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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Thursday Cardinal Couple -- Rez Ball: Part III and "Dream rudely awakened"


game update:

Yeah, we know the Dream blew a 16
point lead in the 4th quarter to lose to
the Chicago Sky Tuesday night in Atlanta.

We got nothing here. We watched it and
we're done with it.

Fire Michael Cooper. A six year old could 
have coached that one better. Sure, the guy
had tongue cancer. I've never seen a tongue
win a WNBA Championship though.

Yo...defensive genius. Put someone tall on
a 6'5" slasher ( see: Elena Della Donne) who
can hit from outside. It boggles the mind...

you missed any of these reports, they are in the Cardinal
Couple archives. We recommend you read them all...)

REZ BALL:  An Awareness and History

A few months ago I read a comment from Russell Begaye on the Facebook page run by
fans of Shoni and Jude Schimmel. Russell Begaye is a member of the Navajo Nation
Council and is currently campaigning as a candidate for Navajo Nation President.
Begaye wrote, “I never thought I would hear national TV broadcasters talk about and
use the term rez ball.” His comment was noting with both surprise and pride how the
Schimmels had brought a unique and little known aspect of contemporary Native
American culture to a level of national awareness that few if any Native Americans

Despite the national awareness of “rez ball,” there is still not a very clear or very
adequate understanding of what Native Americans call rez ball. From the style of play
they see in Shoni Schimmel, non-Native American fans and commentators believe rez
ball is a creative and fancy style of play that involves a lot of no look passes, fancy
dribbling and creative shots. While artistic passes, fancy dribbling and creative shots
commonly occur in rez ball, these patterns do not fully convey the essence of rez ball.
Rez ball is not easy to define. Shoni Schimmel has often been asked to define it and
she tries to provide some idea of it, but it is a cultural feature that does not lend itself to
easy description or translation for someone who has not seen it or played it. As a
retired professor of cultural anthropology and a professor of American Indian Studies, I
am used to discussing and defining cultural patterns not familiar to outsiders of a
culture. That background and training does not mean I can do this cultural translation
fully or adequately, but I will give it a try.

My other credentials for being able to define rez ball is that I have been exposed to it for
more than five decades, I played rez ball for about two decades and I coached boys
basketball at the Navajo Academy (a college prep school in New Mexico) for five years.
My exposure to rez ball is primarily with the rez ball played on the Navajo reservation.
However, at Navajo Academy we played Native American teams from many other
reservations, so I have some broader exposure to how basketball and rez ball are
played on other reservations as well.

Rez ball has developed on many reservations and probably has various aspects that
are distinct to different reservations in different areas. Nevertheless, today there are
many tournaments that are open to and participated in by players from many different
reservations and areas, so most of the players today are exposed to how the game is
played on many different reservations. But the rez ball I see in Shoniʼs game in the
Northwest is very similar to, if not exactly the same, as the rez ball I saw all over the
Southwest going back 5 decades. It definitely seems to me that rez ball is still pretty
uniform across decades of time and in a wide variety of places.Before I can attempt
 to define or describe rez ball, I need to discuss how, where and
when basketball is played on reservations. Basketball is a very popular phenomenon
on most reservations and among urban Native Americans as well. My description of the
phenomenon of basketball in general and rez ball in particular is focused primarily on
my experience on the Navajo reservation and to a lesser extent to my exposure to rez
ball in the general Southwest and Northwest.

I distinguish basketball and rez ball from each other. Rez ball is that played in pick up
games and in open independent, non-school basketball leagues and tournaments.
School teams are often coached by coaches with training in traditional basketball, and
they often insist to one degree or another on their players and teams playing a more
traditional non-Native style of basketball. However, rez ball still heavily infiltrates and
affects the way more “traditional” basketball is played in school competition. This is
because about half the coaches today are Native Americans, and they typically
embrace and support more rez ball features in the way their teams play than is the case
with non-Native coaches. The other factor is that no matter how hard some coaches try
to get their teams to play a more traditional, non-Native style of basketball, their players
frequently revert to the rez ball styles they know and like. These players are also often
more effective in winning games when they infuse the game with a lot of rez ball

One thing that is common across time and place is the popularity of basketball
tournaments. To generate significant cash, all various community groups need to do is
sponsor a basketball tournament. These sponsors charge each team an entry fee. It
might be $150 and each player will pay $15. The sponsor gets the gym, the referees
and the trophies. The sponsors charge an admission of $3-$10 and sell concessions.
Back when I started playing at these tournaments, the teams were all menʼs teams, and
most tournaments had at least 18-24 teams. The teams are usually guaranteed two or
three games. Sometimes the the tournament brackets were split between teams who
had players who were 35 and older and those who who were under 35. Today most
tournaments usually also have at least two brackets, one for men and one for women.
There are often more womenʼs teams entered than menʼs teams.

Native American women took to basketball very quickly and became good very fast. In
reservation areas today, girls high school basketball generally attracts as big or bigger
crowds than boys high school basketball. Over the past three decades, teams from the
reservation areas have won most of the state tournaments in the 3A classifications in
which most play in both New Mexico and Arizona. There has often been two teams
from the reservation who have played in the state tournament championship game.
One year three of the four teams in the state girls semifinals were reservation teams.
Navajo fans will drive 150-250 miles to fill up the 20,000 seat arena in Glendale where
the championships are played. Boys teams from the reservation have also done pretty
well, but not as well overall as the girls teams have done.

One somewhat unique development in the independent (non-school) reservation
tournaments discussed above are coed brackets. These generally require at least two
 players of each gender be on the court at all times. The teams are usually made up of
five females and five males - sometimes 4 and 6. The difference in level of play
between the men and women is not as great as one might imagine, and these coed
tournaments are a lot of fun for both the players and the fans.

Reservation high school games are usually packed for both the girls and the boys. In
many areas the girls games outdraw the boys games, but both are very popular and
gyms are filled. Lines start forming hours before the game in many places. About 15
years ago, Ganado High School on the Navajo reservation in Arizona built a state of the
art 5500 seat basketball arena that had individual chairs with backs for every seat in a
360 degree circle around the court. It is a better facility than many colleges play in.
This facility was and is used for the sponsored tournaments of independent teams as
well as for school games.

Not to be out done, Chinle, a town 50 miles to the north, built a 7500 seat arena The
Chinle facility has often been used for regional state tournament playoff games, as well
as for regular high school games, independent menʼs and womenʼs winter leagues, and
for sponsored independent tournaments that usually occur in the late spring and
summer. The facilities can also be used for large gatherings. Now Window Rock High
School is building a 10,000+ seat arena. Games at these facilities are generally full.
The people love basketball. The only sport that can generate anything close to the
amount of interest there is in basketball is rodeo. While interest remains high in rodeo
and most communities sponsor a rodeo each summer, the interest in and participation
in basketball easily exceeds the interest in, attendance at, and participation in rodeo.
In order to understand rez ball, one must understand the popularity of the game in
Native America. Basketball is not just a winter sport. It is played and watched 9-10
months a year. It is usually only left dormant during the months of September and
October, which are filled with cross country and football as well as with rodeo and
other athletic events.







  1. Congrats to Gary on an excellent series. His perspective is great and largely mirrors what I saw growing up out West. Back in the day most of the native ballers played on teams from on-reservation towns or in towns located just off the reservations. Most of those were in the smallest two school size classifications in the State. We rarely saw native ballers playing in the two largest school size leagues. That may have changed over time.

    The basic Rez Ball thing doesn't seem to have changed much over the years. Tons of creativity and excellence on offense and limited emphasis on defense, particularly one-on-one, break down type defensive skills. They play lots of zone and do a great job of playing the passing lanes. You see that in Shoni's defensive game. Interestingly I think Jude kind of breaks that mold. She's a pretty tough one-on-on defender particularly considering her diminutive stature.

    In any case nice perspective.

  2. A total collapse last night by the Dream. Painful to watch. Where was Shoni when they needed points? Sitting on the bench.

    Great job on the Rez Ball reports, Gary. I hope you will bring that same perspective and writing style to Card Couple on a regular basis.

    the real Joe Hill

    1. It was VERY hard to watch that 4th quarter last night. It may be time for the Dream to look elsewhere inside. De Souza and Lyttle were dominated by Big Syl and E.D.D.

      The truth is...Angel will probably make the USA Team and then head to Europe for mega money. Lyttle and DeSouza have lucrative international contracts as well. I suspect Shoni will be just as popular (and used more) in Euroball. The loss, although regrettable, is just a minority portion of their basketball resume and careers.

      Atlanta management has to look at the final 10 game nose dive their team took. They also have to look at what puts butts in the seats.


      As distasteful as the Dream's nightmare was last night...I'll still hang in there with the WNBA for the Western Finals. The Minnesota v Phoenix matchup should be the WNBA Finals. It looks to be a no-prisoners, knock. down, last player standing wins series coming up. And, Asia has the best seat in the house.


  3. OT: Curious as to Shoni's prospects for overseas play this winter.
    Also, has anyone noticed The progression in the last few games of wrapping in Shoni's left knee area. First was a support strip in back of calf then strip around knee added and during last 2-3 games what appeared to be a compression sleeve added to knee.

    Hopefully it is just a situation that a rest will take care of. This break forced break maybe what is needed as the WNBA sesson came calling almost immediately after the college ball ended.

  4. Thanks Gary for the great Rez ball series. I always enjoy learning about the development of a sport.

    Articles do not just magically jump onto a page but instead takes a dedicated effort and time commitment.

  5. Thank you Gary W for these articles. I hope you have a long run with the CC guys. Paulie and Jeff provide unsurpassed UofL women's sports coverage and your articles look like a perfect for them and this format. Even if they have a habit of running the women's writers off. J/K


    -- Curtis Franklin

  6. Curtis...don't make me cross that bridge and create a clean up on Aisle 4. We get regular e-mails from Jenny and Sandy and we consider both still a part of the Cardinal Couple family. Sonja works behind the scenes now and it's what she wants to do.

    Cardinal Couple is not forced labor or indentured servitude. All three know they are welcome back anytime if they want to contribute articles. Life gets busy and complicated sometimes.

    Now get back to stocking shelves and hiding the German Potato Pancake mix from consumers.



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