A New York Times sportswriter follows a Navajo basketball squad through a championship-seeking season.
The Navajo reservation is, as sports reporter and one-time “rez” resident Powell writes, as big as Britain and as remote as the moon. Chinle, Arizona, one of its most populous towns, hosts a high school that draws students from a huge area. Into it, a few years ago, came a coach, “respected although perhaps not beloved,” who imposed discipline on a team used to playing “rez ball”—fast, explosive—and took them to the semifinals in a state where they were always the underdogs who had to travel for hours to get to their nearest opponents. The point guard was a foot shorter than the "strapping white boys" they went up against. Another player dreamed of going to college and studied advanced calculus, a course taught at Chinle High by a Pakistani immigrant. Coach Mendoza is tough and demanding, the students sometimes resentful; yet they pull together, scrappily taking down their opponents game by game, “a coiled snake…vibrating and ready to strike.” For all the exotic locale, Powell could have easily fallen into sporty clichés. He doesn’t, instead delivering a deeply felt portrait of life in a place where alcohol is a constant killer and the outside world ever encroaching but that, despite poverty, is so beautiful that Navajos mourn being outside it. The author writes with elegance about the Diné Bikéyah, or Navajo world (“night’s cold had acquired a knife-sharp edge and Spider Woman had knit a million stars into a milky glow”), and his on-the-boards scenes are full of action, if sometimes too closely focused on the repeated motif of the mean coach who “often…lashed at the Wildcats for their mistakes and uneven effort even in victory” while leading them to unprecedented achievement.
As exciting as a full-court press and a thoughtful study of young athletes in a world little known to outsiders.