You better not lose: Navajo basketball is fast and unforgiving
New book looks at the culture of hoops on ‘the rez’
I received my baptism in rez ball a quarter century ago. My wife, Evelyn, worked as a midwife with the Indian Health Service and we lived on the Navajo reservation for a few months with our two little boys in a trailer in Fort Defiance, 50 miles southeast of Chinle. One afternoon, restless, I grabbed my basketball and set off in search of game. Insulated by New York parochialism, I expected to find country ball: soft, a few too many jumpers and not enough hard drives to hoop. Maybe I’d school them. I came upon seven young Navajos shooting lazy jumpers at a hoop on a cracked-asphalt court overlooking a red canyon wash. There was the inevitable question: Want to run full court?
It was akin to being caught in the wrong lane with Olympic marathon runners. Up-and-down, stutter-step now-you-saw-it-and-now-I-did-not dribbles and whiplash passes, a juking and endless vengeance of a game until this bilagáana put his hands on his knees gasping and trying to pretend all was fine.
Decades passed and I found myself stuck inside a Phoenix hotel, mind and spirit numbed by the hype and commercialism of a Super Bowl week. Corporate idiocy had run wild. I had to get out. So I dialed a former basketball coach of the Chinle Wildcats (the club of fired basketball coaches on the rez is capacious).
“Which is the best night to catch a game on the rez?”
“Every night,” he replied. “We’ve got no bowling alleys and no movie theaters. We only have basketball. That’s our love.”
A minor correction: Window Rock, the Navajo Nation capital, an hour-and-half drive from Chinle, had a single movie theater, which offers a single showing of a single film that rotates with the seasons. I split Phoenix like a con on the lam.
That drive curled through cactus forests and raw-boned mountains and limestone escarpments. I reached Window Rock as night fell and a knife-sharp wind blew a veil of snow off the Chuska Mountains and 5,000 fans gathered at the Window Rock arena for a showdown with arch rival Chinle. I met the coaching legend Raul Mendoza that night. That hoop nomad had ended his abbreviation of a retirement that season and begun coaching the Window Rock Scouts.
I found a seat next to Albert Wagner, a 56-year-old with a ponytail of thick gray hair tucked under a cowboy hat carefully steamed and blocked. He had a handsome shirt with rhinestone buttons and fresh-pressed jeans, a turquoise belt buckle, and leather boots that nearly glowed. Five of his 14 grandchildren would play this night.
“A lot of people tonight, huh?”
Wagner shrugged. “This is all the time.”
There is no grander sport on the reservations of the Southwest than rez ball, a quicksilver, sneaker-squeaking game of run, pass, pass, cut and shoot, of spinning layups and quick shots and running, endless running. Play is swift and unrelenting as a monsoon-fed stream. Custom dictates that players help their opponents to their feet. They as quickly knock them down again.
The grip of hoops on the Navajo psyche is plain to see. Baskets made of baling wire and garbage pails and tubs hung off the sides of trailers and hogans. North of Black Mesa, I found a rusty and dented hoop drilled into a salmon-colored butte.
Hoops genealogists trace the game back through generations from parents to grandparents to basketball-playing great-grandparents without settling on anything like an Ur-game, that moment when a Navajo kid picked up a basketball and ran off dribbling. There’s no real mystery, though. For a century, Navajo boys and girls were packed off to Anglo-run Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools where to speak their native language was to risk getting mouths washed out with soap. Basketball became a way to pass the hours, combining a millennia-long native passion for endurance running with a cultural emphasis on group rather than individual accomplishment.
Hoop became a harmonizing force in this most immense of native nations. (The Navajo Nation sits at 6,000 feet above sea level and is the size of the Republic of Ireland.) To drive from end to end takes a full day, curling up forested mountain passes and threading between mesas and buttes and across wind-swept desert.
I spent a half year in Chinle recently writing a book on its basketball team and heard grandfathers talk Bill Walton and Dave Cowens; fathers and mothers talk Kobe and Shaq; the teenage boys study LeBron and Durant. When we lived here in the 1990s, the NBA championship rolled around — Jordan’s Bulls versus Barkley’s Suns. We were without a television and I had a serious basketball jones. Really, I was going to miss the finals? Don’t worry, Navajos reassured me. The reservation radio station broadcasts the NBA finals. I laid in chips and salsa at the trailer and flipped on the radio and discovered my informants had neglected to tell me the broadcasts were in Navajo.
I recognized four words: “Charles Barkley” and “Michael Jordan.”
Chinle High School was the largest on the Navajo reservation. There have been many fine Wildcats teams but none had won a state championship, and the collective hunger to claim that trophy was insistent, an immutable ache. Four thousand people live in this windswept town between the sandy mouth of Canyon de Chelly and Black Mesa, and on midwinter nights 5,000 crowded into the Wildcat Den for games.
Demands on the boys were relentless. Few Navajos are big enough to play at a four-year college, and most lack explosive jumping ability. Their playing peak was here now, this moment, and speed and will sustained them. They’d graduate high school and basketball would become a horse galloping off down the road.
The players often were excused from class early to make the three- and four-hour trips to games in distant schools. Good luck, teachers said. Get a win, friends said. Play hard, parents said.
All translated into an unspoken command: You better not lose.
Mothers and grandparents, uncles and aunties and cousins, brothers and sisters and neighbors, piled into old pickup trucks and vans and Chevy sedans and made the long drive to games. There were Chinle stars who graduated last year and the year before that and the decade before that, young men bathing in past glory. More than a few hitchhiked through ice-cold high desert nights.
They all sit there and yell and cheer and implore and demand better from the Wildcats.
Two years ago, the Wildcats nearly disintegrated. The coach yelled and hectored and humiliated and watched as his team galloped away like a spooked horse. The Wildcats finished 4-17 and the coach slunk off. The humiliation of that season was a stain not easily washed away.
Shaun Martin, Chinle’s young athletic director, Wayne Claw, the school board president, and Quincy Natay, the silken-smooth superintendent — the three most powerful men in Chinle — had a power play in mind. They invited Mendoza, coaching at Window Rock, to lunch at the Quality Inn and Restaurant. Window Rock is the capital of the Navajo Nation, a government town, and the Quality Inn is where the power elite put on their best cowboy hats, boots and bracelets and eat a steak or a fine Navajo taco.
The three men put the arm to the then-67-year-old Mendoza. Rescue us, coach, please. They could dangle no extra money, as a coach’s salary was set by state regulation. Mendoza had coached more than three decades and had more than 700 victories but he was restricted to a salary a touch under $5,000 per season. The gentlemen from Chinle could, however, offer a pleasant apartment for a reasonable rent if Mendoza’s wife took a teaching job at the middle school in Chinle. More to the point, they offered the old man another chance to pursue that white whale of a state championship.
Mendoza listened and asked about the sort of support he could expect from the school board, and soon enough he smiled. They had a deal.
In his inaugural season, the old man coached the Wildcats to 18 wins and the team went two playoff rounds before losing on a last-second shot. That should have earned him a reservoir of good will. What fan, I thought, would be so foolish as to complain about a slow start this following season.
As the season was just three games old, I ran my theory of a good-will reservoir by Lenny Jones, the assistant coach and a big block of a man. He rolled his eyes at my naivete. You lack fluency in Navajo hoop complaints, he told me. Two days earlier he had shopped at Bashas’ supermarket in Chinle, and in aisle after aisle, friends and even strangers had sidled over and offered unsolicited diagnoses. Mendoza — everyone referred to the coach by his surname — should press more. Mendoza should bench that sophomore guard. Mendoza is too old and the game had passed him by. Time for Mendoza to retire?
Lenny pursed his lips. Too many Navajos, he said, think they are Steve Kerr.
Mendoza had in truth forecast a slow start on the first day of team practice in November. He planned to start two sophomores, his junior center was out of shape and rebellious, and his senior guards were new to varsity ball. He foresaw bumps. His team, he figured, would start slowly and round into shape by January and with luck compete in February for that El Dorado of a state championship.
For now, he preached fundamental hoop gospel. Think, pass, cut, shoot. And trust. If you passed the ball and cut and set a pick, you had to know your teammate would pass the ball back to you. Any hint of selfishness broke that virtuous circle.
Many days, his players were like cranky pensioners and resisted his prescribed cure. Sometimes they affected boredom and pursued their own notions of offense, which was to run and shoot, often loudly encouraged by a dozen aunties and cousins who wanted their boy to shine. Mendoza’s best teams featured players so ardent they tossed elbows and traded punches in practice. Not these guys. Wildcat practices were summer-camp loose and ramshackle. It was not Mendoza’s way to pound his fist and yell and demand order and allegiance. A great Navajo team’s intensity must swell from inside.
They learned nothing otherwise.
“Practices should be harder than a game,” he told his players before this tournament. “We won’t win until you carve up a teammate.”
Excerpted from Canyon Dreams by Michael Powell. Copyright © 2019 by Michael Powell. Reprinted by permission of Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penquin Random House LLC.