Although the Navajo Nation has rebounded after COVID-19 hit the community hard, and rez ball returned, reminders of the pandemic remain. (Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images)
CHINLE – Shaun Martin’s office sits at the front corner of Chinle High School, down the street from the Navajo Nation hospital that serves his community. It faces Highway 191, and during the throes of the pandemic, it was a window into the state of his city.
“Every 20 minutes, an ambulance would be departing,” Martin said. “It was very real.”
These days, the wailing of sirens has been replaced by the bouncing of basketballs. Rez ball is back and the community is rebounding.
“Time is gonna heal us,” Chinle women’s basketball coach Francine McCurtain said. “And basketball is one of those things that can heal us, too.”
Roughly 300 miles north of Phoenix, tucked behind the majestic Canyon De Chelly, sits Chinle in the heart of the Navajo Nation. A lone central two-lane highway leads in and out of the town. Surrounded by dirt, mountains and desert, the paved road is rare.
Signs hang along fences, warning against the spread of COVID-19. Aging buildings face east to celebrate the sunrise and rebirth of a new day, much the way the homes of their ancestors did for generations. The Wildcat Den at Chinle High School is arguably the largest one in town, the 7,500-seat arena that is home to Chinle basketball.
It sat idle from March 2020 to November 18 while the city was on lockdown due to COVID-19.
The pandemic was hard on the community. In May of 2020, the Navajo Nation, which includes 27,425 square miles of land that extends into New Mexico, Arizona and Utah – had the country’s highest infection rate, surpassing New York. In addition to rapid spread, the numbers were also high because of significant testing, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a release.
As of Thursday, the Navajo Department of Health reports 40,254 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,557 deaths. It has also rebounded faster than other hotspots because of lockdowns and mask mandates, Nez said.
It has impacted many, including McCurtain and Chinle boys basketball coach Raul Mendoza. McCurtain lost her father, and Mendonza lost his daughter to COVID-19.
Both are working to find peace in their grief, while helping the community heal through basketball. As McCurtain sat in the Wildcat Den locker room, her eyes drifted to an image of the school’s mascot on the carpet as she recollected her father’s last days.
“It’s gonna be about a year since I lost my dad,” McCurtain said as she choked back tears. “Accepting that the pandemic year did happen, and we can’t go back and change it.”
McCurtain is a physical education teacher, basketball coach and mother of five, including two Chinle players: son Kylen and daughter Qoah Yazzie. Her father’s legacy and mother’s impact lives on in her passion for coaching rez ball.
“My mom was a coach. So naturally she taught me the fundamentals,” McCurtain said. “(My dad) was one of the biggest factors in my family, training us at home.”
It was different for Mendoza. The legend is entering his 42nd season coaching high school basketball on the Navajo Nation. He has won over 700 high school games and two coach of the year awards.
But with great success comes great sacrifice, he believes.
Mendoza feels he “missed out” on “a lot” before the pandemic at the expense of his coaching success. After his daughter fell ill to cancer, and eventually COVID-19, he held on to the knowledge that the quarantine brought one benefit:
Time spent with her.
“After she passed away, I’m glad that I was able to be with her,” Mendoza said. “It was a positive thing for me.”
Although their loved ones represent the unfathomable amount of loss the Nation has faced, the coaches represent a gain: the rebirth of rez ball.
“It’s like the heart of the Navajo Nation here,” McCurtain said.
Basketball is important on the reservation. Navajo learned the sport in the boarding schools of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and transformed it into rez ball, a run-and-gun style of play that often wears down opponents.
On this night, the men’s and women’s teams take the court to cheers from community members socially distanced in the upper levels. Martin sits high above the courts in a state-of-the art press box looking on, microphone in hand.
“Welcome back to the Wildcat DEN,” he shouts.
Rez ball tips off, and the healing begins.
The women’s team plays a hounding full court press, stealing the ball before opponents can react. It relies on senior forward and team captain Aisha Ashley. She is tall, broad-shouldered and dominates her opponents with menacing drop-steps offensively, then swats shots into the bleachers defensively.
“She’s strong,” a coach from Show Low High School said with a tone of surprise.
McCurtain paces back and forth, snapping at players for missed screens and costly turnovers. She understands the magnitude of rez ball’s return, of the Wildcat Den reopening, and prays her athletes do, too.
“I think if they wear the black and gold, they should be very proud,” McCurtain said. “And not just because I’m the coach, but because they want to do it.”
Mendoza was the last to join his men’s team on the court. Quiet, yet focused, the coach stared at the court as his players warmed up. Normally he would be up actively communicating with them. Instead, he sat down and observed.
It is a symbol of his new coaching philosophy: He relies more on his assistants to check in on athletes and prioritize their mental health.
“Because of the pandemic, we needed more involvement from (coaches),” Mendoza said. “To where (players) can reach out to them, and try to see that everything’s going in the right direction.”
The men’s team plays up-tempo run-and-gun. They rely heavily on a small lineup dominated by guard play. The ultimate goal: Get the easiest bucket as quickly as possible.
Senior point guard Kylen Yazzie provides structure to the fluid offensive scheme. The lanky 18-year-old gets into a deep defensive stance, bending his knees, and pursues the ball with vengeance. He’s reserved and leads by action rather than words.
The player models his coach: quiet yet powerful.
“Native kids are a little bit more introverted, a little bit less outgoing,” Martin said. “Non-native kids will be a lot more readable as far as body language and emotions.”
The games were scrimmages, so the teams did not keep score, but it did not matter to Chinle, which always applied full court pressure, always played fast.
“Our modern day warriors are our kids on the court,” Martin said. “It’s built into our cultures to just have positive, competitive environments where we’re celebrating not only our kids, but other communities.”
They are warriors because their normal lives would be challenging to others. Ashley is one of a few returners coming off the pandemic year. She commutes at least an hour and a half roundtrip every day from her home in Tsaile.
Practice can start as early as 6 a.m. Games can end as late as 10 p.m.
Throw in a global pandemic, and missing her entire junior season, and many would expect her to struggle. Yet during quarantine, the senior captain trained in the desert and – spoiler alert – dominated in her first game back.
“I just have my dirt court,” Ashley said. “My dad recently got me a squat rack (for weightlifting) over quarantine to do and I just ran all over Tsaile.”
Kylen lives close to the school in teacher housing with McCurtain and his four younger siblings. Two years ago, he was featured in the Netflix documentary “Basketball Or Nothing,” which documented the men’s basketball team just before the pandemic hit.
“There’s a lot of hardships out here on the Navajo Nation that’s not seen up in the cities,” he said. “The basketball culture that we have down here is bigger than people think.”
Kylen and Ashley left the court in March 2020 as sophomores, and are returning as seniors expected to lead their young and inexperienced teams while healing their community through basketball.
“It’s a school, it’s a hospital, I don’t want to say it’s a church, but a place of healing,” Martin said. “Getting back to the season is how we move forward. The community needs it.”
The two are using basketball as a means to fulfill educational dreams, the way Martin hopes all students will.
“It’s easy for us, because we as native people are very resilient and have overcome enormous traumas in the past,” he said.
Those traumas date back as early as the 1500s, when Spanish explorers began encroaching on Navajo land. In January 1805, Spanish troops attacked the Navajo Nation at the Battle of Canyon De Chelly to retaliate against the Navajo for their defense attacks against a Spanish military post. Numerous tribe members were murdered and forced to retreat to the aptly named Massacre Cave.
The Dawes Act passed in 1887 was a redistribution of land to Native people “aimed to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream U.S. society by encouraging them towards farming and agriculture,” according to the U.S. government’s National Park Service. Instead, it stripped over 90 million acres of tribal land from Native Americans. The Act weakened traditional tribal dynamics, and forced many Natives into a life driven by poverty and disease.
Perseverance has long been demanded of this community.
“Having our kids get on a bus at 5:30 in the morning, 70 miles up the road, just to get here in the morning to go to school, builds resilience,” Martin said. “In a home with no electricity, and maybe five other siblings and grandma and grandpa living there. They have to feed the livestock and then chop wood for warmth, before they sit down and feed themselves, as a 10-year-old. That builds resilience.”
Chinle loves hosting non-native teams, as it did on this night welcoming in Show Low High School, a public school located 154 miles south of Chinle.
“Show Low needs a facility like this,” one Show Low coach said, eyeing the giant scoreboard hanging high about the court.
The Wildcat Denn is believed to be the 14th largest gym in the country, with 12 of the others located in Indiana.
It is shaped like a hogan – the traditional dwelling of the Navajo people – with doors facing east to welcome in sunlight, the rebirth of a new day. Each part of the Wildcat Den has a spiritual message. From paintings of Canyon De Chelly on each side of the basketball court to the wildcat in a small circle on the side of stands, it was planned with purpose.
Opponents take part in that cultural experience, learning about traditional Navajo teachings reflected in the $24 million facility.
“There’s this very cyclical life viewpoint of everything,” Martin said. “The entire universe can be related to that way of thinking.”
Navajo traditions preach living in a Matriarchal society, where family lineage is passed down through the mother, rather than the father. The woman is the head of the family, and clans extend far beyond their direct household bloodlines.
“You are your mother’s clan first, then your father’s clan,” Martin said.
Children call fellow clan members their “aunties” and “uncles.” If they are lucky, similar clans will live near and they will gather together often. But like everywhere, COVID-19 made it nearly impossible to have larger family gatherings without it becoming a petri dish for the virus to spread aggressively.
The Wildcat Den allows clans to celebrate together once again, only now under strict social distancing and mask-wearing protocols. The Den remains a tool to teach non-native people their ways of life.
“Preservation begins with education,” Martin said.
And it doesn’t end, because preservation, much like time, is cyclical.