I don’t know when I first heard the term “rez ball,” but I’ve been watching Nixyaawii School on the Umatilla Reservation play basketball for years, and that’s where I got my idea of what it is. It’s more passes than dribbles, move the ball, and offense coming off pressure defense. It’s no-look passes and going to the hot shooter in the game, ofttimes for threes.
Once, in Joseph, Nixyaawii was having their way with the Joseph girls. It must have been 2017, when Mary Stewart led the Golden Eagles to the state championship. She would bring the ball up nonchalantly, then dribble quickly to the side and nail a three, or fire an overhead pass to a girl who’d moved deftly to the rim for an easy layup.
I said at halftime that I’d pay to watch these girls play anyone; a Joseph fan who should have known better said “yeah, but they’re lazy.” Maybe it was Mary Stewart’s slow, gum-chewing dribbles up the court that grated on him—or it was old stereotypes of Native Americans that welled up on autopilot. At any rate, Nixxi went undefeated that year, as I recall.
I thought about that game—and many others, boys and girls, over the last 8 or 10 years, as I read Abe Streep’s book on the Arlee Warriors of Montana, the Flathead Reservation team that took the state’s small schools championship in 2017. Sportswriter Streep had talked the New York Times into letting him follow the team through the next season, and the veteran writer fell in love with Arlee, the players, their families, and Rez Ball. He writes that he’d rather be watching Arlee than Duke.
The New York Times article stirred wider interest, especially as the Warriors dedicated their 2018 championship run to the cause of suicide prevention on the reservation. That—and the relationships he’d grown—pushed Streep to keep in touch with everyone and turn the article into a book, Brothers on Three,which came out in 2021. He’d been indecisive on that next step, and, fittingly, it was dads, moms, and a player named Will who told him to “write it.”
There is so much about rez ball—and rez life—that is brilliant and scary: player and team, team and town, white and brown. And, from an outside, non-Indian, perspective, some things that are downright mean. Like racial taunts, but they don’t hurt as bad or make a sympathetic outsider like me as mad as do the hackneyed stereotypes and the institutional racism.
Where that shows up is in the number of Native kids going on to play successful college ball. Arlee can beat another team bad, and watch the White kid on that opposing team pick up a full-ride to a state school while no one from Arlee gets an offer. An Arlee kid goes to the Big School—U of Montana in Missoula—to walk on, and drops out after a semester or a year. A player goes to a junior college far from home and watches white teammates go Division 1.
It’s again and again. It’s relentless.
But it’s also resilience. Some of those kids get a year or two of small college ball in and figure out life’s next steps. A dropout who’s had trouble with the law gets it right at the Salish-Kootenai Tribal College. And you get the feeling, at the end of the book, that it is not over yet. That Montana colleges and Arlee—and all rez basketball—will come to a better relationship sometime soon.
Which takes me to Lapwai, Idaho. The Lapwai girls just won their 11th Idaho state championship, and the boys their 12th. The Lewiston Tribune sportswriter thinks the boys, who were undefeated in 33 games, averaged 36-point victory margins, and went over 100 four times, would win a playoff tournament with all the state champs, 1A –5A. He thinks it might be the best of those 12 Lapwai championship teams.
Titus Yearout, Lapwai’s outstanding senior, has already signed with the University of Idaho, apparently the first Lapwai grad to sign with an NCAA Division I school. And the word is out that leading scorer, sophomore Kase Wynott, is already getting looks from Washington State University. Tribune sportswriter Donn Walden thinks the other team starters might also have the stuff for Division I. He didn’t say anything about the Lapwai girls, but you have to wonder (see their championship photo above).
And wonder too how it is that those 10 previous championship girls teams and 11 championship boys teams couldn’t produce one Division I player. Maybe it is those old stereotypes about Indians. Maybe it has something to do with rez ball style. Someone in Streep’s book says that with the Golden State Warriors changing the tempo, the ballhandling, and the importance of the three-pointer in pro ball, rez ball might be coming into its time.
Rather than wonder too long, I’ll celebrate with the Lapwai Wildcats, keep an eye on Titus Yearout, Kase Wynott, and the other champions in the next years. I’m going to keep tabs on Arlee, Montana too. And check to see what happened to Mary Stewart. See if she found a place to fire those threes and half-court passes away from those “lazy” detractors.
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