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A star is born.

Ojibwe youth joins celebrity basketball team

By Rob Capriccioso -- Today staff

MINNEAPOLIS - Ever since he was a little boy, Herschel Ogema Jr., 20, a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, dreamed of playing hoops in the big leagues. Now, after being selected to join the Team Hollywood celebrity basketball troupe, his dream is becoming a reality.

Organizers with Team Hollywood say they immediately saw something special in Ogema when they played a tournament last year at his former high school, Four Directions charter school in Minneapolis. The team, composed of former NBA players, retired Harlem Globetrotters and talented streetballers, has been around for about 10 years. The players have only lost one game during that span, with an average of 20 games played each year.

''When Herschel first played against us, we were very impressed with his knowledge of the game and his ability to shoot,'' said Peter Adams, president of Team Hollywood.

In one of Ogema's first games against the celebrity team, he managed to rack up a stunning 30 points, largely based on his uncanny ability to hit 3-pointers.

''We were like, 'Wow, where did this kid come from?''' recalled Adams, who soon decided to ask Ogema to join the team and become a part of its nationwide travel schedule this spring. Clay Johnson, a former NBA player of the championship Los Angeles Lakers, personally recruited Ogema to become part of

this year's lineup.

Ogema's been playing the game since he was a little kid, when his dad would ''drag him to the courts.''

Since most players on the team have wild nicknames, like ''Latino Heat'' and ''Big Chill,'' it was soon decided that ''Herschel'' alone just wouldn't cut it. Ogema relayed that his friends and family had long been calling him ''H2O.'' The name worked well for Team Hollywood, since, in streetball language, when your jump shot is good, it's called ''wet like water.''

''He definitely makes it rain like water when he shoots,'' Adams said.

When Ogema first started touring with the team this spring, his teammates expected his shooting ability to be his crowning asset, given his earlier high school performance. |However, his tossing skills have turned out to be his best quality thus far.

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''I would have to say on the tour so far, H2O has been the best passer out of everyone,'' Adams said. ''That impressed me so much that we decided to keep him around. I believe he has the potential to be a real star.''

The 6-foot, 1-inch player said he's most comfortable playing point guard, and he's been practicing hard to develop his skills for the next leg of the tour. He's also working on completing his GED so he can eventually pursue a college degree and hopefully play basketball for at least a couple of seasons before he gets too old.

The team's summer ''Giving Back'' tour will see Ogema travel to hospitals, children's centers and schools throughout the country, including stops in Georgia, New York and Alaska. Ceragem, a medical supplies company, is on board to sponsor the tour. All of Ogema's travel is paid for, and he is given a stipend upon completion of each leg of the tour.

Adams started Team Hollywood as a result of working with members of the Harlem Globetrotters; his aim was to give underprivileged kids a chance to witness and interact with professional athletes. Depending on the venue they're at, the players perform a variety of basketball tricks and always encourage crowd participation. They also play straight-up competitive games against college teams and other top athletes.

With so many professional athletes surrounding him, including J.J. Smith, formerly of the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs, Ogema has sometimes found the experience to be overwhelming.

''At first, I felt like there was a lot of pressure on me. But I just played through it, and hit my shots to try to impress the guys and coach.''

His Native heritage has also provided for some cultural learning opportunities, both for him and for his mostly black teammates.

''They always ask me questions about being Indian,'' Ogema said. One lesson that he's taught his new comrades is that he doesn't say goodbye because, to him, that's a permanent expression. Instead, he says ''See you later,'' which now his teammates have begun saying instead of goodbye, too.

''We see so many Native American kids on our tours, and they need to be inspired by their own,'' Adams said.

Ogema's mother, Debi Bruce, a member of the Red Lake reservation, said she thinks it's important for Native kids to see that there are positive things to do with their time that don't involve drugs or getting into trouble.

''Too often, we see bad things in the press about our kids,'' she said. ''It's nice to have a positive story like Herschel's to tell, and we're all so proud of him.''

Adams is currently working on scheduling an official Team Hollywood game, starring H2O, in conjunction with a reservation or an Indian-owned organization in the Kansas City area. E-mail him at to suggest more Indian-focused venues for upcoming tours, as well as Native players he should start scoping out.

Fans can write to Ogema on the team's Web site: