Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

Sam Strong sees a little bit of his younger brother when he watches the Phoenix Suns’ big man Deandre Ayton.

That’s great news for Ben Strong, 34, because it means he’s doing a heckuva job behind the scenes.

Ayton, 22, is one of the premier young centers in the NBA and has been invaluable during Phoenix’s historic playoff run to the championship round.

Ben, Red Lake Nation, is in his second season as the team’s player development coach, meaning much of his time is spent on working to improve the skills of each player, which include all-stars Chris Paul and Devin Booker. But it’s perhaps Ayton who is benefiting the most from Strong’s work ethic and expertise. Both are 6 feet, 11 inches tall and both have a soft touch around the basket.

“His forte is teaching the big man skills,” Sam said. “Deandre, he’s got a really nice hook shot, and I see my brother in it.”

That’s high praise for Ben, who played professional basketball across the world and for the NBA’s development league before turning to coaching in 2016. His coaching role also includes advanced scouting and most of his coaching is at practice or shoot around.

Ben was unsurprisingly unavailable to be reached for this story as the Suns inch closer to a potential NBA title. In short, he’s been busy. The Suns ended their 10-year playoff drought after capturing the league’s second-best record.

The last time the Suns made the NBA Finals, a guy named Michael Jordan sent them home in six games. This time, Phoenix faces the Milwaukee Bucks in a seven-game series for the title.

For the record, Ayton had 22 points and 19 rebounds in a game 1 win on July 6.

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Ben Strong listed in the 2021 Phoenix Suns media guide.

Phoenix’s award-winning coach Monty Williams brought Ben with him from the Philadelphia 76ers organization in 2019. Ben is one of the few Native coaches on a major professional sports team, and possibly the only Native on a NBA coaching staff.

“In assembling a staff, the goal was simple: identify high-character individuals with high-level experience who will work relentlessly to develop a culture of championship habits here in Phoenix,” Williams said when announcing his eight-member coaching staff in June 2019.

At least one other Native coach in the NBA’s G League is Justin Wetzel, Blackfeet, an assistant coach for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Wetzel finished up his fourth G League season and has years of experience coaching at every level. He recently helped start an organization called Native Coaches to help promote Native athletes and Native coaches and share ideas.

Wetzel has been paying close attention to the Suns and is cheering for Ben from afar.

“I've never met Ben but I'm proud of what he's doing right now and the torch he's carrying,” Wetzel said.

Ben Strong has got game, too.

Ben spent five seasons in the G League from 2011-16 on teams from Iowa, Delaware, Texas and New York. He also played professionally in Israel, the Netherlands, Uruguay and New Zealand. He played college basketball for Guilford College, a small college in North Carolina, where he was named player of the year in 2007.

His first coaching gig was in Alabama for Huntingdon College from 2016-18 and spent the 2018-19 NBA season in player development for Philadelphia.

Sam, who serves on the Red Lake Tribal Council as the secretary, attribute’s Ben’s work ethic for his coaching success. The two grew up in North Carolina, Sam being three years older, playing basketball together. Sam remembers waking up many mornings at 5 a.m. to practice together and when he left the game of basketball behind to focus on his education, Ben kept going.

During his rare down time, Ben visits Red Lake to host basketball camps and work with youth.

Ben Strong basketball camp promo, June 2016

On a recent June night, late for Red Lake Nation basketball fans in northern Minnesota, Ben celebrated on the court with the Suns organization after eliminating the Los Angeles Clippers and advancing to the NBA Finals. Still, Red Lake fans lit up their social media pages with congratulations to Ben. Many posted blurry screenshots of Ben wearing his new Western Conference champion hat and shirt from ESPN’s game coverage.

Sam was one of them.

“To see him out there smiling, being part of that celebration, it was like a dream come true,” Sam said. “Just knowing him like a little kid and seeing all that hard work pay off.”

“I’m so proud of him,” he said. “This is the beginning of something big for him. To be part of such success and be such an integral part of that success too.”

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