Custer's Fallen Warrior In what should have been his finest season, high school star Derek Paulsen is mourned throughout South Dakota, by Native Americans and everyone else

February 21, 2000

Fred Paulsen had a rule. Whenever his oldest son, Derek, wanted
to go to the gym on a Sunday--which was just about every doggone
Sunday from the time the boy was four--Fred's edict was: The
first 45 minutes are mine. Then you can do anything you want.

For three quarters of an hour Fred, a career basketball coach,
would have Derek dribbling around chairs, attempting lay-ups with
each hand, shooting off the pass, shooting off the dribble,
taking passes off cuts and making behind-the-back passes until
they were as smooth as whipped butter. Fred knew a million such
drills. He'd learned them over 25 years as an assistant and head
coach: at Michigan State, where he worked with Magic Johnson; at
Penn State Behrend College in Erie, Pa.; and at Huron University
in South Dakota, which he built into an NAIA powerhouse. Fred
believed that ball handling was a lost art. The player who could
handle the ball better than anyone else on the floor would always
be an asset, even if he wasn't the fastest, biggest or most
athletic kid on the team. Derek, who never seemed to get enough
of those Sunday sessions, became a superb ball handler.

He was 15 in 1997, when Fred moved his family--wife Marilyn, Derek
and younger sons Paige and Spencer--from Huron to Custer, S.Dak.,
so he could take a position as assistant to Larry Luitjens, the
principal and basketball coach at Custer High. Luitjens, a local
legend, ran one of the best basketball programs in the state, and
Fred had a hankering to coach Derek in high school. The 6'4",
190-pound Derek was a fluid and athletic sophomore point guard
with a feel for the game far beyond his years. He was quiet,
humble and uncommonly mature. "A man-child," Marilyn called him.

"I remember the first time I saw him working out in the gym,"
says Eileen Wahlstrom, an eighth-grade teacher in Custer. "I
thought he was some college kid. He brought the ball up the floor
like no one I'd ever seen, and he passed like Magic Johnson. Then
I found out his father had coached Magic in college, and Derek
had watched tapes of him as a kid. I came home and told my
husband, 'We're going to be state champions this year.'"

She was right. In 1997-98 Derek led the Custer Wildcats to their
sixth Class A state title under Luitjens. They went 24-2, and
Derek, who was named all-state, averaged 21.1 points, 8.0
rebounds and 6.0 assists. He was also MVP of the state
tournament. With 1.8 seconds left in the championship game, he
drove down the lane and sank a pretty one-handed floater to
secure the Wildcats' 54-52 win over Lennox High.

"Best sophomore player I've ever had," says Luitjens, who through
Sunday had chalked up 550 victories in his 27-plus seasons at
Custer. "Derek could handle the ball with either hand, had a
quick first step and made everyone around him better. Even as a
sophomore, playing with seniors, he was able to pat someone on
the back and say, 'Let's go!' if that player wasn't playing well.
As a coach, you want your point guard to be an extension of
yourself on the floor. Not only did Derek see the play that
should be called, he saw the next play, too. I don't think you
can teach that."

Recruiters came calling. Despite all of Custer's years of
success, it had never produced a Division I player. Now
Marquette, Michigan State, North Carolina State, Northwestern and
Princeton, among others, were making inquiries, trying to
ascertain if Derek was the real deal. It's one thing to look like
the next Bob Cousy while playing for a 325-student high school in
South Dakota. But was Derek athletic enough to play for a
major-college program?

What could Luitjens tell the recruiters to make them see what he
saw? That Derek had qualified for the state finals in track in
the 400 as a freshman at Huron High? That he'd won a state punt,
pass and kick contest when he was eight, for cripes sake, and
could dunk, though he'd never done so in a game? Were those the
things the recruiters needed to hear? Had Wayne Gretzky been
athletic enough? John Stockton? Joe Montana?

The kid could play. The kid had heart. The kid was a winner and a
leader. (He would guide Custer's football team to a 7-4 record
his junior year and be named first-team all-state at
quarterback.) And he was determined to improve. After the
Wildcats slipped to 22-4 in Derek's junior season, finishing
third in the state tournament, Luitjens called Derek into his
office. "I'm going to be totally honest," he remembers saying.
"You were the best sophomore I ever had, but as a junior you only
rank in my top five. Do you want to play Division I?" Derek
nodded. That was the goal. Said Luitjens, "Then it's time to get
to work."

Derek hit the weight room. He talked his best friend, Jeremy
Berger, into going out with him for track in the spring, because
Derek wanted to improve his speed and endurance. "I said to him
once, 'What if we're doing all this work, and when the state
tournament comes, we have one bad game and it's all for
nothing?'" Berger recalls. "Derek answered, 'Don't worry. Next
year at state I'll put a saddle on my back, and the team can ride
me if it needs to.'"

The extra training paid off. "God, he was playing well last
summer," says Luitjens. Derek, 17, was touring with the Black
Hills All-Stars, an AAU team whose numbers included Paige, who
was 15 and seemed to grow every time someone splashed him with
water. In the two years since the Paulsens had moved to Custer,
Paige had gone from a chubby 5'8" kid to a 6'5", 190-pounder
filled with potential. He, too, had done years of Sunday
ball-handling drills with Fred, and while he wasn't as smooth as
Derek and his coordination was still catching up to his size,
Paige was going to be a force. He was a fine rebounder and had a
better shooting stroke than his big brother.

Derek would never have admitted it to Paige, but he told
Wahlstrom how excited he was at the prospect of having his
younger brother to pass to in the Wildcats' frontcourt. Wahlstrom
had been Paige's eighth-grade teacher. She also happened to be
the mother of the girl with whom Derek was in love, 19-year-old
Eva Star Wahlstrom. She was a star, too: homecoming queen her
senior year at Custer High, 4.0 grade point average,
all-conference basketball player and cheerleader. Eva would be a
sophomore in pre-med at Augustana College in Sioux Falls that
fall. "She had a smile that lit up the room," says Marilyn. "She
was smart, loving, fun. She and Derek brought out the best in
each other. What they had together never seemed like a high
school thing. They were soul mates."

Soul mates. Exactly. No one doubted that someday they'd marry.
But there was no rush. Both of them had so much to do before
settling down and raising a family. Derek had another state title
to win, his Division I scholarship to earn and then perhaps a few
seasons of pro basketball in Europe. He thought he might teach at
an elementary school. Eva, well, it took forever to be a doctor.
"We're still just kids," she told her mother the one time the
subject of marriage came up.

Then, last July 30, just after Derek had returned from
back-to-back AAU basketball camps in Las Vegas and Long Beach,
Calif., the two of them drove off toward Minnesota, where they
would help celebrate Eva's grandmother's 90th birthday. Broad
daylight, seat belts fastened, a world of possibilities ahead.
Awaiting them on the highway were a couple of kids in a car going
an estimated 100 mph in the wrong lane. The two cars collided
head-on. No one survived. Just like that, Derek Paulsen and Eva
Wahlstrom were gone.

The accident was front-page news in Rapid City and Sioux Falls,
the two largest cities in the state. Schoolboy heroes in South
Dakota, especially basketball heroes, are household names. When
Paige learned about the tragedy, he collapsed on the floor and
wailed, "Why couldn't it have been me?"

Fourteen hundred people attended the memorial service. Derek and
Eva, the best and the brightest, were laid to rest side by side
in a small cemetery in Hermosa, her hometown, on a slope
overlooking the Black Hills. She'd taken Derek there the day
before the accident to show him the view from the plot where she
wanted to be buried. Now it was their view, forever.

"Native Americans deal with death differently from the way we do
in our culture," Fred says. "They're a compassionate people, and
basketball is very important to them. Derek was someone they
respected, like a fallen warrior. This ceremony is a way to make
a spiritual connection with him."

It's nearly five months after the accident and Custer's
basketball team is preparing for the Lakota Nation Tournament, a
16-team Indian-run invitational held annually in Rapid City.
Sorrow still bubbles out at unexpected moments in the Paulsen and
Wahlstrom families. "For us, the accident is like yesterday,"
Fred says. "I think of him every day. I'm bitter at happy
occasions. I ask why. Why us? Life is precious. That's the only
thing I can tell people about this. How quickly it can be snuffed
out boggles my mind."

It has been a difficult fall. Derek was so central to the life of
his family that each member has been adrift in his own way. For
the first couple of weeks after the accident, 10-year-old Spencer
read only the obituaries in the newspaper. Paige expressed his
feelings in a poem:

...The wind is silent
The rain is stopped
The town is in a gasp
People are crying
Friends are mourning
Family is devastated
No more laughter
No more smiles that light up a room
No more together....

The football season was a disappointment. "The team was in a lot
of close games, but there was no leadership," Luitjens says of
the Wildcats. "With Derek at quarterback they might have been 7-1
instead of 1-7."

Paige, having started the season as a wide receiver, ended up the
starting quarterback. He wore his brother's number 11. He wasn't
trying to be Derek. He was trying to honor him, to keep his
memory alive. It wasn't so hard in football, which wasn't his
brother's favorite sport, but when Paige announced that he also
wanted to wear Derek's number in basketball (24 at home and 25 on
the road), it caused soul-searching. Fred advised against it. So
did Luitjens. Too much pressure to put on a freshman. But Paige,
who seemed to have turned into a man overnight, brought others
around to his thinking. "To me, it was a way of letting Derek
live on, instead of putting the jersey in retirement," he says.
"I still talk to him at night, tell him what's going on, mostly
to make me feel better. He's up there and listening."

The first game of the basketball season, on Dec. 11, was the
hardest. During the national anthem Marilyn found herself looking
at the line of Custer players, noticing that none was flexing his
knees the way Derek did to keep warm. Fred began sobbing, which
tore at Paige's heartstrings. Tough way to make your first
varsity start. Paige did O.K., though, pulling down 10 rebounds
and leading the Wildcats with 12 points. But Custer was beaten
soundly by Gillette (Wyo.) High, which left the Wildcats players
and coaches with the nagging question: What if Derek had been out
there?

"Derek had the ball in his hands 75 percent of the time,"
Luitjens says. "He was totally unselfish, but he controlled the
game. None of these guys has ever done that, and we need someone
to say, 'I'm the man.' They're trying to find an identity."

That and a reason to play and practice with the conviction that a
winning program demands, to play as Derek would have had them
play, infused with a blind faith that the team was striving
toward something significant. "Last spring, I thought the worst
thing that could happen in my life was if I didn't win the state
tournament as a senior," says Berger. "Then I got that call on
July 30. Now I realize that as long as I've worked hard to be
successful and have enjoyed it, if we don't make it, it's not
important in the big picture of things. I'll accept what
happens."

Time is the only real medicine for this deep and abiding pain,
but sport has a role in the healing process. When the Lakota
Nation Tournament started on Dec. 15, the Wildcats were 0-1 and
their season was in danger of spiralling out of control. But the
team responded by winning its first two tournament games to
advance to the semifinals. Paige led the Wildcats in scoring both
times and began to emerge as their leader. "After the first game
the coach told us, 'Derek's not going to be here, so don't look
for him,'" Paige recalls. "It was the truth, and as much as I
didn't want it to be the truth, I had to accept that and step up,
since I was the closest thing to him."

He picked up his brother's torch, which was burning brightly in
the hearts of the 6,000 fans and participants who gathered in the
Rushmore Civic Center on the night of Dec. 17. Derek,
all-tournament in 1998, had been admired in the Lakota community
for his unselfish play and his sportsmanship. His death had
inspired the tournament organizers to begin a ceremonial Wiping
of the Tears tradition to honor former participants who had died
during the year.

Before the night's Grand Entry of the players, cheerleaders and
game officials, four families, including the Paulsens and the
Wahlstroms, were seated on the court and solemnly presented star
quilts sewn in the memory of their lost children. Then the Wiping
of the Tears, a centuries-old sacred rite, unfolded. Drumbeats
filled the gym. Indians in ceremonial headdress, leather pants
and moccasins danced and sang soulfully in the darkened hall. Out
of the shadows an elder emerged to pass a platter of burning
sweet grass before the grieving families, fanning the smoke into
the parents' faces with the wing of a hawk. According to Lakota
tradition, through this they could smell the spirits of their
lost children. They ate dried berries and meat to feed the souls
of the departed loved ones and sipped cherry juice and water to
quench the loved ones' thirst. As the dance continued, the
players and coaches of the 16 teams filed in, ever so slowly,
shaking the hands of the family members, hugging them, wetting
their cheeks with tears. On and on the dance continued, a
serpentine chain of players, Lakotas, cheerleaders and tournament
officials circling the arena to the beating of the drums, the
lyrics of a song recalling the anguished cries of all vanished
peoples.

The Custer players, wearing their uniforms, danced too. Every one
of them cried. Paige, wrapped in the quilt, shook the hands of
well-wishers for more than an hour. His father wept beside him.
The Wildcats' semifinal game was to begin immediately after the
ceremony, and Paige leaned forward and, through reddened eyes,
said to Wahlstrom, "I hope the team doesn't fall apart after
this."

She forced herself to smile. This young man had grown up right in
front of her. "That sort of depends upon you," she said.

"I'm not going to fall apart," Paige said.

He was ready to strap a saddle on his back and let his teammates
ride him, which they did. Against favored Hill City High, Paige
scored a game-high and career-high 20 points and led the Wildcats
to a 61-48 win. "The kid doesn't know what the rim is for," one
Hill City fan remarked admiringly as another of Paige's shots
swished.

"Kids are resilient," said Wahlstrom later. "They have the
ability to bawl their heads off one minute and be focused the
next."

In the final the next night Custer's tournament run ended; Little
Wound High beat the Wildcats 54-44. Paige, with 59 points and 41
rebounds in four games, was named to the all-tournament team, the
only freshman so honored. He continued his fine play through
mid-February, leading Custer in points, assists and rebounds as
the Wildcats--scrappy, willing, full of try--scraped together a
10-8 record without their leader and star. Paige had come further
faster than anyone had suspected he would, and it tortured his
father to think what might have been. "The hell of it is how well
he'd have played with Derek this year," said Fred.

Perhaps. But he could play no more bravely than he now plays with
his brother alive in his heart.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RONALD C. MODRA Candles in the wind Derek was all-state in basketball and football; Eva (with Derek) was homecoming queen and pre-med. TWO COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RONALD C. MODRA Rising to the occasion Inspired by the Lakota Nation's tribute to Derek, brother Paige (24) scored a game-high 20 points for Custer in a mid-December tournament. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RONALD C. MODRA Heavy hearts Fred (standing) and Paige still struggle to accept that Derek and Eva are gone.

"Life is precious," says Fred Paulsen. "How quickly it can be
snuffed out boggles my mind."

Time is the only real medicine for this deep and abiding pain,
but sport has a role in the healing.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)