Rez Ball

There was a time in America—a century ago—when Indian athletes were courted and celebrated. The most well-known of those early twentieth century athletes was, of course, Jim Thorpe, the Carlisle football and track star who won Olympic medals, played professional football and baseball—and eventually had to give the medals back because he had done what many other “amateurs” had done, taken small amounts of pay for semi-pro baseball. But he was then, and is still among some, thought to be the greatest American athlete ever.

Carlisle beat Army and Harvard, and there were Indians in the Big Leagues. Vine Deloria Sr., father of the noted Sioux historian and legal scholar of Indian affairs, went to St. Stephens College (later Bard College) on a football scholarship and went on to a distinguished career as a Presbyterian minister in Indian country. His grandson, Harvard historian Philip Deloria, has uncovered the careers of many Indian athletes—including his grandfather’s—and musicians, movie actors and directors, in his book, Indians in Unexpected Places.

That time—roughly 1900-1935—according to Deloria, played out when the talkies replaced the “silents”; colleges got more restrictive about students’ race and age; and big money and the tempers of new times came into pro sports. And, of course, the Great Depression. Indians went back to reservations to weather the Depression, gathering tribally, hoping for more say in their own affairs with FDR’s 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. Hope diminished with Eisenhower’s Termination and Relocation programs of the 1950s. Indians hunkered, waited, and played basketball.

Meanwhile, African Americans continued their Great Migration north and west, developed their own sports leagues and touring teams—the Globetrotters the most famous, and eventually began moving into the mainstream of college and professional sports. In the 1950s and 60s, they found white allies and mounted serious Civil and Political rights campaigns. College and pro basketball were lily-white affairs until Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell came to dominate them. And in a deathknell to segregated college basketball, Adolph Rupp’s all-white U of Kentucky powerhouse lost the NCAA finals to an all-black starting five from Texas Western in 1966, and Rupp signed his first black player in 1969

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The Lapwai boys basketball team just won the 2021 Idaho state championship. They’d finished third the last two years, and this year got a big boost from NBA star Kyrie Irving. Irving’s mother is Sioux Indian, and although he did not grow up on a reservation or play high school basketball on an Indian team, he is reconnecting with Native roots, and knows one of the Lapwai coaches. Irving carried on a cheering dialog with the boys during the state tournament, including a special video message before the title game.

I know that basketball is and has been for some time the “Rez game.” Our Joseph High teams are in the same class and league as Nixyaawii Community School, the high school on the Umatilla Reservation near Pendleton. I think they now have a new gym, but I’ve spent many a good night in their old crackerbox gym watching girls and boys high school basketball. I’ve read Larry Colton’s Counting Coup: A True Story of Basketball and Honor on the Little Big Horn, and read and watched documentaries on Rez teams in Montana, one a year or two ago about a Rez team that dedicated its season to bringing attention to teenage suicide on the reservation.

Rez ball features strong teamwork and outside shooting. They own the 3-pointer; Lapwai’s coach says his team practices with an NBA three-point line. So maybe now, with Stephan Curry taking the NBA three-pointer to new heights—and distances, more Rez players will find their ways onto college, and eventually pro, rosters. The night in 2013, when Shoni Schimmel, enrolled on the Umatilla Reservation, led her U of Louisville team to the finals against UConn, word has it that the lights were on and the street-side hoops lit up until dawn…

In our town, and in my life, high school basketball is a phase, a step we play through or cheer through when we are in school, and again when our children and grandchildren are in school. Only when some super athlete, or a younger friend’s son or daughter is on the roster, do many unrelated townspeople make our ways back to the gym.

It’s something different on the Rez. The gym is the community center, with young children, parents, grandparents, cousins and aunties cheering and visiting, going for coffee—and maybe  frybread. At Nixyaawii, there’ an honored place in the front row for Tessie, the oldest auntie to many a player. And there’s a drum—which travels to away games and the State Tournament.  Basketball players from past decades keep on playing that drum as their kids and grandkids light up the courts.

Maybe the next Stephan Curry is in a Rez gym somewhere right now; maybe Louisville’s looking for the next Schimmel girl. But yay or nay to loftier ambitioins, there is something about Rez ball that is its own reward.

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