Caitlin Clark, Rez Ball, and the Pros

Caitlin Clark will play her first pro basketball game tonight for the Indiana Fever of the Women’s National Basketball Association. In her four years at the University of Iowa she had already broken records and helped create a storm of interest in the women’s game. And she already has endorsements—now legal for college player—which make her a millionaire, but her starting salary as a WNBA rookie number one draft pick is set at $76,000.

This—and the millions of dollars that the men receive as rookies, and the hundreds of millions they receive as stars—is cause for conversation in the world of women’s sports. So too is the fact that Caitlin Clark is white in a game of African-American stars. The press is comparing this to the coming of Larry Bird—another white Midwesterner—into men’s professional basketball more than four decades ago. Bird and his rivalry and friendship with Magic Johnson vaulted professional basketball into the mainstream of men’s professional sports. Until then the NBA was an afterthought to major league baseball and football. Some see Caitlin Clark doing the same for the women’s game.

Clark’s game is three-pointers from Stephen Curry’s distance—well beyond the 3-point lines on the floor for the college, pro, men’s and women’s games. It’s passing, long heaves downcourt, and flashy hard bounce passes skipping by unready defenders to a teammate under the hoop. Rebounds and steals too, all based on quickness and an uncanny sense of the court and where everyone—friend and foe—is and is going to be in the next seconds.

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Caitlin Clark reminds me of Rezball. I’ve been watching Nixyaawii, the team from the nearby Umatilla Indian Reservation, play basketball for the last decade, and I have been seriously reading about and following boys’ and girls’, men’s and women’s “Rez Ball”—or Rezball—for almost that long. Lapwai, Idaho—on the Nez Perce Reservation—has accumulated more boys’ and girls’ state championships than almost any other Idaho team. The boys won their 13th state 1A D1 title this March, beating Lakeside from the Coeur d’Alene Reservation in a return and revenge rematch of last year’s title game. The Lapwai girls lost in the title game this year, which would have given them 12 state titles.

Lapwai listed 266 students this year—but that includes junior high! I don’t know about this year’s wins, but remember when they were on a multi-year win streak and regularly beating schools with five times the enrollment.

Back in Oregon, a few years ago a girl from Nixyaawii named Mary Stewart would nonchalantly bring the ball up court and skip a pass to a waiting teammate underneath, or head fake one way and another and drop in a three from long range. Kind of like Caitlin Clark!

Clark would be right at home in a Rezball gym. How to describe it? New York Times writer Michael Powell, in his book Canyon Dreams: A Basketball Season on the Navajo Nation, says that even when comparing with NBA run and gun teams, Rezball is a “blur.” It’s shooting within seconds of crossing the halfcourt line, swarming, often full-court, defenses, intensive teamwork and no-look passes. It’s also packed gyms on reservations, and packed fieldhouses with team followers at state tournaments.

And it is a national phenomenon. Not only at Lapwai, Idaho or the Chinle, New Mexico of Michael Powell’s book, but on reservations in Nebraska and the Dakotas, with players that are Crow, Nez Perce, Lakota, Navajo and members of many tribes. It might vary in the particulars, but the speed, pace, and skills of the game, and its place in the communities and the reservations where it lives are all Rez Ball.

A couple of years ago, I read Brothers on Three: A True Story of Family, Resistance, and Hope on a Reservation in Montana, by Abe Streep. Abe followed the team from tiny Arlee, Montana as it made its way to a Montana State championship. He’d written a long New York Times Magazine piece about Arlee’s run to the championship, and, with curiosity and the encouragement of players and the families he’d spent the year with, turned it into a book that would include accounts of the problems and joys of reservation life and the obstacles to fine basketball players continuing in the college game.

The star of the team Arlee clobbered in the championship game got a full ride to Montana State. Phil Malatare, who dreamed of playing at U Montana, finally got a walk-on, but didn’t have the right high school classes to attend the U. I wrote a blog post about it, and a friend from Missoula told me to look in my back yard. Malatare was at Eastern Oregon U., where he was newcomer of the year and then player of the year in the Cascade Conference.

He’s one of a few Indians who have been successful in the college game, away from family and friends and the fury and importance that Rez Ball has on the reservation. And, at this point, only five Native men and four Native women have made it to the NBA and WNBA.

Individuals have had a hard time making the leaps, but the game, Rez Ball, seems to have made its way to the pros. There’s Curry bringing the ball up and launching from near half-court, or breaking for the hoop and dropping it off no-look to a teammate. And now Caitlin Clark doing the same.

An old pro is trying to bring Rez Ball to our attention. LeBron James is producing a film based on Powell’s book on the Chuska New Mexico Warriors. Coming soon on Netflix!

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image AP

Steve Kerr, Rez Ball, and Hope in Sport

“Sports is a refuge but not a hiding place from the world of violence.”

Golden State Warriors basketball coach Steve Kerr said that in an impassioned press conference right after the Uvalde shootings. Or someone retrieved an old quote to go along with his new press conference tirade about gun violence and Congressional inaction.

It doesn’t matter when he said it. The knowledge that Steve Kerr’s father, who in 1984 was the President of the American University in Beirut, was killed by a gunman, gives him creds beyond his basketball celebrity.Read Rich’s Post →

Rez Ball Update at Eastern Oregon U.

When i wrote about the Arlee Warrior basketball team and Abe Streep’s wonderful book about them, Rez ball in Montana, and the problems successful Native high school athletes have making it to and in the college game, I did not know that one of the key players followed in Abe’s book, Brothers on Three, just completed a very successful season in my backyard, at Eastern Oregon University. A Montana friend gave me the news, and here’s what I learned from the EOU web page:

“Junior guard Phillip Malatare was named the Newcomer of the Year and was tabbed First Team All-CCC. He garners the award after being a guiding force for the Mountaineers in 2021-22. ..

“Malatare was the Mountaineers’ go-to option on offense this season as he averaged 19.2 points per game 27 games played. He started 26 contests and averaged 30.6 minutes per game. His 19.2 points per game were second highest in the league as he shot 48% from the floor. He shot 83.3% from the free throw line, which was fourth best in the CCC. He was eighth in steals at 1.4 per game and ranked 10th in assists at 3.3 per game. He was also 13th in the CCC in rebounding at 5.9 per game. He scored in double figures in 24 games this year and had an EOU career high of 29 points against Whitman College. He also posted five double-doubles on the year.”

I’ll be following Phillip Malatare and “Rez Ball” in La Grande next year!
rich

Thirty years make a difference–Rez Ball 3

A year ago, I wrote a blog post I called “Rez Ball.” I gave a little Indian sports background, then a nod to Larry Colton’s book about a Native basketball player he’d followed through the 1992-93 season in Montana, Counting Coup, and I celebrated the 2021 Lapwai Boys Idaho State Championship team. I made another Rez Ball post this week, celebrating the Lapwai Boys and Girls 2022 State Championship teams.

Colton’s book, published in 2000, followed one girl, Sharon LaForge, through a season, with the author stepping into the book and trying to help the talented LaForge find a place in college ball. It talked teenage sex and alcohol and racism, lauded and applauded Sharon when it could, but pulled no punches—and landed Colton on the outside of much of her Montana Crow Tribal community. Years later, there was a reunion, and Colton could tell Sharon that while the book might have landed hard on the rez, it had stirred hearts and made her a hero to fans across the country. She did not end up playing college ball, and tragedy, including loss of a son, has followed her these thirty years, but she had recently been in touch with Colton and was happy for the reunion.Read Rich’s Post →

Rez Ball-2

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.Read Rich’s Post →