It looked like being caught in the wrong track by Olympic marathon runners. Ups and downs, jerky steps, now-you-have-seen-that-and-now-I-do-not-doubted and whiplash, a jolt and an endless vengeance until this bilagáana puts her hands on her panting knees trying to pretend that everything was fine.
Decades passed and I found myself stuck in a Phoenix hotel, mind and spirit numbed by the hype and commercialism of a week of the Super Bowl. Corporate idiom had been unleashed. I had to go out. So I composed a former Chinle Wildcats basketball coach (the ground-floor licensed basketball coaching club is vast).
"What is the best night to watch a game on the floor?"
"Every night," he replied. "We do not have bowling alleys or movie theaters. We only have basketball. It's our love. "
A minor correction: Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation, an hour and a half from Chinle, had only one cinema, which only offers a projection of a film that turns with the seasons. I divide Phoenix like a con on the lam.
This walk coiled in cactus forests, hollow mountains and limestone escarpments. I arrived at Window Rock as night fell and a very strong wind lifted a veil of snow over the Chuska Mountains and 5,000 spectators gathered at the Window Rock Arena for a confrontation with his great rival, Chinle. I met the legend of coaches Raul Mendoza that night. This nomadic hoop had ended his retirement abbreviation that season and had begun training the Window Rock scouts.
I found a seat next to Albert Wagner, a 56-year-old man with a thick, gray ponytail, slipped under a carefully stuck cowboy hat. He wore a beautiful shirt with rhinestone buttons and freshly squeezed jeans, a turquoise belt buckle and almost as bright leather boots. Five of his 14 grandchildren would play tonight.
"A lot of people tonight, huh?"
Wagner shrugged. "It's all the time."
There is no greater sport in the Southwest reserves than the ground ball, a racing game, pass, pass, cup and shoot, rushing yards, sneakers that squeak at full speed, shots fast and fast throws. Playing is fast and relentless as a monsoon-fueled stream. It is customary for players to help their opponents get up. They reverse them as quickly.
The grip of hoops on Navajo's psyche is obvious. Wire baskets and garbage buckets and bins hung on the sides of trailers and hogans. North of Black Mesa, I found a rusty, bumpy hoop pierced in a salmon-colored hillock.
Hoops's genealogists trace the game from generation to generation, from parents to grandparents, to great-grandparents who play basketball, not just playing Ur-game, the moment when a Navajo child pick up a basketball and dribble. There is no real mystery, though. For a century, Navajo boys and girls were sent to Indian-run boarding schools where speaking their mother tongue risked washing their lips with soap. Basketball has become a way to spend the hours, combining a millennial passion for endurance racing with a cultural emphasis on group achievement rather than individual achievement.
The hoop has become a unifying force in the most immense of the native nations. (The Navajo Nation is 6,000 feet above sea level. It is the size of the Republic of Ireland.) It takes a full day to cover a complete journey by car. .
I recently spent a year and a half in Chinle writing a book about the basketball team and I heard the grandfathers talk about Bill Walton and Dave Cowens. fathers and mothers speak Kobe and Shaq; teenagers study LeBron and Durant. When we lived here in the 90s, the NBA championship was held in unison: Jordan's Bulls and Barkley's Suns. We did not have a TV and I had a serious basketball jones. Really, I was going to miss the final? Do not worry, Navajos reassures me. The booking radio station broadcasts the finals of the NBA. I threw fries and salsa on the caravan and I went back to the radio to find out that my informants had forgotten to tell me that the programs were broadcast in Navajo.
I recognized four words: "Charles Barkley" and "Michael Jordan".
Chinle High School was the largest in the Navajo reserve. There were many good Wildcats teams but none won a state championship and the collective desire to claim the trophy was an insistence, an enduring pain. Four thousand people live in this wind-swept city, between the sandy mouth of Canyon de Chelly and Black Mesa, and during winter nights 5,000 people crowd Wildcat Den for games.
The demands of the boys were unrelenting. Few Navajos are big enough to play at a four-year university and most lack explosive jumping capabilities. Their top game was here now, this moment and their speed and support. They had finished high school and basketball would become a galloping horse on the road.
Players were often excused early in the class for three- and four-hour trips to games in distant schools. Good luck, said the teachers. Get a win, said friends. Play hard, said the parents.
All translated into an unspoken command: You better not lose.
Mothers and grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins, brothers and sisters and neighbors crammed themselves into old Chevrolet vans, vans and sedans and drove by car. There were Chinle stars who graduated last year and the year before and the previous decade, young men bathing in past glory. More than a handful of hitchhiking through the chilly nights of the desert.
They all sit and scream, cheer and implore and demand better Wildcats.
Two years ago, the Wildcats nearly disintegrated. The coach screamed and was humiliated and watched his team gallop away like a spooky horse. The Wildcats finished 4-17 and the coach started. The humiliation of this season was a difficult task to wash.
Chinle's young sporting director Shaun Martin, Wayne Claw, president of the school council, and Quincy Natay, the silky superintendent – Chinle's three most powerful men – had a power play in mind. They invited Mendoza, a coach at Window Rock, to lunch at the Quality Inn and Restaurant. Window Rock is the capital of the Navajo Nation, a government town, and the Quality Inn is where the power elite puts on their best cowboy hats, boots and bracelets and eats steak or a good Navajo taco.
The three men passed the arm in Mendoza, then 67 years old. Save us, coach, please. They could not spend any extra money because the coach's salary was set by state regulation. Mendoza had led more than three decades and had more than 700 victories, but his salary was less than $ 5,000 per season. The gentlemen of Chinle, however, could offer a nice apartment for a reasonable rent if the woman from Mendoza held a teaching position at Chinle College. Specifically, they offered the old man another chance to pursue this white whale from the state championship.
Mendoza listened and asked what kind of support he could expect from the school board. He quickly smiled. They had an agreement.
In his inaugural season, the old man led the Wildcats to 18 wins and the team played in two playoffs before losing on a last-second shot. It should have earned him a reservoir of goodwill. What amateur, I thought, would be stupid enough to complain of a slow start next season.
As the season was only three games, I presented my theory of the goodwill tank of Lenny Jones, assistant coach and big block. He rolled his eyes at my naivete. You lack fluidity in complaints about Navajo hoops, he tells me. Two days earlier he had been shopping at the Bashas Supermarket in Chinle and, after the driveway, friends and even foreigners had come together and offered unsolicited diagnoses. Mendoza – everyone called the coach by his last name – should support more. Mendoza should put the second guard in place. Mendoza is too old and the game has passed. Is it time for Mendoza to retire?
Lenny pursed her lips. Too many Navajos, he says, think they are Steve Kerr.
Mendoza had actually planned a slow start on the first day of team practice in November. He planned to start two sophomores, his junior center was out of shape and rebellious, and his senior guards were new to college football. He was planning bumps. His team, he thought, would start softly in January and with a bit of luck, she would face off in February to win the El Dorado title.
For now, he preached the fundamental gospel of the hoop. Think, pass, cut, shoot. And trust. If you pass the ball, cut and place a pick, you must know that your teammate will pass it to you. Any trace of egoism breaks this virtuous circle.
Several days, his players were like grumpy retirees and resisted his prescribed treatment. Sometimes they affected boredom and pursued their own notions of running and shooting, often encouraged by a dozen aunts and cousins who wanted their boy to shine. The best teams in Mendoza have introduced such passionate players that they elbowed and exchanged punches in practice. Not these guys. The wildcat's practices were the loose and dilapidated summer camp. It was not Mendoza's way to punch and scream and demand order and allegiance. The intensity of a large Navajo team must inflate from within.
They did not learn anything else.
"The training should be more difficult than the matches," he told his players before the tournament. "We will not win until you split your teammate."
It does not matter, coach.