As Native Americans fight coronavirus, basketball takes a timeout

PHOENIX >> Basketball is woven into the fabric of Native American life.

Children dribble balls on clay courts and shoot improvised rims on some reserves, while tournaments are held in state-of-the-art buildings on others. Players and fans can travel hundreds of miles to play and watch “Rez Ball” games, the fast, no-shot-is-a-bad-one version of hoops played by Native Americans. The game also brings even closer communities closer.

Now, during the pandemic, the balls hardly bounce anymore.

The Native Americans have already been hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak and will face a life without basketball – or any other sport – in the near future.

“If anyone knows Native Americans, we love our sports and now it’s hard to interrupt sports activities,” said Patty Talahongva, executive producer of Indian Country Today, a member of the Hopi nation who released a recent Zoom call on the impact of COVID-19 moderate. about Native American sports. “When we talk about social distance, it goes against the fabric of our culture.”

The tightness of Native American life has had devastating consequences for reservations, especially in the Southwest.

Native Americans often live in crowded homes with extended families and have more obesity, diabetes and heart disease than the general American population, problems that make the coronavirus even more dangerous.

The effects are pronounced on the Navajo Reserve, which stretches across parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah and is about three times the size of Massachusetts. The 175,000-member tribe has the highest rates of confirmed cases of coronavirus per capita, approximately 18 per 1,000 people. More than 4,400 people have tested positive and 147 have died in the Navajo Nation.

The tribe is aggressive in its efforts to fight the virus, including through curfews and continuing to educate people about the dangers.

“When you’re on a team, you know your role,” said Dr. Michelle Tom, a former Arizona state basketball player who returned home to serve the Navajo people in Winslow, Arizona, after completing her medical degree. “You are not going to succeed alone.”

Native Americans’ connection to basketball dates back to the sport’s origins.

James Naismith, credited with inventing the basketball game in 1891, founded the University of Kansas basketball program and often had the Jayhawks scrimmage at Haskell Indian Nations University a few miles away in Lawrence.

Haskell has been credited with inventing the zone defense while trying to keep up with the faster Jayhawks, and the sport has since been anchored in Native American culture.

On reservations without a lot of resources, children play in the dirt shooting rings attached to posts with balls of cloth wrapped in tape, if no real ball is available.

Larger tribes have been able to build arenas such as the 6,500-seat Bee Holdzil Fighting Scouts Events Center in Window Rock, Arizona, which hosted a Division I women’s basketball game between Arizona State and Baylor in 2018.

High school gyms often become the community’s hoops hubs, where classes are taught during the day and games are picked up at night.

Native American fans have also been known to travel long distances to watch basketball, whether it’s a regional or national Native American tournament or a showdown between the top high school teams. Hundreds of Navajo fans used the reservation bus to Tempe to watch Ryneldi Becenti play in the state of Arizona in the 1990s before becoming the first Native American to play in the WNBA.

“Basketball has always been an important part of the Native American community because it has been there since the beginning of the game,” said Brent Cahwee, co-founder of NDNsports, an online resource for Native American sports news.

The cancellation of the Native American Basketball Invitational tournament hit very hard.

The tournament, originally scheduled for June 21-27 in Phoenix, typically draws 128 teams from approximately 300 Native American countries.

The annual tournament offers Native Americans the opportunity to experience other cultures and connect with other tribes through basketball.

For players, it’s one of the biggest recruiting weeks of the year, a rare opportunity to play for junior college and NAIA school coaches. The NABI Foundation has also awarded nearly $ 300,000 in scholarships over the years.

“It has been a recruiting bed for college coaches to come on,” said Cahwee of the Pawnee / Euchee nation. “I have seen children receive grants on the spot and this is not going to happen this year.”

Sports across the country have slowly started again. NASCAR started racing without fans, PGA Tour players joined the link last weekend, and professional teams have begun to open facilities for players to train.

Sports can take longer to get the reservations in order, even if the at-home orders expire and people try to resume normal life in the rest of the country.

Reservations in the South West focus on staying safe and not returning to court.

Rec centers and Boys and Girls clubs, typically go-to places for Native American basketball players, are either closed or used as isolation centers for people who have tested positive and recovered from COVID-19.

Basketball has become a side issue in communities trapped during the pandemic.

“These are all our family and it’s different. It’s getting harder,” said Tom. “We’ve given too many lives already. My ancestors gave too many lives to expand, to get money to get more resources. How is this different? We have to stay close. ‘

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