It was in Seattle that Damen Bell-Holter realized there was a way out.
The big kid from the small town in Alaska could play basketball well. That made him sort of a celebrity in Hydaburg, a town of 350 people on Prince of Wales Island, in the southeast part of the state.
But Bell-Holter saw other basketball standouts from the island, “local legends” he referred to in an occasional blog he writes.
“They didn’t go play college basketball. They hung out, fished and partied,” Bell-Holter wrote. “I looked up to these guys. My peers and I didn’t know any better.”
But in Seattle, where Bell-Holter played on an AAU summer team, “my coach said ‘schools want to recruit you.’ ”
“I had no idea what recruiting was. I had no idea you can get a full (scholarship). I had no idea what it meant. Once I started finding out …”
Bell-Holter found a way off the island. He first attended New Hampton School in New Hampshire and then moved on to Oral Roberts University.
Now Bell-Holter, after a brief summer stint in the German pro leagues and then the Boston Celtics’ training camp, is earning a paycheck as a power forward with the Maine Red Claws.
“We’re happy with his development,” Red Claws Coach Mike Taylor said.
Bell-Holter, 23, has been developing since he had to make the most basic of choices growing up – go down the good road or the bad.
“A lot of drug and alcohol abuse going on in those small towns,” said Bell-Holter, his long legs stretched out on the Portland Expo bleachers after a recent practice. His blog describes the abuse and the severe consequences that darkened his town, from violence to drunken driving to suicide.
“It was tough seeing those types of things growing up,” he said. “At the same time it was good to see it because I knew I had to get away from it.”
His initial escape was boarding school on the other side of the state during his freshman and sophomore years of high school. Then he returned to the nearest high school to his home, in Ketchikan. It was a three-hour ferry ride from his home, so he stayed with a friend near the school.
Then came the eye-opening experience of prep school in New Hampshire, where he attended on scholarship.
“They held me accountable from the get-go,” Bell-Holter said, “telling me ‘you better go to class, you better show up.’ ”
“In Alaska I was a big fish in small pond. I was able to do whatever I wanted. I go to prep school where everyone was The Man in their high school. It was great for me to be there.”
Cory McClure, now an assistant admissions director and basketball coach at Bridgton Academy, worked previously at New Hampton, including Bell-Holter’s one year there.
“I remember him vividly,” McClure said, “a personable, big teddy bear.”
McClure also recalls a young, out-of-shape Bell-Holter who worked hard on the court and not so much in the classroom.
“These kids are dealing with a heightened level of accountability they are not used to,” McClure said. “We finally reached a situation where Damen and I had a meeting.
“We started seeing changes midyear. He began having success in the classroom.”
On the court, Bell-Holter began the season “a nondescript player coming off the bench and struggling to stay out of foul trouble.”
But he developed his game, too, and eventually “became the best player on the floor,” McClure said.
McClure said one more aspect of Bell-Holter stood out in New Hampton – his concern for kids, who flocked to him. McClure’s oldest son, only 8, still talks about Bell-Holter.
McClure visited Bell-Holter in Portland last month. Images of the soft, chubby kid soon disappeared.
“He hugged me and almost broke me in half,” McClure said.
In nearly 20 years as a coach and administrator in colleges and prep schools, McClure said of Bell-Holter: “There isn’t a guy I could be more proud of, for the guy he’s become and for what he’s trying to do for his community back home.”
Bell-Holter began running basketball camps back on the island during summers between college seasons – he would play four years at Oral Roberts, averaging 15.5 points and 9.4 rebounds his senior year.
He continues to return to Alaska in the summers, but also has been invited to speak at several camps across the country.
Being one of only three Native Americans in the D-League (Bell-Holter is from the Haida tribe) and having gained publicity for his basketball exploits, including his Celtics preseason stint, Bell-Holter discovered something besides his athletic talent.
“I have a platform,” he said.
He plans on using that platform to reach kids, especially those at risk. He is one of the organizers of a foundation, “Blessed 2 Bless,” which tries to mentor kids. The message: Chase your dreams and choose the right path.
Bell-Holter chose that path. And his development continues, as a basketball player and as a person reaching out to others.
Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at: