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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Wednesday Cardinal Couple -- Rez Ball


- Gary Witherspoon explores Rez Ball


 Rez Ball in a Three Part Series

Part I:  The Origin and Essence of Rez Ball

Most people who have heard the term rez ball but who have not seen or participated in it tend to think of rez ball as a style of play.  While rez ball has many characteristic styles and patterns, the essence of rez ball is an attitude toward the game more than it is a combination of styles and attributes.  The game is played as an act of joy and as an act of celebration in competition.  The teams compete with intensity and ferocity but not out of hostility or meanness.  Those latter passions violate the original spirit and essence  of the game, which has its foundation in community and religious performance and celebration.

Basketball has its origins in the ball games played in Central America more than two thousand years ago.  These games were split up between two teams and built on the idea of putting a bouncing rubber ball through goals on each end of a court.  Native Americans were the first to discover the process of the vulcanization of rubber, and they had bouncing rubber balls long before the Europeans first saw them in the Americas.  The team and the goal oriented ball games had a wide variety of patterns as they spread throughout much of North America.  Europeans who settled in North America were introduced to these games in the Southeast, the Northeast and in the Great Lakes region.  The game of basketball as it is played today began as a winter adaptation or modification of lacrosse.  One of the things that is left out often left out of sports history in America is that James Naismith was a lacrosse player.  He had learned lacrosse from the Iroquois in the Northeast who had been playing the game at least a thousand years.

In order to develop an indoor winter sport, Naismith altered the basic rules of lacrosse and invented a modified version of lacrosse that came to be known as basketball.  The original version of basketball looked a lot more like lacrosse than the way the game is played today.  Originally the ball came back to the center for a face-off or jump after every point scored, and not all players on a team were allowed to play on both sides of the court.  Hands and dribbling were substituted for racquets as a way of advancing the ball toward the goal.

Lacrosse among the Iroquois emphasized the themes of joy, celebration, unity, health and good will (what we call sportsmanship today).  Lacrosse is the name that the French Jesuits gave to the Iroquois game that was actually played by virtually all Indian Nations in the Northeast and Great Lakes region.

The Iroquois call lacrosse (they have different names for it in their own languages) the Creator’s game, and
say the game was given to the people from the creator for the joy and amusement of the creator, and the joy and amusement of his children.  Thus the game is to be played with an attitude and sense of joy, celebration and gratitude.  The creator is said to thoroughly enjoy watching the players compete in this game.  The creator’s joy is enhanced when the players play with more intensity, deception, creativity and joy. 

The game is also to be played with a sense of thanksgiving for all creation.  The biggest lacrosse games of the year were played as part of the Iroquois four day rite of Thanksgiving, also called the Green Corn ceremony among many other tribes of the Eastern US.  I am going to quote from the website of the Iroquois Nationals, the only Indigenous sports team from North America to field a national team in international competition.  The Iroquois Nationals made the final four of the 2014 World Cup of Lacrosse.  They finished third in the World Cup behind the US and Canada and ahead of Australia (fourth).  38 nations from North America, Europe, Africa and Asia participated in the World Cup of Lacrosse.

Lacrosse was a gift to us from the Creator, to be played for his enjoyment and as a medicine game for healing the people . . . Before each game, players are reminded of the reason for their participation . . . The creator has endowed upon all human life, a game called dehonchigwiis (lacrosse) for all to enjoy. The young men who participate in the creator’s game will generate a gift of healing that we may have peace of mind.” (

This is the real history and origin of ball games and team sports in the Americas.  It was from this tradition that James Naismith devised the game of basketball.  Rez ball comes from this tradition, and the predominant essence of rez ball is joy - joy for the creator, joy for the participants and joy, health and peace of mind for all the players and spectators.

In the recent WNBA All-Star game, it appeared to me that Shoni Schimmel finally felt fully free to play rez ball; and, in doing so, she let everybody see the joy with which she plays the game and the joy she infuses into the game.  Shoni personifies playing for the joy of the game.  She plays hard with passion and intensity; she plays to win, but she does not fall down and cry a river when she loses.  Playing the game has given her the joy of participation and the opportunity to entertain with skill, artistry and creativity.  She is thankful for playing, even after a loss, and she moves on to the next opportunity to play for the enjoyment of the creator and the people. While she may not be able to articulate this in these words, she has in multiple ways imbibed this from the sports traditions of Indigenous America, and she exemplifies and personifies those traditions as well as any basketball player today.  That is a big reason why Native American fans and other fans as well have embraced and adored her.  Her performances and the enthusiasm and joy she brings to the game is captivating, and is completely in tune with the ancient sports traditions of Indigenous America

At least twice and probably more than that, Rebecca Lobo has been the color commentator on ESPN of games in which Shoni has played.  I remember her specifically saying something like this in the latter part of the Louisville/Tennessee game in 2013, and she repeated it again in the WNBA All-Star game:

“Shoni Schimmel is absolutely fearless.  She has no fear.  She plays the game without fear.”  I laughed when I heard that both times.  What in the world is there to fear.  Why would one play with fear, I thought.  Shoni plays out of joy, not fear.  Shoni plays for the joy of creativity and for the joy of participating and winning.

A lot of the patterns and styles of Rez Ball make logical sense when you understand the attitude and passion that infuses rez ball.  When you understand that you play with joy and for joy . . . the joy of the Creator, the joy of the people, the joy of the players and the joy of participation, so it makes total sense that that joy is expressed in and realized in creative and artistic plays, passes and shots.

The object of the game is to outscore your opponent, so the emphasis in playing the game is on offense, on
scoring. Defense is just something you do until you get back on offense.  The focus on defense then is on stealing the ball or causing a turnover.  If you cannot steal the ball or force a turnover, then you can get the ball back by blocking a shot or rebounding a missed shot.  And, finally, if you cannot steal the ball, force a turnover, block a shot or rebound a missed shot, you can get the ball back when your opponent makes a shot.  If you can force or entice your opponent to take two point shots, you can still outscore them by making three point shots.

In regard to the emphasis on three point shots, it is relevant to note that against Memphis this year, Shoni hit 8 three point shots in a row and 9 for the game.  That was only exceeded by one other player, Abby Scott, who hit 11 three pointers in one game in January, 2014.  Abby plays for New Mexico State and hails from the Warm Springs reservation in central Oregon, not far from Shoni and Jude’s Umatilla reservation.  Shoni hit another 7 three pointers in the WNBA All-Star game, and she won the collegiate three point shooting championship over all the best three point shooters in both men’s and women’s college basketball this year.

Because the goal is to score, you want to score as fast as you can, so you fast break after a missed shot or after most made shots, after a steal or a rebound, and you shoot as soon as you get a good shot.  Long passes get the ball down court faster, so you throw the long pass whenever anyone is open on the other end of the court.

Because a bad shot or a bad pass gives the ball back to the other team without your team scoring, you want to make passes that will help a teammate score or take shots that will help your team score.

These aspects of rez ball lead to a lot of long passes and a lot of three point shots.  Shoni is incredibly good with long passes.  She looks like she should have been a quarterback.  Coaches do not generally like long passes because most players throw wild, off-target passes when they attempt to throw long passes, but Shoni can often throw a one-handed pass off the dribble from one end of the court and thread the needle to a teammate at the opposite end of the court.  If you watch and count the success and failure of her long passes you will see she rarely throws a pass off target.  Turnovers almost always come from interceptions when a player from the other team crosses in front of her target or when a player leaps high and intercepts a pass that was online for its intended target.

Shoni pretty much single-handedly disarmed the presses of Baylor and Tennessee with her long passes.  She makes them look so easy, but they are not easy.  If most players tried them, they would likely turn the long passes into a disaster, and that is why most coaches are against long passes.  But Shoni has made those passes in rez ball games tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of times.  She has great hand-eye coordination, and that coordination plus all the practice she has had make her pretty lethal with the long pass.  Long passes are as common in rez ball as dandelions are in the spring

The one aspect of rez ball that drives traditional coaches crazy (and it did me too when I was coaching in high school) is that players play defense with their hands and not their feet.  First they try to steal the pass that goes to the player they are guarding.  If that does not work, then they try to steal the ball out of the hands of their opponent, and next they try to steal the dribble of the player they are defending.  When the player they are defending puts the ball on the court and begins to drive around them, they first reach in to knock the ball away, and then they allow the player to go around them and try to knock it away from behind the player.  The result is that they will often stand there like their feet are glued to the floor while the player they are defending goes right around them.  Lots of coaches have to go to zone defenses because of this.  It is a habit rez ball players have a hard time overcoming.

Finally, what follows from the premise that the game is played with and for joy is the tendency to make creative and artistic shots and passes.  Clever, deceptive and artistic shots and passes entertain the Creator, the participants and the spectators.  They  enhance the joy of the game.  But the game only makes sense when you go all out to win, so you only do the creative and artistic stuff when it has a good chance of succeeding and improving your chance of winning, or when you are playing pickup ball and not keeping score.  There is no joy in making a creative pass that goes array and causes your team to lose the game.

The styles and patterns of rez ball derive from the premises of the Indigenous philosophy of the game.  Non-natives take the game much too seriously, and make winning the sole goal of the game that must be pursued at almost any cost.  This philosophy takes the joy out of playing the game, and makes winning the only joy of the game.  Preparation for and the playing of the game become drudgery that only pays off if you win.  That is why players and teams play with fear as Rebecca Lobo’s comments indicated.  In the case to which she alludes, player play with the fear of failure; they fear missing their shot; they fear having their shot blocked; they fear making the bad pass or losing the game.  This philosophy causes players to play out of a fear of failure, rather than play out of the joy of participation, the joy of creativity and the joy of winning.

Shoni is putting the joy back into playing the game of women’s basketball.  Her Native American following mostly understand that, and other fans are beginning to get a glimpse of it as well.  Many of her critics just do not understand where her game is coming from, because her game does not come from cultural premises and philosophies with which they are familiar.

Coming next......Part II:  Showboating or Showtime...NEXT WEDNESDAY




  1. A very good write up of what rez ball is. I played it a lot when I was at the Ganado Reservation and the competition was fierce, intense and frantic but never mean spirited. Defense, as you mentioned, was an after-thought. You went for the steal and hoped the other team missed their shot if you didn't get the steal so you could go back on offense. Scores over 100 points for each team were not that uncommon in games. We played a team once where over 70 of their points came from beyond the three-point range. Best 40 minute workout you can ever have!

  2. Our 2009 Nixyaawii Community School team from Umatilla Rez, at one time only played with 5, no one over 5'10, Nixyaawii did a "Play In" game for districts and won, Then in districts did upset after upset to District Ship but lost in a game they were up by 20+ to a team that had a few Celilo/yakama members, but Nixyaawii got into sub state, won 1st round, and into Round 2 Nixyaawii vs #1 Powder Valley--a Power house ball club which featured no one under 6ft, a 6'2 guard and 6'8 center who went on to play college ball. Nixyaawii was down by almost 30pts only to come back with in 1pt to lose in the final seconds. Nixyaawii kept stealing it, crazy passes, running and gunning!!! Rez ball!!! ....

    Another up and coming Umatilla girl who is similar to Shoni Schimmel, same rez, same projects, her name is Mary Stewart, she will be a freshman and is the REAL DEAL, she is enrolled at Nixyaawii Community School, keep an eye out this next season, they went 21-3 in summer league with only 1 senior, 3 freshman, 2 sophs, 1 jr.---Umatilla23

  3. Shoni breaks franchise record for most points scored in one qtr with 20pts!!! 6th on the list all time! Wow! They just dont know!

  4. Great Piece! You've done a great job of capturing the essence of Rez Ball.


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