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.
I’ve not followed professional basketball—or even college basketball—much over the past few years. The “posting up” business is boring, and the spectacle of who might be the most athletically talented individuals in the world running up and down a court that seems too small for them, dunking basketballs in a hoop that seems too low for them, just didn’t stir me.
|Mary Stewart of Nixyaawii Golden Eagles (credit: East Oregonian)|
But I have watched a lot of high school basketball, where the size of the court and the height of the rim seem to be in proper proportion. And this year I’ve taken special interest with my freshman grandson playing at Joseph High School. One of the treats has been watching Nixyaawii Community School, the boys and girls teams from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation. Both beat Joseph handily, with great ball control and great three-point shooting, and both went on to take third place in the state small schools tournament. It was fun watching the shooting, passing, and ball control—“they’ve been playing together since elementary school,” we were told. And, when we played at Nixyaawii, it was fun sitting in a small gym with the parents, and the grandpas and grandmas, aunties and uncles, watching the game, soaking up the joy, pride and community.
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As a sports junkie since my own playing days who doesn’t watch much of it on TV, basketball interest started growing this year with my grandson playing and news stories about the Golden State Warriors and a new kind of pro basketball. So I watched some pro ball, including almost all of that last Golden State game, when Steph Curry and the Warrior crew tore up the record books. The way that Golden State moved the ball, and the long threes that opened up alley-oop dunks was different from a big man posting up and backing down another Goliath. And it looked like the whole team and coaching staff—and the fans of course—were having fun as they wrote their way into the record books—for most wins, most three pointers, most most most. It was, I thought, a bigger version of Nixyaawii.
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I ran across another basketball piece in the New York Times this week. It was about Baron Davis and a documentary film—The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce—the former NBA all-star made about this thing that has been going on in South Central Los Angeles since the 70s called the “Drew League.” In the heart of the ghetto, where Davis grew up, and started playing at the age of 13, a bunch of hoopsters from high school and up play basketball for the camaraderie and the love of it.
Yes, most of the young black players in the Drew League want do be like Davis, go from Drew to UCLA to the NBA, But the Drew also catches players like Davis after they’ve been to the top and, with injury stopping careers, still need the game. It catches players on the way up and the way down, makes a place for high school and college players, old pros and aspiring ones to play the game for gain—and for the love of it. Right there on the “home court” in South Central.
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Not many rez players make it to the NBA—or the WNBA, but if you hang around tribal people at all, you know that basketball is the rez game. When you sit in the stands at Nixyaawii, you hear pride in the next generation and stories of uncles and cousins who played the game well. You get a sense of community that spreads across ages and genders, pride when a full scholarship to Stanford is announced for one of the girls. You know that the people on the court, on the bench and in the stands all love the game that’s brought them together that night.
|Schimmel sisters at Louisville (Indian Country Today)|
Which reminds me that the Schimmel sisters, Shoni and Jude, started on the Umatilla. I remember watching the 2013 NCAA women’s final when the Schimmels and Louisville took on Connecticut—hoops were rattling and nets swishing into early morning hours on the rez—and probably on rezes across the country—that day in 2013. They lost—Connecticut has been almost unbeatable for years—but they lost well, and Shoni played her way into professional basketball.
Googling “Native American professional basketball” players will only get you a handful, but you’ll also be introduced to “Indian Country Today,” and some great stories of basketball in Indian Country, where, like the Drew, there are aspirations for the college and pro games, and a whole bunch of love for the game.
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