The Basketball League honored the Potawatomi Fire with two awards at the conclusion of their successful 2022 inaugural season.
The Fire received the Jim Koch Award for Team Market of the Year. The Fire Dance Team, under the direction of Aonisty Parks, also received the Dance Team of the Year Award from TBL.
Team Market of the Year is named for businessman Jim Koch, an early TBL supporter, who grew his family cabinet business into the largest employer in northeast Kansas.
“The Koch Award says a lot for a first-year team,” said FireLake Arena Director David Qualls. “We came into a league with 44 teams, and in our first year, were awarded the best run business. It’s a huge honor.”
The Fire’s Deshawn Munson was named TBL’s Most Valuable Player. Munson was also named All-TBL first team. The East St. Louis, Illinois, native had 12 triple doubles during the season and nearly averaged a triple double for the season with 25.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 9.4 assists.
The Potawatomi Fire’s season ended on June 12 with a 120-110 loss to the Shreveport Mavericks in the semifinals of the TBL playoffs. Overall, the Fire went 18-6 in the regular season, earning the third seed in the Central Conference of the playoffs.
Support from departments, services
The Fire organization’s success off the court was possible because of the collaborative efforts of dozens of people at the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, said Qualls.
After the September 2021 announcement that CPN would field a professional basketball team, the Arena’s staff quickly got to work planning for the upcoming season. Fortunately, Qualls had ordered an NBA regulation-sized basketball court in 2019, with the plan for FireLake Arena to be able to host little league, high school and small college tournaments.
In December 2021, staff from CPN’s mechanical, electrical and construction departments began working on converting existing areas to locker rooms and other team facilities.
The pandemic impacted preparation at the Arena, and Qualls credits his team’s perseverance during the challenges that came. Their staff of five banded together, doing whatever was necessary to make it work. Qualls himself even took on driving the team bus for a while when hiring a bus driver became difficult due to the pandemic.
Qualls said he is especially grateful for the way other CPN departments stepped up to help. From Health Services, Public Information, Accounting, Information Technology, Legal, Purchasing to Housekeeping, everyone jumped at the chance to support the Fire.
Emergency Management Director Tim Zientek made sure the facility had all the necessary and up-to-date safety equipment to handle any medical emergencies. Qualls smiled as he recounted that Zientek even loaned orange traffic cones to Qualls and the team’s bus driver to help them practice for the commercial bus driving test.
Since the Fire had the expertise of athletic trainer Taylor Williams through a partnership with Saints Health, CPN Health’s Chris Skillings helped find the athletic trainer’s supplies and get them quickly shipped to the Arena.
The Workforce Development and Social Services Department and Department of Education participated by helping engage community members, offering their clients tickets. Qualls said he did not even have to ask; the departments came up with the plans on their own in support of the team.
“They just said, ‘Let’s see, how can we participate? How can we be a part of that?’ And that’s been great,” he said.
Support from enterprises
The support was not limited to CPN Tribal Administration. All CPN enterprises, from FireLake Discount Foods to the Grand Casino, wanted to be part of the process.
“When I started selling sponsorships, Richard Driskell and Jason Boyce (from FireLake Discount Foods) stepped in and helped me set up some good meetings with people in the community,” Qualls said. “Richard and Jason are involved out in the community with various groups like the Lions Club and Shawnee Forward.”
The Grand Casino’s J.T. Summerlin and Joe Garcia helped bring in their vendors to get the Arena the best prices on its new large video screens. One of the Grand Casino’s shuttle buses, not in use during the pandemic, was even put into service to help the Fire players get to some road games.
FireLake Casino’s Linda Hinojosa and Mike Petray assisted with player lunches and fan support. They sponsored T-shirts for fans, casino employees and others.
First National Bank & Co. was a partner sponsor and supplied branded novelty items for Fire fans. They also helped provide a celebratory lunch for the players, marking the end of a successful season.
KGFF’s Chris Cox, who usually handles the radio station’s sports play-by-play, seamlessly made the jump to the Fire’s video streaming broadcast.
“It felt good knowing that you could log into our live stream, or you could tune your radio to 1450, close your eyes and totally picture the game because Chris had every little detail,” Qualls said. “They created a lot of excitement, and their production was very good.”
From installing extra cables to support online streaming, to managing payroll for the Fire players, to an unusual purchasing request for 40 basketballs, Qualls appreciates everyone’s support.
“I’m grateful because they were so busy, and everybody was shorthanded (due to the pandemic). Even though (the deadlines were) such a time constraint, everybody just jumped in and gave us priority or worked us into their schedules where they could. We met all our deadlines. We couldn’t even have got started if it hadn’t been for all these other departments,” Qualls said.
“And nobody had to be encouraged that we need to get this done. Everybody just thought this was great. I couldn’t have asked for more. Everybody bought into the idea.”
Creating community excitement
As he began putting together a sponsorship program, Qualls knew he had to offer packages at all levels to attract sponsors.
“You don’t want to exclude anyone,” he said. “Because of everything that we had to offer at the Arena, we were able to have sponsorship packages from literally $300 to $25,000, and we sold packages at all those levels, which was very fortunate because at the time, all we had was a logo and a story.”
For the community to buy in based on just a vision, Qualls credits CPN.
“For that, I credit the character and the integrity of the Tribe. Everybody around here knows that when CPN does something, they do it right or they don’t do it at all. And CPN has been a good community partner,” he said.
Qualls is grateful for the way the local community embraced the team. He thinks the announcement of its creation was perfectly timed, coming on the heels of the historic cooperative agreement signed by CPN and the City of Shawnee.
“It’s almost like this was planned, but it wasn’t. It was just organic. With CPN, everything we do is going right back into this community one way or the other,” Qualls said.
“I think it’s because CPN is the first one to the table — whether it’s bringing one of our trucks out to help haul sand in a snowstorm or hook a generator up because a big power failure has happened. Or helping the area schools. The Fire basketball program has been rewarded because of that.”
Qualls enjoyed getting feedback from the community.
“It’s amazing how many people came up to me at the games and said, ‘Thank you for doing this. This is so much fun,’” he said.
Now having added additional Arena staff as the pandemic eased, Qualls is proud that the team of only seven people were able to take on such a huge task. As he reflects on the season and the community, and looks toward the 2023 season, he’s grateful for the people around him.
“All these people stepped in and said, ‘Here, let me help you make this better.’ And that’s how CPN works. It took the whole Tribe to make this as successful as it was,” he said.
The Potawatomi Fire are the first professional basketball team owned by a Native American tribe. The Fire kicked off its first season in March 2022. Visit the Potawatomi Fire’s website at potawatomifire.com and follow the team @PotawatomiFire on Facebook and Instagram.
The Basketball League is a men’s professional basketball league with 44 teams in more than 20 different states. Find TBL online at thebasketballleague.net.