ARLEE — Zanen Pitts and the Arlee Warriors boys basketball team first broke onto the scene in the winter of 2015-16 when the program captured a runner-up finish at the State C boys basketball tournament. The now two-time defending state champions caught the attention of the nation last year.
The Warriors released a video in March 2018 aimed at suicide awareness and prevention, a video that ultimately went viral.
Pitts and his family, the Warriors, videographer Jordan Lefler and members around the Arlee community helped create The Warrior Movement, a nonprofit organization that continues to spread positive messages in Montana and beyond.
“I still catch myself every once in a while, ‘Man, this thing is really special, it’s really big, bigger than what I thought it would have been,’” said Pitts. “Slowly you’re starting to see more people around the community realize that this is the real deal. There’s something here that can make a difference.”
“It’s blown up pretty big. I don’t even think any of us knew it would get this big,” said Arlee senior center Isaac Fisher. “We knew it was going to be big around here, but not big across the nation or wherever it is. Not too many people get to do stuff like this and be a part of something this big, changing lives and stuff.”
What started with one video has turned into a national phenomenon. The New York Times followed and featured the Warriors last winter, as the program clinched its second consecutive State C title. Nike invited Arlee student-athletes to its headquarters in Oregon, bringing in NBA star DeMar DeRozan to hear the Warrior Movement’s message.
Earlier this month, NBA TV released a two-part series featuring the Warriors as part of its “Beyond the Paint” series. With each opportunity comes a new platform for their message to be shared.
“It’s pretty cool that there are more doors opening, that’s what’s happening,” said junior Billy Fisher. “It feels good because you know that you’re going to make this word go farther and farther. If more bigger names come share it, share the Warrior Movement, it just goes farther and that’s good.”
“It’s been really cool because they all worked really hard for it, the boys let the girls come in and help out with it,” added Halle Adams, a sophomore post on the girls basketball team. “It made all the girls and everyone else feel like they wanted to be something bigger than them, to help out another person.”
Pitts said the project continues to grow, with plans of local suicide hotlines, radio stations, camps and even a Warrior Movement rec center to give youth and adults a place to go to avoid feeling alone.
“A few other things we want to be able to do is to start branching out away from just the Arlee Warriors and Arlee Scarlets and start reaching out to the other kids in this community. Let’s go to Charlo, Polson, Two Eagle, Hot Springs, Ronan and give those kids a chance to use their voice,” said Pitts. “Jordan could go in there and give those kids a voice. Find ambassadors of other communities so that other kids can look up to them.
“I like to fantasize that the Arlee Warriors are everyone’s favorite team, but I know in reality they’re not, so some kids miss this message because they need to hear it from their peers. The last big thing is that we need to make sure people know that these athletes, these kids that are good examples of success within their circle, whether it’s football, basketball, sports, speech and debate, rodeo or drum group, pow wow dancer, they know that someone is looking up to them.”
Devin LaFrombois understands that well.
“I have kids that look up to these players as role models. They’re going to take that from a high school basketball star more than they’re going to listen to their parents,” LaFrombois said. “I have a 13-year-old boy in here, Zoran, who looks up to Will (Mesteth) and (Phillip Malatare) and all those guys, so he’s going to listen to what they have to say and then he’s going to take that and pass that on to other kids. There’s already kids, my boy is 13, and they’re already looking up to him, so in return, he’s telling those young kids, ‘This is what to do. This is what you should be doing. This is how you respect people.’ Stuff like that. They get it from each other and they accept it a lot better.”
The Warrior Movement isn’t limited to current student-athletes, either. Former Warriors guard Will Mesteth says he and others will continue to promote the Warrior Movement’s messages, no matter where they may be.
“That message that I’ve been sharing, and hopefully it’s been going through to a lot of people, it’s that we’re the future leaders. They say the young ones are the future of this world, so my message to all those kids in schools and the assemblies we did is, ‘We need to put a stop to this. Nobody needs to go down that road. It shouldn’t be for anybody, and everyone should have a happy life.’ I try to give that to everybody through this message,” said Mesteth.
The impact can be seen, both around Arlee and across the country. Pitts says numerous people have shared personal messages about how the Warrior Movement saved their own lives or the lives of someone close to them. It’s a heavy subject for teenagers, but they’re proud to know their efforts are touching others.
“I’m pretty proud because I got to watch it all happen, well, our whole team got to watch it happen, I guess, but it’s gotten really big and it’s kind of surprised me,” said Billy Fisher. “It’s cool and awesome, and I’m glad it’s working. There are people that have come up to us, so I know it’s working.”
“It makes you realize that basketball is just a game, the world, this life is another aspect, way more important. This is the game, getting through this life, and we all need a good game plan to figure out how to get through the hurdles that are going to come into our path,” said Pitts. “That’s kind of been the vision and talk that we talk about, ‘Life is the real championship. That’s the game you want to win. These other games are just opportunities for us to learn and grow and become more mature to be able to handle those struggles that we’re going to face.’”