Friday's Game A Chance To Witness Reservation Basketball


In small towns on the state's high plateaus, reservation basketball is the stuff of which legends are made.

The interest in Native basketball began in the 1950s after many fans expressed their infatuation with the dedication of the players, the success of the teams and the uniqueness of the run and gun playing style.

Among those who have followed reservation basketball is good friend and Arizona Republic reporter, Mark Shaffer.

For many years, Shaffer worked out of Flagstaff penning stories about anything of interest in small town Arizona, including reservation basketball.

In 2003, just prior to the tip off of the Native American Basketball Invitational in Phoenix, Shaffer wrote an intriguing story entitled "Boys Basketball to Showcase Talent at NABI."

In it, Shaffer questioned why major colleges didn't take more interest in Native basketball players.

Shaffer interviewed several Native team coaches, college recruiters and players.

None of those Shaffer talked to could pinpoint the reasons for lack of collegiate interest in Native players other than prejudice by outside coaches, the players often lack of height, homesickness on the part of the athletes and Indian cultures that suppress individual achievement.

What Shaffer did learn were several reasons why reservation-style ball is unique and hugely popular in Northern Arizona.

Shaffer quoted Oklahoma team coach Roman Nose as saying "Indian ball" is different from off-reservation basketball.

"It's a style geared toward teamwork. There is not so much ego involved in it and the goal for the individual player isn't to be star but to blend in with those around him," Nose said.

Then Northern Arizona University coach Mike Adras told Shaffer, "There is such a passion for the game on the reservation, you see a lot of 4-year-olds dribbling the basketball. They grow up knowing where the three-point line is.

"On top of that, they play year-round and have good backing of school administrators in going to team camps around the state. When you spend a lot of time on something, the skills will develop."

On any drive through Whiteriver, or any of the Navajo and Hopi reservation towns, newcomers and visitors will notice almost every home has some type of makeshift basketball hoop.

The facilities might not be state-of-the art, with high tech rims and courts, but those makeshift spots are where reservation youth spend hours and hours playing the sport they dearly love.

A bent rim, wooden backboard and dirt court is a common sight on a reservation.

In the 1980s at Show Low, I coached a Native player who had moved to the town from the reservation.

His shot was a unique high-arching attempt that I often teased him, "went so high, it came down with snow on it."

The best way I can describe his shot trajectory is that it resembled the one Garfield Heard relied on during his 1970s heyday with the Phoenix Suns.

When I quizzed my player on his uncanny arc, he told me it was because the backyard court he learned to play on had a power line running across it.

He said it was about 10 feet above the ground and crossed about where a free throw line would be.

For him to have any chance at making a basket, he had to shoot a high-arching attempt that would clear the power line.

After his explanation, I never again questioned his shot -- he was the best marksman on our team.

As serious as Native players and fans are about the game, they are also willing to approach it with a tongue-in-cheek attitude.

Years ago, a fast food television commercial featured Larry Bird and Michael Jordan in a HORSE shooting contest with a hamburger as a prize.

Each shot the two superstars attempted turned more difficult.

The first attempts were titled something like, "Over the backboard," then "Off One Knee," and later "Over the Skyscraper."

The commercials became a popular part of pop culture.

While attending a high school state tournament game, I noticed a Native player donned in a T-shirt that obviously chided the Bird-Jordan commercial.

The shirt pictured two reservation basketball players launching jump shots. The T-shirt read, "Over the Sheep," "Off the Mesa" and "From the Hogan."

Local basketball fans will have the opportunity this evening to witness reservation basketball when the Payson Longhorns play host to the Alchesay Falcons.

Whiteriver fans are expected to show up en masse.

The game will also be a great chance for local parents, fans and students to attend and show the same passionate support for our PHS basketball team that those school teams in reservation towns receive.

For the game, Friday night, all students with an ID and senior citizens wearing purple and gold will be allowed in free of charge.

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