The extra training paid off. "God, he was playing well last summer," says Luitjens. Derek, 17, was touring with the Black Hills All-Stars, an AAU team whose numbers included Paige, who was 15 and seemed to grow every time someone splashed him with water. In the two years since the Paulsens had moved to Custer, Paige had gone from a chubby 5'8" kid to a 6'5", 190-pounder filled with potential. He, too, had done years of Sunday ball-handling drills with Fred, and while he wasn't as smooth as Derek and his coordination was still catching up to his size, Paige was going to be a force. He was a fine rebounder and had a better shooting stroke than his big brother.
Derek would never have admitted it to Paige, but he told Wahlstrom how excited he was at the prospect of having his younger brother to pass to in the Wildcats' frontcourt. Wahlstrom had been Paige's eighth-grade teacher. She also happened to be the mother of the girl with whom Derek was in love, 19-year-old Eva Star Wahlstrom. She was a star, too: homecoming queen her senior year at Custer High, 4.0 grade point average, all-conference basketball player and cheerleader. Eva would be a sophomore in pre-med at Augustana College in Sioux Falls that fall. "She had a smile that lit up the room," says Marilyn. "She was smart, loving, fun. She and Derek brought out the best in each other. What they had together never seemed like a high school thing. They were soul mates."
Soul mates. Exactly. No one doubted that someday they'd marry. But there was no rush. Both of them had so much to do before settling down and raising a family. Derek had another state title to win, his Division I scholarship to earn and then perhaps a few seasons of pro basketball in Europe. He thought he might teach at an elementary school. Eva, well, it took forever to be a doctor. "We're still just kids," she told her mother the one time the subject of marriage came up.
Then, last July 30, just after Derek had returned from back-to-back AAU basketball camps in Las Vegas and Long Beach, Calif., the two of them drove off toward Minnesota, where they would help celebrate Eva's grandmother's 90th birthday. Broad daylight, seat belts fastened, a world of possibilities ahead. Awaiting them on the highway were a couple of kids in a car going an estimated 100 mph in the wrong lane. The two cars collided head-on. No one survived. Just like that, Derek Paulsen and Eva Wahlstrom were gone.
The accident was front-page news in Rapid City and Sioux Falls, the two largest cities in the state. Schoolboy heroes in South Dakota, especially basketball heroes, are household names. When Paige learned about the tragedy, he collapsed on the floor and wailed, "Why couldn't it have been me?"
Fourteen hundred people attended the memorial service. Derek and Eva, the best and the brightest, were laid to rest side by side in a small cemetery in Hermosa, her hometown, on a slope overlooking the Black Hills. She'd taken Derek there the day before the accident to show him the view from the plot where she wanted to be buried. Now it was their view, forever.
"Native Americans deal with death differently from the way we do in our culture," Fred says. "They're a compassionate people, and basketball is very important to them. Derek was someone they respected, like a fallen warrior. This ceremony is a way to make a spiritual connection with him."
It's nearly five months after the accident and Custer's basketball team is preparing for the Lakota Nation Tournament, a 16-team Indian-run invitational held annually in Rapid City. Sorrow still bubbles out at unexpected moments in the Paulsen and Wahlstrom families. "For us, the accident is like yesterday," Fred says. "I think of him every day. I'm bitter at happy occasions. I ask why. Why us? Life is precious. That's the only thing I can tell people about this. How quickly it can be snuffed out boggles my mind."
It has been a difficult fall. Derek was so central to the life of his family that each member has been adrift in his own way. For the first couple of weeks after the accident, 10-year-old Spencer read only the obituaries in the newspaper. Paige expressed his feelings in a poem:
...The wind is silent
The rain is stopped
The town is in a gasp
People are crying
Friends are mourning
Family is devastated
No more laughter
No more smiles that light up a room
No more together....