from beyond the arc in those 12 games.
While his measurable characteristics are easy to see, it’s the intangibles McGhee provides that set him apart, most notably his toughness. Last season when he started 21 of 24 games, he suffered through a stomach ailment that required medication. If he got sick in practice, he’d return in time for the next drill.
This season, he’s played with broken ribs since early December. His teammates only learned of McGhee’s injury when CSC head coach Brent Bargen told them about it to illustrate his desire and dedication.
“He has a great motor, he is very tough, extremely competitive and he is the heart of our team,” Bargen said. “His character has really shown through this season. He started much of last season but that hasn’t been his role this year. I know that bothers him, but he has never questioned that decision or shown a poor attitude. He is a coach on the floor, always prepared to play and the first player to assist one of his teammates with an assignment or provide an encouraging word.”
McGhee’s knack for encouragement comes from his family. His mother is an elementary and middle school reading specialist on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Both of his grandparents were also involved in education and his father has worked with the Bureau of Indian Affairs for 28 years.
“I’ve always been taught not to be selfish,” he said. “I grew up with two sisters and I always had to help them out and I always look out for other people instead of myself because of where I grew up. I appreciate everything I have. The opportunity to play for Coach Bargen has been amazing. I just try to work each day as hard as I can for him and my teammates.”
McGhee’s hard work isn’t just limited to his endeavors on the basketball court. He has a 3.24 GPA in sports and recreation management and is on track to graduate this May, less than four years after he thought about quitting school altogether.
While he’s pleased with his impending graduation – his dream job is to own and operate a sporting goods store in Pine Ridge – he doesn’t want his example to be forgotten.
“Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a Native American kid graduating from college in four years,” he said. “Some Native Americans go to school, but I think it’s less than five percent. I wish it was higher because I see a lot of talented kids coming up. I’ve had a lot come up to me because they see me doing it. I just tell them it’s hard, but if you work at it, everything is going to be alright. I get a lot of text messages from all over the reservation. I try to help kids as much as I can. That’s one of the reasons why I’m here; it’s for them.”
McGhee knows perfectly well Pine Ridge isn’t a charming destination – the area unfortunately holds the distinction as being one of the poorest locations in the United States. McGhee was reminded of that the last time he went for a visit when he saw homeless people living in squalor and teenage mothers with children who didn’t have coats.
“It can be depressing but I’ll never call another place home. I’ve never known anything else and so all I can do is try to make a difference. It’s possible to get out but we all need to help one another,” McGhee said. “I really believe there are more positives than negatives up there but the people who talk the loudest are the ones who aren’t even trying.”
Sometimes McGhee just lets his arms do the talking when he executes a textbook jump shot. He has two Lakota words, ‘wowicake,’ which means truth, and ‘wowitan,’ which means pride, tattooed on the back of his arms. When he hits a bucket, it shows hundreds in the crowd what athletics at the collegiate level are meant for: playing for something other than one’s self.
It shows them that McGhee, a short kid from a desolate reservation, has the ability to unite people of all types. They appreciate his fearless attitude and effort on a court with players a foot taller than him when he connects on something as simple as a jumper.
Maybe that’s why it seems as if McGhee’s shooting range extends all the way to Pine Ridge.
That’s because it does.
“I’m honored to represent the Native American people to the best of my ability,” he said. “A lot don’t get a chance to do it. Everything I do, I do for my people, especially my loved ones who have looked out for me through the years. It means a lot. All I think about is not letting people down. All I think about is not letting the town down; I don’t want to let any Native Americans down. I told a friend if I make it, so do you.”
—Alex Helmbrecht, Sports Information Director