WINDOW ROCK, Arizona — At 5:15 a.m., sunrise is only a pale highlight over red rock mesas in the east as Alicia Hale steps out of her house for her daily run. Even in June, the morning is so chilly at an altitude of almost 7,000 feet that she needs several layers to stay warm.
The Window Rock High School senior lines up next to her mother and younger sister in the dirt yard of their house in the capital of the Navajo Nation. They spread Navajo white corn powder on the ground in a quiet ceremony of thanks.
They leave the yard through a chain link gate and set out at an easy jog. The only sounds at this hour are the roosters.
Sixty miles to the northwest, in Chinle, Arizona, the day progresses in similar fashion for Shane Yazzie, who is a junior at Chinle High School. He runs, does his chores, and practices basketball until the sun goes down – and sometimes beyond. His parents have had to make him stop so they can sleep.
“If it’s raining, he’s out there in the mud,” said Shane’s mother, Glendalyn. “Rain, snow, or shine, he’s dribbling the ball outside and we don’t have the luxury of having a nice concrete court for him. It’s just dirt and an old basketball goal.”
Shane practices behind his house. If the ball sails through the tattered net with the right amount of spin and lands at the right angle on the dirt, it will pop back to him like a pass.
There are more homemade baskets and scratched-out practice courts on the reservation than paved driveways with store-bought hoops. The homemade courts don’t dampen enthusiasm for the sport.
“Basketball is almost a religion here,” said Pete Butler, the head coach of the girls’ team at Chinle High School.
Navajo students play a different style of basketball. They sprint – and shoot – nonstop.
They run until they wear out the opposing team. They run until they wear out the referees.
And then they keep running.
That is reservation basketball, or “rez ball.”
Wallace Youvella Jr., the athletic director and girls basketball coach at Hopi Junior/Senior High School, said he believes Native Americans have an instinctual love of running.
“In our culture, running is part of who we are,” he said. “It comes very natural when you see our teams running up and down the court.”
Navajo schools also excel in cross country. Hopi High School, which holds the national record for most consecutive cross country state titles, ran out of room to hang its championship banners.
But rez ball is king. Enthusiasts attribute its popularity to style of play. Like cross country, it’s a running game.
Traditionally, a team sets up its half-court offense and runs plays. The all-out baseline-to-baseline sprint of the fast break occurs only as opportunity dictates.
Rez ball is the opposite.
Players resort to coordinated plays only if the first shot opportunities don’t materialize. And even in a set offense, the goal is to shoot the ball at the first open look at the basket.
“The feeling here is that the more passes you have, the more opportunities the defense has to unsettle your offense or for you to throw the ball away or for something bad to happen,” Youvella said. “So when you get that open shot, we encourage our players to take (it).”
The result is a high-octane show that is unique in the basketball world.
“Physically, they just wiped you out,” said former referee Terry Horning, who officiated summer tournaments on the reservation in the 1970s. “They never stopped running. The whole game was like a fast break.”
Horning, who has officiated games in 42 countries, said he never saw basketball played the way it is on the reservations.
“I started refereeing at the junior high school level and went all the way up through Division I college ball,” Horning said. “I worked the NBA Development League and I worked for the (Harlem ) Globetrotters and in all of those games I never worked any harder than I did the two summers [in 1973 and 1974] I went up and worked at those Native tournaments.”
More than 40 years later, the rez-ball style is nearly identical.
To build stamina, many basketball players run cross country. Regardless, they all run countless miles as part of their training, both on and off season.
Alicia Hale, for example, runs six days a week. In June she was at 3 miles per day, but she hoped to step up her training. “By the end of the summer, I want to be running 5 to 6 miles each morning,” she said. She’s also hitting the weight room.
“She’s highly motivated. She wants to get better,” Coach Mendoza said. “She’s open to learning, and she pushes herself.”
Hale, who will be a senior in the 2015-2016 season, hopes the extra work will help cut down on the knee and ankle sprains that nagged her last year.
Make Way for the Fans
“Rez basketball is a very high-paced, very talented, intense form of basketball that I don’t care who you are, you’re going to enjoy watching it,” said Harold Slemmer, the executive director of the Arizona Interscholastic Association.
Fans on the reservations don’t just enjoy watching it. They love it. They live it.
“Chaos, just chaos” is how Window Rock High School senior center Branon Chickaway describes the fans during basketball season.
He fell in love with basketball at a young age when his maternal grandparents took him to a game at the old Veteran’s Memorial Field House, where almost 2,000 screaming fans were packed into every corner.
But 2,000 fans is nothing compared to the 6,500-seat capacity of the new Window Rock Fighting Scouts Event Center, where Chickaway began playing his games in 2014.
A four-sided electronic scoreboard hangs over the immaculate floor. There is a VIP area with a long conference table and plush leather office chairs, though one past president of the Navajo Nation eschewed the space in favor of courtside seats.
There is a media bay with two rows of seats and tabletops for computers. There are six concession stands. There are boys’ and girls’ dressing rooms with the Window Rock Fighting Scout logo stitched into the carpet, cherry wood lockers for each player, and chairs with the mascot emblazoned on the leather-cushioned seats.
In short, it’s a professional setup — on a smaller scale — for a school with an enrollment of roughly 700 students.
Similarly appointed facilities exist in Chinle, Ganado, Monument Valley and Tuba City.
By comparison, the largest school in Arizona, Hamilton High School in Chandler, with a student body seven times that of Window Rock’s, has a gym that seats 4,000.
Even with the extra seating, fans wait in line for tickets for hours and even overnight.
Ganado High School Athletic Director Jim Dowse remembered a game his school played against Chinle: “For a Saturday game, people would spend the night (outside the arena) on Friday. And this is in January up here. It could be 10 degrees at night. That’s not uncommon. Grandma’s out there with the extension cord to the electric blanket. Crazy, just crazy.”
Enthusiasm peaks for big events like the state tournament.. “Teachers stop teaching and everyone goes outside to stand in a parade line when the team goes down to Phoenix for state,” said Casey Johnson, the new coach of the Chinle boys basketball team. “Everybody’s right there waiting for one bus to go by.”
At 30 years old, Johnson is a young head coach and a product of reservation basketball. He played in the youth leagues on the Navajo reservation when he was a child and then at Tuba City High School before finishing his playing career at Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas.
Competition and fan enthusiasm can put immense pressure on players and coaches.
“You may win two straight state championships, and the community is waiting for that third,” said Pete Butler, the Chinle girls basketball coach. But he still relishes the high-profile job.
One of his up-and-coming stars, Amanda Antone, said she was nervous and scared to make a mistake during her first game in front of 6,000 fans in the Chinle Wildcat Den.
“They try to control you on the court even though they’re in the stands,” she said.
Antone said she got used to the noise after that first game and now thrives on it.
Raul Mendoza, head coach of the boys basketball team at Window Rock High School, said he has heard similar concerns from his players over the 38-year coaching career. “Some kids told me that it’s no fun to play because there’s so much pressure,” he said. “A lot was expected of them.”.”
Other players don’t mind the mayhem. Shane Yazzie, for example, said he loves playing in front of screaming fans.
“It’s my passion. I love to play basketball,” said Yazzie. “Even when I don’t have a basketball in my hand, I still imagine that there’s one there, and a lot of kids are like that around the reservation.”
Scholastics, Tradition, Sportsmanship
For many players, basketball provides a sanctuary from other concerns.
“Basketball is an escape,” said Mendoza. “It helps them fill something in their lives that might be missing — to fill a void, I guess you could say.”
Shane Yazzie’s mother, Glendalyn, said the game helps keep kids on a good trajectory. “If it wasn’t for basketball, or any of the sports that we have, I think that a lot of our kids would go astray and turn to drugs and alcohol and other bad things that they encounter,” she said.
Yazzie said the public scrutiny encourages him succeed. “If you play basketball, you represent your school, your team, your family, your clans and your community,” he said. “Your community looks up to you.”
Branon Chickaway’s grandfather, Gabriel Haskie, used a ceremony to help Branon begin to walk on the correct path. When Branon was 12, Haskie took him into a sweat lodge to pray.
“This is how our ancestors, how our great elders taught us,” said Haskie. “We encourage the young ones to go on with life in a positive way, to learn something about themselves, about their lives, to be the people that they should be.”
The players’ upbringing shows during the state tournament, said Slemmer, the head of the Arizona high school athletic association, which oversees the state tournament.
“Very, very seldom do we ever see anything that would even resemble (poor) sportsmanship” from Navajo players, he said. “They’re extremely good sportsmen and sportswomen. They’re very supportive of each other.”
Horning, the former referee, said he had the same the experience more than 40 years ago.
“They’re very good about sportsmanship,” he said. “That was one of the refreshing parts of it. I worked those tournaments for two years and I guarantee you I never even thought about calling a technical foul.”
Yazzie’s parents, Glendalyn and Shawn, make education a priority for their student athlete.
“It gives me motivation in school to keep my grades up,” Yazzie said.
Coach Mendoza said he also emphasizes education.
“I try to stress to the kids, your education is more important,” said Mendoza. “That’s what’s going to allow you to get opportunities in life, to get jobs, to go better yourself.”
Vernon and Clarissa Hale say they’ve never had to worry about Alicia’s performance in the classroom. She has been on the National Honor Society every year.
“If you’re a star basketball player, you have to have the education to go with it,” Alicia said. “My No. 1 goal with basketball is to be able to play at the next level, whether it’s (junior college), community college, Division I, II or III. That’s fine with me. As long as I get to come back here to use the education that I get.”
Rez ball is a topic for comedy in this video by Romeo Touchine (Sluggard01).