Earl Dunn first caught
everyone’s attention by putting a basketball through a hoop. He then earned
everyone’s respect by the way he lived his life.
“He learned about basketball,
he brought it home,” Dennis Smith, then a Bureau of Indian Affairs road worker
and the scoreboard operator at Owyhee High School, told the Reno
Gazette-Journal in 1986. “It was like a flower that blossomed and blossomed.
What he brought to his people is still growing.”
Dunn, one of Nevada’s first
great high school basketball stars, taught an entire community how to dream. He
energized tiny Stewart Indian School in the 1940s, setting regular season and
postseason basketball scoring records. Standing just 5-foot-10 and weighing
less than 150 pounds, Dunn excelled in basketball, football, baseball and
boxing at Stewart and was referred to by local newspapers as “Nevada’s Jim
His Northern Nevada Native
American community couldn’t help but fall in love with him. Dunn then turned
that love back onto his community for the rest of his life.
Dunn’s playing and coaching
career spanned five decades through his death of a stroke in 1983 at the age of
56. But his impact on the Northern Nevada Native American community, as a
cherished role model and a symbol of hope, is still as strong today as it was
when he began to dominate the newspaper headlines in 1945.
This week (March 27-29) should
have been a time for the Northern Nevada Native American community once again
to publicly celebrate and honor the unforgettable life of Earl Dunn at the Earl
Dunn Memorial All-Indian Basketball Tournament in Nixon. It is a tournament
that Dunn, after all, helped create in 1965 for his community and was later
given his name after he died in 1983.
But the tournament, like all
sporting events in Nevada and around the country recently, was canceled for the
first time in its 55 years of existence because of the coronavirus outbreak.
“With our elders being our
most precious resource, a precautionary decision in avoiding the possible
spread of illnesses such as coronavirus has been made to cancel this year’s
Earl Dunn Memorial Basketball Tournament,” wrote tournament host Walita Querta,
herself a former Fernley High basketball star and a granddaughter of Earl Dunn,
on her Facebook page March 11.
But, make no mistake, Querta,
like all residents of Northern Nevada, Native American or not, doesn’t need a
basketball tournament to celebrate the life of one of the most influential
athletes this state has ever known.
Earl Dunn, after all,
represents accomplishment, courage and unlimited possibilities for a community
that he never stopped caring for and loving.
“It’s been implanted in the
minds of our young kids what Earl Dunn stood for, not only as an athlete, but
as a person,” Randy Melendez, a former Pyramid Lake High coach and
administrator and an accomplished athlete himself, told the Gazette-Journal in
If you are under the age of
40 you never met Earl Dunn. If you are under the age of 60 you likely never saw
him play basketball. If you are under the age of 75 you didn’t experience first
hand the phenomenon that was Earl Dunn for tiny Stewart Indian School in Carson
City at the end of World War II.
Maybe it was because he was Native
American. Newspapers back in the 1940s, after all, still referred to Native
Americans as red men, natives, braves or even called them chief. If an athlete
for the Stewart Indian School Braves did something of note, the papers would
say he went on the warpath.
Maybe it was because he went
to tiny Stewart Indian School. Reno High, Carson High and Sparks High were the
big schools in Northern Nevada in the 1940s. Little Stewart, with its
all-Indian enrollment, wasn’t supposed to knock off the big boys. It certainly
wasn’t supposed to have the best player in the area.
Maybe it was just because
Dunn stood a mere 5-foot-10 or maybe it was simply because he was doing things
that nobody in the history of Nevada high school basketball had ever done on a
consistent basis, night after memorable night.
But, make no mistake, Dunn
simply fascinated and captured the imagination of the entire northern Nevada
sports community in 1945 and 1946.
And nobody really saw it
In 1943 and 1944, as a Stewart freshman and sophomore, Dunn was just another name on the roster. Bob Sam and Larsen George were the Stewart scoring stars in 1943. Dunn came off the bench and rarely took a shot, let alone scored a point. He had zero points in back-to-back games against Reno and Sparks High in late January 1943. He did score seven points in a 39-24 win over Douglas on Feb. 12, 1943 but seven days later in a 19-18 win over Sparks, he was held to one point.
As a sophomore in 1944, he
did show some signs of what was to come a year later. But they were rare and
hardly anyone outside of Stewart noticed. He did open some eyes with a
three-game flurry in February 1944, scoring 12 points against Virginia City and
following that up with 19 and 12-point efforts in back-to-back games against
But much of Dunn’s sophomore
year was spent scoring in single digits. He had, for example, five points
against Hawthorne and just three twice in two games against Reno High. He had
four against both Yerington and Lovelock. His sophomore year finished
uneventfully with a four-point performance against Fallon in the Western Conference
(Northern Nevada was referred to as western Nevada back in the 1940s)
Certainly nobody was calling
Dunn the greatest scorer in Nevada high school basketball in 1943 and 1944.
Those first two years he was doing what he was supposed to do, filling in where
needed and passing the ball to elders.
But then came 1945 and 1946.
He was truly a basketball flower blossoming and blossoming into the greatest
scorer the state of Nevada had ever seen.
It all started on the night
of Jan. 26, 1945 when Stewart took on Fallon. Dunn became the first player in
Nevada high school history to score 40 or more points in a game, filling the
nets for 42 points in a 64-29 victory over Fallon.
He got those landmark 42
points on 19 field goals and four free throws. If there was a 3-point shot back
in 1945 Dunn would have likely scored at least 50 that night since about a
third of his field goals came from at least 20 feet away from the basket.
The story opened everyone’s
eyes in Northern Nevada. And it was also big news in the western United States,
appearing in such newspapers as the Salt Lake Telegram, which ran the headline,
“Nevada Indian Paces Cagers.” The Reno Evening Gazette wrote, “The remarkable
center went on the warpath.”
That was just the start of
the Earl Dunn phenomenon.
Dunn scored 28 points in a
52-24 win over Hawthorne, one day after scoring 42 against Fallon. He had 16
points in a 33-21 loss to Reno on Feb. 9, 1945 as Reno won its 25th game in a
row. A week later Dunn poured in 40 points against Yerington in an 84-25
victory on 17 field goals and six free throws. The Oakland Tribune and the
Pomona (Calif.) Progress Bulletin, among others, printed the story. One player
scoring 40 points in a basketball game, let alone a kid from a tiny Indian
boarding school, in an era when entire teams struggled to score that many
points, was huge news.
With two games to go in the Western Nevada Conference regular season in 1945, Dunn had almost twice as many points as any other player in the conference (327 over second-place R. Conley’s 169 points of Fernley). Stewart, with 598 points, had more than 150 points more as a team than the second-best scoring team in the conference (Fernley with 440).
“Beyond a doubt, Earl Dunn is
the finest all around high school player I have ever had the pleasure of
coaching,” Stewart coach Al Lawrence said in February 1945.
After scoring 25 points in a
47-25 win over Douglas in the Class A state tournament on Feb. 28, 1945 at the
University of Nevada, the Nevada State Journal printed a photo of Dunn with a
headline that read, “State’s Greatest Scoring Ace.” In its report of the game
the newspaper wrote, “the sharp-shooting ball-hawking Brave didn’t let his
And Dunn had plenty of
rooters. An estimated crowd of 1,700 flooded the University of Nevada’s gym to
see Dunn score those 25 points against Douglas. “Tonight fans may again flock
out in large numbers to look over this flashy Indian center in action,” the
Dunn was even better in 1946.
It was the night of Jan. 20,
1946 against the mighty Reno Huskies that Dunn might have once and for all
earned the respect of all of northern Nevada.
Scoring 40 or more points
against Yerington or Fallon is one thing. But the Huskies were something
entirely different. Las Vegas High would win the Class A state titles in both
1944 and 1945 (there was no state tourney in 1943 because of World War II) and
Boulder City won in 1946, but the Huskies ruled Northern Nevada.
On a late January night in
1946, the Earl Dunn legend grew even larger. Stewart and Dunn whipped the
Huskies that night, 49-28. It was the Huskies first Western Conference loss
since the start of the 1943 season.
But that was only part of the
story. Dunn outscored the Huskies all by himself that night, 29-28.
The performance opened
everyone’s eyes all over Northern Nevada. Lawrence called the 29-point effort
against Reno, “the greatest game of (Dunn’s) career.”
Dunn put the game away almost
by himself in the third quarter. “The Indians came back on the warpath in the
second half with Chief Dunn filling the hoop for 12 points in the third
(quarter),” reported the Journal.
Legendary Reno High coach
Herb Foster called Dunn’s remarkable 29-point effort “the greatest individual
performance I have ever seen by a high school player.”
Dunn and Stewart were now the
hottest ticket in town. In anticipation of a Stewart-Fernley game in late
January, the Nevada State Journal wrote, “It should be one of those ding-dong,
hurly-burly crowd pleasers.”
Outscoring a team all by
himself became routine for Dunn. He did it to Sparks just five days after doing
it to Reno. “Earl Dunn 28, Sparks 24. That’s what the score would have been
last night if the rest of the Stewart Indian School team hadn’t scored a
basket,” wrote the Journal. “Dunn hit long one-handed (players normally shot
two-handed shots in the 1940s) shots from every angle of the gym.”
Less than a week later, on
Feb. 1, 1946, Dunn broke his own scoring record, turning in an unbelievable
46-point effort in a 69-35 win over Fallon. The Pasadena (Calif.) Star News ran
The Reno Evening Gazette the
next day called Dunn “a phenomenal scoring machine. It was one of the greatest
performances in the history of high school basketball.”
Dunn might have reached 60
that night with the option of a 3-point shot. “When Fallon’s defense pulled
back to stop him under the basket Dunn simply plunked in shot after shot from
out near the center,” the Evening Gazette reported.
The Nevada State Journal
wrote, “Earl Dunn, the finest point machine in the history of Nevada high
school basketball, shattered his own state scoring record with a 46-point
spree. The dead-eye Stewart Indian poured in 18 field goals and 10 free
That 46-point game is still
ranked No. 9 in the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association record book
for Class 1A.
No team, it seemed, could
In March 1946 Dunn set a
University of Nevada gymnasium record with 34 points in the state tournament in
a 60-26 win over Winnemucca. “Earl Dunn gave an exhibition of shooting
unmatched in tournament play in Nevada,” wrote the Reno Evening Gazette. “He
took only one shot in the last four minutes even though the crowd was vocally
advising him to go after more points.”
Dunn, who was named First
Team All State in 1946 and being named to the Second Team in 1945, seemingly
changed high school basketball in the state forever.
“The 1946 season heralded a
new era of basketball for (previously) defensive-minded schools,” wrote the
Nevada State Journal.
It was Dunn, and his
one-handed shot, doing most of the heralding. Basketball, though, was just what
Dunn did for Stewart from January through March. Dunn also stood out in
football as a wide receiver, in baseball as a pitcher and in boxing.
He was named to the 1945
Nevada State Journal All Western Conference team and the All State team in
football. The paper called him “a pass catching wizard.”
He boxed at 135 pounds in
1943 as a freshman and at 147 pounds as a junior and senior. In the 1944 Golden
Gloves-AAU tournament Dunn, according to Nevada State Journal sports editor Ty
Cobb, “had been called back to Nixon to help with the spring plowing. But
picking up a Journal he discovered he was in the finals that same night against
Ken Bales of the Hawthorne Marines. The Nixon boy then spent most of the day
rustling a ride to Reno and arrived only a few minutes before he was to go in
the ring (and won).”
Dunn wasn’t the first great male athlete for Stewart. That honor belongs to Walter Johnson, a three-sport star that went on to become an All American in college football. But Dunn did cement himself as one of the greatest athletes in Nevada high school history during his four years at Stewart.
And his legend didn’t end
there. Dunn stayed in the public eye long after his high school career came to
a close. He continued to add to his athletic legend right up until his death in
1983, becoming a Reno City League standout in basketball in the 1950s through
The Reno City League in the
1950s and 1960s wasn’t just a bunch of out-of-shape ex-athletes looking for
something to do on cold winter night. It was a highly competitive 32-team
league of over 300 players, many of which were former Nevada Wolf Pack and high
school stars. City league sports were just as important in Northern Nevada as
the Wolf Pack throughout the 1950s and 60s. The league was covered extensively
by the local newspapers with reports on every game.
Dunn played in the Reno City
League with and against former Pack players from the 1940s and 50s such as Dan
Orlich, Max Dodge, Scott Beasley, Fausto Mentaberry, Jim Wilson, Jimmy
Melarkey, Buddy Garfinkle, Dick Trachok and others. And he was as good as any
of them and better than most.
In April 1959, at the age of
32, Dunn was named the Reno Gazette-Journal’s Athlete of the Month for April
because of his city league efforts. He also won the award in February 1962 at
the age of 35 when he played for the Nixon town team.
In January 1968, at the age
of 41, the newspaper reported, “Timeless Earl Dunn, who has been playing good
basketball in this area for more than two decades, made his 1968 Reno City
League debut with 36 points.”
In March 1960, the
Gazette-Journal reported, “Earl Dunn is not as old as (former boxer) Archie
Moore, but his opponents are beginning to think he’s just as perennial. The
former Stewart Indian School prep star just keeps rolling along, scoring 27 points
for Colony Christian in a 71-68 win over Sparks M-Men.”
That’s how important Reno
City League basketball was through the 1960s. And that’s how important the name
and the legend of Earl Dunn continued to be to the entire region.
In 1957, Dunn made news by
changing teams from the Fernley Townies to Wagon Wheel in mid-season because
Wagon Wheel wanted him to play in an All-Indian basketball tournament in
Chiloquin, Ore. He would go on to score 30, 33 and 24 points in three games in
the tournament and was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player for the
fourth consecutive year. In 1962 he had 94 points in three games helping
Midwest Livestock capture the Pacific Coast All-Indian tournament also in
Basketball, though, was only
one of the sports Dunn participated in after high school. A year out of high
school in 1947, Dunn beat Wolf Pack boxer Bob Thronsen in a card at the
university. In 1954, as a professional boxer, Dunn lost a bout against
160-pound Willie Stevens of Reno.
He also played summer league
baseball for Nixon after high school and was a standout pitcher. In one June
1948 Sagebrush League game he had 16 strikeouts on the mound and four hits at
the plate in a 19-2 victory over the Nevada Turf Club.
Dunn also played for a while
in the 1950s for the First Americans, an all-Indian barnstorming basketball
team (similar to the Harlem Globetrotters) that even played games at historic
Boston Garden, Madison Square Garden and Chicago Stadium.
Dunn, though, never really
left Nixon, either physically or spiritually. His greatest accomplishments in
his life, after all, were not on the athletic playing fields, courts or in
boxing rings. His greatest achievement, and the reason why he is remembered and
revered even today, is because he devoted his life to the young men and women
growing up in the Northern Nevada Native American communities.
Dunn helped lead the
fundraising for a new Nixon gymnasium in 1960. He helped organize the first
Pyramid Lake All-Indian Invitational Basketball Tournament, the same tournament
that boasts his name.
Dunn would play, coach (boys
and girls teams) and serve that tournament for nearly 30 years. He had 26
points in one game in 1968. He had 37 points in a 1966 tournament game.
But he didn’t help create
that tournament just so he would have a place to play. He did it for Nixon and
the Native American community in Nevada. Basketball, after all, is a
never-ending passion in the Native American community. Dunn, and what he did in
the 1940s, helped fuel that passion. And that’s is why that community honors
him even now.
Dunn was among the first
three athletes (along with Johnson and Ned Crutcher) elected to the inaugural
Stewart Indian School Hall of Fame class in 1974. He was named to the NIAA Hall
of Fame in 2000.
But the scoring feats, the
championships, the Halls of Fame, the All State teams and even the tournament
now named for him are all well and good. They are all fitting honors for one of
the greatest athletes this state has ever known.
But they don’t completely
capture the essence of Earl Dunn and what he means to his community.
Maybe the best way to
illustrate what Dunn means to his community is how he lived his life and how he
showed the people of Nixon and Pyramid Lake, even in small ways, how he felt
about them and cared for them.
One of those small ways was
when he built an outdoor basketball court at his home in Nixon.
“If we weren’t home my dad would leave a basketball out so somebody could play on the court,” Dunn’s son Ralph told the Gazette-Journal in 1986.
Ralph Dunn, now the Earl Dunn
Memorial tournament director, was a former star player at Fernley High himself
and later a long-time beloved Fernley coach. Dunn’s brother Robert, nicknamed
“Bro,” was also a Fernley basketball star and once beat Gabbs in a classic state
tournament game in 1972 with a 15-foot jumper with five seconds left in the
“We were raised to play
basketball,” Ralph Dunn once said.
That’s because Earl Dunn knew
what basketball meant to him and his community. That is also why that court at
his home did not belong solely to Earl and his family. That court, like Earl
Dunn himself, belonged to the community. When Dunn would go to bed each night
another small thing he did without fail for his community each night was to
flip on his porch light.
“That was in case anyone who
wanted to use the court could play,” Ralph Dunn said.
That’s what Earl Dunn means
to his community, even beyond a wonderful tournament that brings everyone
together for a glorious March weekend every year.
He was and always will be
their shining light.