“There was no grander sport on the reservations of the Southwest than rez ball,” writes Michael Powell in his new book “Canyon Dreams: A Basketball Season on the Navajo Nation.”
Powell spent a thrilling season with the Chinle High School Wildcats on a patch of the Navajo reservation in Northern Arizona, documenting that “quicksilver, sneaker-squeaking game” as well as the lives of the team’s coach, players and fans.
Although the Wildcats’ nail-biting quest for a state championship drives the book, it’s more than a straightforward sports narrative. The book also delves into education, unemployment and the history of the Navajo Nation.
Powell, a sports columnist for the New York Times, wrestles with the same question that many of the young players pose to themselves: If they leave the reservation, can they ever go home again?
In a recent interview, he talked about basketball, living as an outsider on the reservation and the toughest part of telling the story.
How would you describe “rez ball”?
It’s an extremely fast version of basketball. There’s a big emphasis on quickness, constant movement, passing and cutting. Guys will run as hard as they can and then four or five guys will come in to replace them. The tribes of the Southwest — Navajo, Hopi, Apache — all play a very similar style.
Where did this style of playing come from?
On the one hand, running goes into the mists of time for all of those tribes but certainly for the Navajo. Competitions around running go deep into their oral history. At the same time, you have a communal culture that puts a lot of emphasis on the group as opposed to the individual. So five teenage boys working as one is a sort of ideal. And then lastly, as near as I can figure it, they picked up basketball in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the Bureau of Indian Affairs forcibly took Navajo kids to boarding schools. They learned basketball and they made it their own.
The town of Chinle has 4,500 residents and its high school gym seats 7,000. What is it about rez ball that inspires such fandom?
For most kids on the court, both of their parents played basketball. Their aunties and uncles and cousins played basketball. Their grandparents and great grandparents played basketball. Everybody sits in the same section game after game. They sing the national anthem in Navajo. It’s been woven into the culture in a profound way. At the same time, because the vast majority of them aren’t 6-foot-4 guys or great leapers, this is their Everest. The have the glory of playing for the Chinle Wildcats.
The question of whether the Wildcats will win the state championship frames the book, but it’s also a story about education. Did you set out to highlight that issue or did it emerge during reporting?
A bit of both. It’s an issue that interests me, but you can’t spend more than a couple of days talking to these young men and women, these juniors and seniors, without realizing that it’s at the forefront of their minds. One kid who’d been on the previous year’s team never took the SAT — he drove into the parking lot and drove out — and that was pretty heartrending to hear, because he’s a really bright, introspective young man. At that time, he could have done perfectly well and gone to a four-year college. The questions of “Can I make it? Can I survive? Can I come back?” arise over and over again.
For the players, how does rez ball inform those questions?
The mere fact of playing varsity basketball means that they’re going to do a lot of traveling off the rez. They’re going to tournaments in Flagstaff and Albuquerque. The year before they went to L.A. for a tournament. I think all of that ratchets open the window of what’s possible. For a lot of them, it’s quite positive. The danger, and this is probably true for any good high school athlete, is that you get caught trying to relive that glory.
What about the Wildcats struck you as the right subjects for this story?
Before I met any of the boys I met the Wildcats coach, Raul Mendoza. He was a perfect guide for me. He’s spent his lifetime coaching Navajo and Apache players and is himself Native American but from a different tribe. There’s a certain insider-outsider quality to him. He really understood at a profound level the insecurities and the yearnings of these kids, and the young men were remarkably open. I went to every single practice, so they saw me day after day, and I think that that enabled me to become a kind of fly on the wall.
What was the thorniest part of this story to report?
The area that I worried about the most was the traditional beliefs. I found a couple of medicine men that led me through it.
A lot of athletes have superstitions or rituals, but those don’t seem analogous to the magic you describe being performed at Wildcats games.
Right. This isn’t like a player crossing himself before he shoots a free throw. This goes quite a bit deeper than that, both on the court and in the lives of many Navajo.
You briefly lived on the reservation 25 years ago while your wife worked as a midwife for Navajo Services. How had it changed in the last two decades?
In some ways it looked exactly the same. The land is just astonishingly beautiful and desolate at the same time. When we’d been there before, though, there was no radio save from one Navajo-language station; the vast majority of people did not have televisions. When you went to the supermarket, you heard Navajo. Now, anybody 45 and under, not only do they speak English, it’s their language. That’s caused a real identity crisis within the Navajo Nation. The outside world does more than intrude; it really washes through.
As an outsider, what kind of responsibility did you feel to tell a nuanced story, and how did you address that responsibility?
That came up when I wrote the proposal for the book. This feels to me, in an almost primal sense, like an American story. There is tremendous beauty and success on that nation. This is their traditional land. It’s not a despairing and hopeless tale because that is not a despairing and hopeless life. I felt an obligation to talk about the history, and what makes the history interesting to me is that it isn’t just about dispossession, it’s also about repossession. Are they wrestling with all kinds of problems? Most assuredly. But I wanted to make this world come alive in all its complexity.
French is a writer in Los Angeles