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Stewart Indian School’s Earl Dunn was area’s first basketball star

By Joe Santoro For the Nevada Appeal

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 Thorpe.”

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 2000.

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 coming.

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 Douglas.

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) tournament.

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 rooters down.”

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 Journal wrote.

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 story.

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 throws.”

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 stop Dunn.

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 70s.

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 Oregon.

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 fifth overtime.

“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.