In many tribal communities throughout Indian country, basketball reigns supreme as the game of choice. Each basket made on the ball court, and each steal is a victory. All things in the outside world melt away, as players become immersed in the moment. One ball, ten players, and all heart.
As Native teams wrap up their seasons, some finishing with region and district titles, they come away with valuable life lessons, and some, eagerly anticipating the rare opportunity to play in state tournaments with entire communities behind them. And for the blessed few, some actually get to experience the victory of a state title.
Many of us can probably agree, that when our young relatives win, we all win. Grown men and women alike even cry tears of sheer happiness and exhilaration when our youth secure the most hard-fought wins, region and district titles, and coveted state championships.
But the theoretical “win” does not just come with the titles at regions, or districts, or even state tournaments, but in every game and every play, with each spirited scramble for the ball, each steal, each blocked shot, with every sharp pass, and powerful rebound, our youth make us all so incredibly proud.
As a longtime player myself, I experienced firsthand as a young girl, just how magically the game of basketball pumped up our hearts with excitement and energy — emotions sometimes hard to find on the rez, where dirt roads and isolation often leave you wanting more. With the game of basketball, each taste of victory enticed us to chase after that feeling, again, and again, producing a win that we knew was not just our own, but for the entire community.
So many Natives, reservation or urban, have similar stories. Love and rez ball. Dirt courts, and tribal gyms. Indian tournaments, or a game of “21,” “horse” or “around-the-world” with cousins.
Through basketball, many of us found our power, and we even learned valuable life lessons, sometimes otherwise unbeknownst to us outside of the game. We learned to work hard, to push ourselves physically, to be a good sport, and to handle disappointment. Basketball made us powerful, and the energy of the game was reliable and always palpable.
High school basketball games have long packed the stands in tribal communities, with grandmas and grandpas, and babies in cradleboards, families with young children, cousins, aunties, and uncles. Home basketball games are the highlight of the week for entire tribal communities, and it does not get much better than this for weekend entertainment. We all want to see our kids win.
The community delights in watching our youth in their prime, courageous and limber, strong and tenacious, bringing feelings of hope and victory to the whole community. The fast and fierce boys and girls inspire everyone with their unrelenting heart. Younger relatives watch them, and want to be just like them. And their elder relatives vest an immense amount of confidence in them too. Warriors, and beautiful, brave-heart women, carrying hope in their swift strides.
And if it may seem far reaching to say that basketball means hope for tribal communities, ask any grandma or grandpa, or former ball player who watches our youth today, in sheer delight, perhaps remembering their own glory days, and maybe even living vicariously through them. This is what basketball means to Indian country. Hope in our children, and the feeling of victory that our entire community shares.
Yet after the ball season is over, we still want for our young relatives to win. And while the saying, “ball is life,” gives many the inspiration to keep on playing reservation basketball, our young relatives must understand that it is life itself, that matters. The lessons taken from the game that can be applied to life — that is what will make all the difference.
Take some of the following lessons: Never give up. Shake hands with the opposing team. Help the kid off the floor who just took a charge from you. Develop good sportsmanship — win with class, lose with grace — and when you get swatted, because you will get your shot blocked at some point, handle that with grace, too, because humbling setbacks will happen many more times in life. Respect your coach. Get back up when you fall. Look for the pass rather than forcing the shot. Encourage your team, and represent your relatives and your community well.
These are the things that will carry over to even bigger victories in life, long after the season is over, and far beyond high school basketball.
Today, we marvel at our Indian Country basketball stars, Shoni and Jude Schimmel while at Louisville, and now as college graduates — Jude an author of a book, and Shoni a professional women’s basketball player in the WNBA. Then there’s Bronson Koenig at the University of Wisconsin, leading his team, and making us all just as proud. We show up by the thousands to fill college arenas, now, to support our Native sisters and brothers as they play our favorite game. And of course, not just because we want them to win the game, but because they make us proud, we support them, and we want them to win in life.
So keep going, young relatives, basketball is just the beginning. Win at life, and keep setting your next goal. When you win, we all win.
Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth. Follow her at @SarahSunshineM.