Wanderings through life, landscapes, and occasional loopiness. So pull up a log and have a bit of a sit-down ’round the virtual campfire.
It’s Monday, July 7th, and I’m standing in a stuffy, dim gymnasium that might’ve seen its best days in the 1940s. It’s about the size of a gym that elementary students used for student assemblies, and indeed, there’s a stage on the far end stacked high with an assortment of beat-up chair-desks that probably saw their glory days in the 1970s. Hip-hop music blares through the old PA system hooked up to an ancient receiver, and the rolling bass is punctuated by the intermittent squeak of sneakers and the thunk thunk thunk of basketballs on varnished wood. This gym is old and funky, but the floor underfoot gleams in the unobtrusive lighting from the fixtures overhead.
It’s 98 degrees in the shade outside. I know this because my rental car has been sitting beneath a massive cottonwood near a smoke shop/gas station on the edge of this Rez town for an hour and it has a temperature read-out on its liquid crystal radio face display. Inside the gym, it’s probably 88 and climbing. The air conditioning doesn’t work, so the door is propped open and across the gym, the other door is also open, offering a weak cross breeze that doesn’t do much beyond give you the illusion that it’s cooler. Sweat rolls down my back and collects at my waistband beneath my shirt, which I’ve tucked in. Within 30 minutes, the lower half of my shirt is drenched, but everybody in the gym is in the same boat. We’re all wearing the heat like skin, and the five high-school-aged girls out on the court playing a scrimmage with their coach, who’s in the thick of the action, are too focused on the game to pay attention to something like excessive heat.
Wanna find out what the heck I’m up to? Read on!
Coach NM [I’ll introduce her formally at a later date] is a lifelong resident of Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation and makes her home here in Wadsworth, Nevada, about 33 miles east of Reno, just off I-80. She’s a member of the PL Paiute, and she stands about five-nine, broad across the shoulders and back, fast on her feet. She’s been playing basketball for a good 23 years and coaching it for 5. These 5 girls who are running up and back across this decaying gym in 90-degree heat are part of the 10-member squad she’s taking to Phoenix July 19th for the Native American Basketball Invitational tournament (NABI).
Coach NM checks her watch and calls a break, exhorting the players to drink lots of water. She’s brought a case of bottled water and hands a bottle to each girl, many of whom are braced against the wall, panting.
She grins at me. “Basketball is about endurance. I shouldn’t be able to outlast them on the court, being 20 years older. If I do, they’re not working hard enough.” Ten minutes later, she lines up the team at one end of the gym and blows her whistle. They obediently begin running the absolute worst drill in basketball (and other sports): suicides. Sprinting to the first free throw line and bending to touch the floor, then sprinting back to the start line. Sprinting to the half-court line, touch the floor. Back to start. Sprint to the three-quarter line across half court. Bend, touch, fill your lungs with the hot, still air, sprint back to start. Sprint to the opposite end of the court, touch, sprint back. Rest 30 seconds, do it again. I feel their pain. Coach NM has them run 10 of these, then do it backward a few times. Her assistant coach and team manager, J, looks at me and says: “Yuck.” And then she shakes her head in sympathy. J is the organizational strategist, the infrastructure to Coach NM’s single-minded sports drive. These two work well together, I see right away. They have an easy camaraderie, and the same goal: build a team, build character on the team.
Here’s an example of suicides run with a basketball:
But this is what these girls do, in the midst of the hot, still days in Nevada’s Great Basin. They meet almost every day in this aging, tired community gym and they work for two hours before the mercury hits 95 inside. Coach NM puts them through passing, shooting, dribbling drills. She works them on offense, defense, and then free throws. For every missed shot, they run suicides. They don’t miss many.
I watch the girls scrimmage, and I’m struck by the effortless athleticism of almost all of them. Most shoot either-handed, dribble and fake with moves that rival pros, and conduct seemingly impossible passes under the boards. At an average age of 16, most of these girls have been playing basketball for 10 years out here in Indian Country and most play other sports, on teams that consistently go to state tournaments or take state championships in their divisions. But fewer than 5 percent of college athletes across the nation are Native. I’m here to explore that, to find out what drives these young women, and to find out what in their communities both nurtures and hinders them. Watching them on the court, I’m caught up in the way the team works together, and the focus of every single player out there. A few bystanders wander in and take up positions near the old stage, on one end of the court. I ask one what he thinks and he says: “I’m just glad they’re playing and going to the tournament.”
Coach NM and J tell me that they generally don’t get the same 5-10 girls practicing every day because most have a family, job, and life commitments. Three of the girls going to Phoenix live 6 hours from Wadsworth, but they practice drills that Coach NM teaches them when they are able to make a formal scrimmage. I ask her if the girls have all played together and she smiles and says, “a few times. They’re a good mix. Out here, we have to make do with what we have, and most of these girls love to play. I think the 10 going to NABI are going to do all right.” And then she blows her whistle for a break.
Later, when J and Coach NM and I are sitting in a tavern in nearby Fernley eating pizza and talking basketball, I ask the coach what NABI means to her and to her players. She’s an intense woman, with a thousand-yard stare offset by a ready smile. She regards me for a long moment then says: “I realize it’s not just about basketball. Don’t get me wrong. I live, eat, sleep, breathe basketball.” Assistant coach J rolls her eyes at me and nods and Coach NM grins. “It’s about life. I want these girls to see that sports can be a vehicle to do other things, and to give back to others. Some have barely been off the Rez. I want them to know what possibility could look like.”
I think about that, as the sun sets in a blood-red haze, hidden by smoke from the California wildfires. Coach NM has to go to work at 8.30. She’s security at a local business, graveyard shift. She’s not paid for coaching these girls. She does it because she wants to, because she has to, because she knows if she doesn’t, then possibility might not exist. J told me the same thing. “If we don’t do it, who will?” And then she smiles broadly and says she’ll see me tomorrow for practice at ten. Yes, I tell her. She will.