In the days leading up to the Schimmel sisters’ recent championship run with the Louisville Cardinals in the NCAA Tournament, 20 Navajo high school basketball teams made it to the state championships in Arizona and New Mexico. Some of them came from high school gyms just as large as those on college campuses, and their fans packed the stands for every game.
On many reservations across the country, Jude and Shoni Schimmel are shining a new light on a favorite sport, illuminating dreams born on dirt courts with bent, rusted rims. The Navajo Nation needs no reminders that basketball is a favorite hobby—and pervasive dream—for its youth. The sport already enthralls kids from a young age, galvanizes families and draws millions of dollars for gyms and teams in an otherwise impoverished nation.
“We get support that is unparalleled,” says Erny Zah, spokesman for Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, who is an avid fan. “It’s not uncommon for people to take days off [for games]. When you go to games, you’ll notice that the teams that aren’t from the rez will have a whole section of fans. The rez teams will fill one whole side [of the arena].”
He recalls 1992, when both boys and girls teams from the reservation made it to the championship games. “Window Rock played Monument Valley, at the Skydome in Flagstaff. The place seats 10,500. You had one half that was Window Rock fans, and the other half was Monument Valley. You’re talking 10,000 people to watch a high school basketball team.”
The steady support of fans has made it feasible to build huge arenas at some of the reservation high schools. Chinle, a reservation community in Arizona’s northeast corner with a little more than 5,000 people, built the Wildcat Den in 2007. It can accommodate 6,400 people, with standing room for another 1,000. Window Rock High School, just a half-hour south of Chinle, is working on a new arena of similar proportions.
And the players have earned that devotion. The Navajo Nation has produced an impressive roster: Ryneldi Becenti rocketed to stardom in the 1990s as a point guard at Arizona State, then pursued a pro career that landed her in the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame; Gwen Hobbs played at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, then returned to coach a reservation team in Ganado; longtime reservation basketball coach Steve Troglia, currently the athletic director at Chinle High School, says he has at least two players this year who stand good chances to play as walk-ons for a college team next year.
Troglia says all that talent—and support—ratchets up the pressure for the people on the court, even the coaches. It begins each season before the first ball comes off the rack. “The hardest thing I have ever had to do as a basketball coach is select varsity teams anywhere on the Navajo Nation. Everybody wants to be a Wildcat when they grow up and play for Chinle. It’s not like football, where you can start 22 players. It’s not like baseball, where you can start nine. The numbers are what make it so difficult: five. Sometimes, kids who are very good basketball players don’t make it.”
And once the teams are assembled, fans expect them to win. “There’s so much pressure on coaches. It’s almost like a college job,” Troglia says. “You can feel it during a game. Winning’s expected, man. You’re not gonna fill this arena if you’re getting beat all the time.”
The Navajo girls teams fared better than the boys this year, with two reservation teams—Window Rock and Valley Sanders—making it to the final four in the Arizona Interscholastic Association D-III playoffs in February, alongside two heavily Navajo border town teams, Winslow and Holbrook. Shelly joined thousands of fans in traveling several hours to the arena in Glendale, Arizona to watch Window Rock play in the semifinals. After Window Rock lost, he stayed on for the championship game between Winslow and Valley Sanders. “I enjoy seeing young kids meeting the challenge and doing what they need to do—win or lose. Even if they lose, they get to learn what their weaknesses are,” he said after the game. “As a fan, you let out your frustration. You yell. You become a coach sometimes, even though nobody can hear you. It’s a lot of fun to be out there yelling.”
Fun—and intense. Fans of the Winslow Bulldogs and Valley Pirates adorned themselves in school colors and packed the arena for their games—in other words, a typical showing for which Bulldogs Coach Jerron Jordan says he is “truly grateful.”
One avid fan, Stephanie Nelson, says she played for the Bulldogs all four years in high school. Now she and her husband have a 17-year-old son who plays for the team, as well as several children behind him they believe are destined to be future team members. Multiple generations of their family occupied the first two rows of section at the championship game—they arrived 10 hours early to be sure they got good seats together.
The Bulldogs won the championship game, and afterward, senior Mattea Begaii could barely speak through her tears. “I saw my sisters play here when I was young,” she said, her voice shaking. “My second oldest sister ended up winning state back to back. I wanted to do that same thing. We get motivated by seeing our sisters do what they did.”
Begaii is considering a few colleges where she could play next year: Columbia Basin College in Washington as well as Glendale, Chandler-Gilbert and Mesa community colleges in Arizona.
Back in Chinle, Lydell Yazzie, who says he has been playing since he was 5, is a senior who played two years for the Wildcats varsity. He has gotten a letter from Mesa Community College inviting him to play as a walk-on there, and he’s still deciding whether to pursue his education or stay home and work—likely for the railroad.
The aftermath of a high school career concerns some observers, like Kevin Felix, a recent Chinle High School graduate who has worked as an announcer and event staff for many of the games. He says he watched his friends get puffed up from all the attention and support, only to see it dwindle after graduation. “They get out in the real world, and they don’t have all the support any more,” he says. “I was in high school when our boys team made it to the final four. Most of those guys aren’t in school any more. They spend most of their time just working normal jobs and playing basketball, playing in little tournaments.”
Troglia believes there is life after high school basketball. His players keep their grades up and their lifestyles clean, because their positions on the team are too valuable to risk. As a result, he believes they’re more likely to go on to college, as basketball players or just as students, than the general student body. And although precious few players are destined to hit the big time, greats like Becenti, Hobbs and the Schimmel sisters have forged a path wide enough for others to follow.
“One thing I’ve always told every player I’ve ever had is to never stop dreaming,” says Troglia. “But you have to work hard to fulfill your dreams. And the most important thing: Never forget who you are and where you came from. As long as they remember those things, they’re going to end up being successful in life, no matter what they do.”