This year the WNBA All Star game was held in Phoenix on July 19. An overtime thriller, this classic matchup of East vs. West became an unexpected celebration of Native American style basketball, commonly known as Rez Ball. This was because of Shoni Schimmel who grew up on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon, and who became the first rookie to take home MVP honors. A backup guard for the Atlanta Dream, Schimmel was voted into the East team starting lineup with the third highest ballots in All Star voting. It is believed her avid Native American following earned her this unexpected honor. Her jersey is the biggest seller in the league. Interviewed by Bob Young of the Arizona Republic. Schimmel said, “I love being Native American, and for all these fans to come out and be here, and to vote me into this game that means a lot.”
Shoni Schimmel first became known among the Native American basketball community when she was the subject of a 2011 documentary titled “Off The Rez” which told the story of her quest to become the first athlete from her reservation to earn a NCAA Division I scholarship. Her acclaim grew when she and her younger sister Jude led Louisville to the NCAA womens’ championship game where they fell to perennial powerhouse Connecticut. The crowd at the All Star game had a strong Native American presence which cheered every time Schimmel touched the ball. Schimmel had an explosive second half, finishing the exciting overtime contest with a game high 29 points and eight assists. She took home MVP honors.
Also interviewed by Bob Young ofThe Republic, her sister Jude, a teammate at Louisville and one of 17 family members who made the trip to Phoenix, said, “I’m not going to lie, I saw it coming in the third quarter. She just kept asking for the ball and got more and more comfortable as the game went on. Playing with her for so long, and being her sister, I knew what was coming.”
Shoni said, “It was awesome to just be able to gout there and play my game and have fun, and to feel free and go out there and play Rez Ball. It was a lot of fun.”
Basketball has long played a key role in Native American culture. A drive through the Painted Desert reservations reveals house after house with a Hogan, corral and a basketball hoop. In native gift shops I have seen little Kachina dolls of the striped clowns known as koshares dunking on the rim. Once while accompanying a female companion into a Ross for Less store in Flagstaff, on the edge of the Navajo and Hopi reservations I saw a young Native American enter, make a beeline for where the basketballs were on sale. What ingenious marketing I thought, this fashion store selling basketballs to young Native American women attending the local university. The young lady ripped her powder blue basketball free from its cardboard container and was dribbling across the parking lot bouncing higher and higher with each step.
Once I was taking a jeep tour through Canyon De Chelly and we stopped at the Anasazi ruins known as Antelope House. These impressive multistory pueblo ruins have a dazzling array of rock art adorning the towering sandstone cliffs. One of the Navajo families living in the canyon had a corn patch whose green stalks were as high as an elephant’s eye. A basketball hoop towered above the green stalks. With basketball courts and corn fields it could have been Indiana, except of course, for the towering sandstone cliffs and 800 year old Anasazi ruins.
While I was at Antelope House I remember buying some fry bread from a young mother who was wearing a T-shirt celebrating a recent state championship by a predominantly Native American high school. Many times over the years I have bought fry bread from a Native American mother wearing a T-shirt celebrating some sort of basketball championship by a Native American high school team. They always speak proudly of the accomplishment, mention the friends and family who played on the victorious team. In Arizona, the high school basketball finals are always held in the Phoenix Suns home arena. The games are played with the smallest school divisions battling first. These are the divisions with reservation schools and every year, the high school basketball championships begin with really large crowds as busloads of people arrive from the reservation to cheer on their local heroes. Then as the games move into the bigger, urban schools, the crowds diminish considerably.
One time, while in the town of Whiteriver on the Apache reservation I bought a shirt supporting the Alchesay Falcons in a child’s size as a gift for a nephew. The shirt featured the picture of a muscle bound falcon in a basketball uniform dunking ferociously. My nephew was not impressed. He told me he would rather have a toy truck than a shirt. Then one day when my sister was dragging him through a shopping mall a beautiful young Apache woman, pretty as Pocohantas, noticed the shirt and fussed over my nephew. “My brother played for the Falcons!” she said as she mussed his hair. My nephew blushed but he liked his T-shirt a lot more after that. In 1998, Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul Jabbar spent a year as an assistant coach for the Alchesay Falcons and wrote a book about his experiences titled, “A Season on the Reservation.”
My friend Cesar Felix experienced the hostile environment of a reservation gymnasium as member of the Sedona Scorpions. The Hopi gym was packed to the rafters with rabid fans during an exciting game which the Scorpions won on a last second shot. The enraged fans rushed the court. The Sedona basketball team needed a police escort to drive away. Felix recalled the Hopi teams as extremely skilled and extremely fierce.
Shoni Schimmel was not the first Native American to play in the WNBA. That honor belongs to former Window Rock star Ryneldi Becenti. Becenti was the 1988 Arizona high school player of the year before becoming a two time All American honoree at ASU. Navajo Cliff Johns was at the University of Arizona studying architecture and excelling in intramural leagues when an assistant coach noticed and next thing you know he was playing for the powerhouse Wildcat teams under Lute Olsen. Johns accepts his role as a rez ball pioneer proudly.
Jude Schimmel said, “Rez Ball is kind of an open court game, where you feed off each other, it’s free flowing and fun. It’s more about a feel for the game than thinking about it. It’s not very structured but it’s a thriller.”