Wade Davies Discusses “Native Hoops”

A prominent Navajo educator once told historian Peter Iverson that “the five major sports on the Navajo Nation are basketball, basketball, basketball, basketball, and rodeo.” The Native American passion for basketball extends far beyond the Navajo, whether on reservations or in cities, among the young and the old. Why basketball—a relatively new sport—should hold such a place in Native culture is the question Wade Davies takes up in Native Hoops; The Rise of American Indian Basketball 1895-1970.

The first comprehensive history of American Indian basketball, Native Hoops tells a story of hope, achievement, and celebration—a story that reveals the redemptive power of sport and the transcendent spirit of Native culture.

1. What’s your elevator pitch for Native Hoops? How would you describe the book in two or three sentences?

WD: Native Hoops is a comprehensive history of American Indian basketball, from its beginnings in the boarding schools to its rise to preeminence as Indian country’s favorite sport. Through hard years, Native youths bonded with and drew strength from basketballand they made it part of their community athletic traditions. They did this while, along the way, injecting doses of speed and style into the game to help make it the global phenomenon it is today.

2. What was your inspiration to research and write about the comprehensive history of American Indian basketball?

WD: As someone born and raised in Indiana during the Bobby Knight era, I was amazed to discover communities that were as deeply devoted to this sport as Hoosiers were, perhaps even more so. Research for an unrelated book brought me repeatedly to Navajo country, where I met people who were inspired by this sport, and took great pride in their teams. As evidence of this, I saw basketball hoops everywhere on the reservation, as one sees in virtually every Native community across AmericaI wanted to know where this passion came from; even more so after witnessing Native teams competing fiercely for the 1999 Arizona high school championship before a sea of dedicated fans. It came as a surprise to me that, at that point, no one had attempted to write this important history, and so I committed myself to it

I was also drawn to the idea of writing a broadly sweeping twentieth-century Native history that was a celebration of resiliencejoy, and triumph. The story of Native basketball includes its darker aspects, of course, but it is largely one of hope.

3. You spent 20 years working on Native Hoops. What was the most challenging aspect of researching and writing the book?

WD: Because I deemed it necessary to adopt a wide focus studying all forms of the game, in all communities, over a seventy-five year period, the task of completing this project felt overwhelming at times. Just the scope of it, then, was the greatest challenge. Beyond this, my most difficult task was tracking the careers of thousands of players and teams whose stories had rarely been recorded, except in scattered newspaper reportsI cross-referenced these reports with student records and other available sources to get a fuller picture of where these players came from and who they truly were, but this was a time-consuminghit and miss process.

4. Can you put into perspective the influence American Indians have had on the growth of basketball in the United States? 

WD: Native athletes have had a profound influence on basketball from the beginning, in the first place by bequeathing to the world the sport of lacrosse, which partially influenced James Naismith’s invention of this sport. In the following decades, leading up to World War II, Indian boarding school and professional barnstorming teams were also some of the country’s biggest draws at times when basketball had yet to establish itself as a major American sportThe Fort Shaw boarding school girls in the early 1900s not only introduced the sport to their home state of Montana, but gave it a big boost by wowing spectators at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Lakota boys from the St. Francis Mission in South Dakota did their part as well by injecting a dose of energy into the American high school game. They did so namely through their scintillating performances at a national Catholic tournament held annually in Chicago during the 1920s and 1930s. Countless other teams did their parts as well, including the Sioux Travelers who frequently barnstormed alongside the famed Harlem Globetrotters and were, in effect, a Native equivalent of that team. Yet another way Natives influenced the overall sport was through their distinctive “Indian basketball style, later known as Rez ball. The speed and flair with which they played, especially on the fast break, helped transform basketball from the much slower, methodical, game it was in the early 1900s into the fast-paced spectacle it is today. I do not argue that Natives did this single handedlymembers of other races and ethnicities also made their marksbut they had a stylistic influence far exceeding their numbers.  

5. Your research stopped at 1970. Can you address what advances, or declines, have American Indians have experienced in that past 50 years?

WD: I selected 1970 as the end-point for this story, as told in detail,because basketball achieved its status as the most popular sport in Indian country by that time. This was not, however, the point at which that popularity peaked. It has just kept increasing since thenImproved access to transportation and broadcast technology, together with the sports’ reopening to women and a variety of rules changes, further opened up the game, both in terms of its public accessibility and stylistic flow. Among other things, this helped the style Natives played in the Indian school era fully blossom into the exhilarating Rez ball style Native public school and independent teams often play today. All-Indian tournaments have also kept growing, as has overall public participation in the gameToday, Native people of all tribes, genders, and ages commonly take to reservation and city courts, including many people well into their seventiesBasketball has also continued to serve important social functions in Native communities, as demonstrated by the recent Warrior Movement against suicide, initiated by a champion boys’ high school program in Arlee, Montana. College ball has also taken on greater meaning for Native communities since 1970 thanks to its increased accessibility to their male and female athletes. There is also hope that more Native women and men will make it as professional players as years progress. Some notable women, like Ryneldi Becenti and Shoni Schimmel have already done so in the WNBA, but the men have yet to make their mark on the NBA the way their ancestors did on the professional game prior to World War II. This may soon change, and become an important chapter in a future book.

6. What is one thing you would like readers to take from your work?

WD: That basketball has made an indelible, and largely positive, mark on Native communities while, at the same time, their players have made their mark on the sport. This is summed up by Blackfeet athlete Jesse DesRosier in the closing passage of the book: “We definitely feel just as much a part of it as it is a part of us. It’s ingrained in us.”

7. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?

WD: Collectively, it’s the descendants of many of these great players whose stories, until now, have never been told by historians. I think of people like Chauncey Archiquette, Spec Blacksmith, Marcella Crow Feather, Clyde James, Grace Vanest, and Tony Wapp. These were amazing athletes who, in times of great difficulty for their people, succeeded on the court and helped change the nature of this sport. Hopefully this book will be a source of pride for their descendants, inspire them to learn more, and encourage some to publicly share their own stories about these heroes.

Wade Davies is professor of Native American studies at the University of Montana, Missoula. His books include Healing Ways: Navajo Health Care in the Twentieth CenturyWe Are Still Here: American Indians since 1890, with Peter Iverson; and American Indian Sovereignty and Law: An Annotated Bibliography, with Richmond L. Clow.

The Jayhawks, Sanctions and the Role We All Play…

by Andrew Malan Milward, author of Jayhawker; On History, Home, and Basketball

In 2016 I was hired as an English professor at Auburn University. After the fall semester, I called an old writing buddy of mine to catch up. I liked the town and university very much, but I also tried to tell my friend how crazy the football fandom was in Auburn. He listened to me talk about the flotillas of RVs that started arriving to tailgate on Wednesdays before home football Saturdays and how the town’s population doubled on gameday because so many people came in from out of town for the game. He listened to me talk about the millions of dollars that were just spent to give Jordan-Hare Stadium the largest Jumbotron in the country and how head coach Gus Malzahn seemed to get a lucrative contract extension after every win and then would suddenly be on the hot seat after every loss. My friend listened to this and much more and when I was finished, his response was: “So, basically, you work at a shell company for a professional football team.” I laughed because it was a funny joke, but it was the kind of laugh that caught in my throat because I knew there was some serious truth in what he had said.

I know something about sports fandom. I was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and I was raised in Lawrence, Kansas, so I was geographically predisposed to be obsessed by basketball. UK and KU are the two winningest college basketball teams in the history of the sport, which means I come from places where lunatic fandom for the men’s basketball team is the norm. And, indeed, I am a fan, a real sports junky whose spirits and moods have a direct correlation to the rise and fall of the winning percentage of teams I adore, and there’s no team I adore more than the University of Kansas men’s basketball team. Given the amount of time I devote to watching, thinking, and writing about sports, I could easily add Fan to my business card next to Writer and Professor.

At present, like many KU fans, I’m both excited for the start of the new season but also anxious about the future. The ongoing and unfolding scandal surrounding the University of Kansas men’s basketball team and its relationship with Adidas is real, and while we wait to learn the full fallout from the NCAA’s recent Notice of Allegations it seems likely that there will be serious repercussions. Scandals of this sort, of course, are nothing new, and none but the most naïve onlookers wearing rose-colored specs should be surprised that they have happened and will continue to happen because players have been receiving so-called improper benefits forever. Wilt Chamberlain, the greatest player ever to don the crimson and blue, talked openly in his autobiography about how KU boosters paid him to come to Lawrence. He was, and is, not alone, and neither is KU. It’s not a question of whether it’s happening; it’s a question of how it happens, who gets caught, and how badly they will be punished.

Perhaps that sounds cynical, but I think it’s just the logical and predictable outcome of a situation in which, to borrow my friend’s pithy turn of phrase, we’ve let universities turn into shell companies for professional sports teams. There’s simply too much money involved for this game to be uncorrupted and ‘pure,’ the way some fans want to believe it is, and the way the NCAA certainly wants us to continue thinking it is. The role of money and worry over its potential to corrupt the game is nothing new, I should say. It goes back nearly to the beginning of the sport. In 1911, James Naismith, the inventor of the game and KU’s first coach, gave a speech that was transcribed and published as an article titled “Commercialism in Sports” for the Graduate Magazine of the University of Kansas. It is a well-written and carefully argued polemic about the “insidious growth of commercialism” and its ability to “destroy one of the greatest forces of education.” Naismith believed, correctly I think, that commercialism leads to over-training and the breaking down of athletes’ bodies, it makes work of sport and turns it into a spectacle instead of recreation, it puts the emphasis on winning instead of enjoyment and personal development and thus encourages breaking the rules and stimulates betting. He also thought it leads to “worship of the dollar” and “class distinction, for when a man is paid for his services in athletics he is on a different level from the man who buys him.”

Over one hundred years after Naismith gave this Cassandra-like warning about commercialism, I imagine him going absolutely centrifugal in his grave right now, given the current landscape of sports, particularly basketball and football, in universities. As William J. Baker writes in his introduction to Naismith’s book, Basketball: Its Origin and Development, “Whatever its later commercial developments, basketball was made for principled play, not for profit…. Naismith designed his new game for athletes to enjoy, not for coaches, television networks, or corporate sponsors to control.”

photo from ksha.org

Naismith’s star pupil and successor as KU’s coach, Phog Allen, however, was quick to realize the monetizing potential of the game. One of the issues he and Naismith clashed over was whether tickets should be sold for KU games, which had quickly become quite popular in the years after Naismith brought the sport with him to Kansas from Massachusetts. Rob Rains writes in his biography of Naismith, James Naismith: The Man Who Invented Basketball, that “Allen wanted to use the strong interest in basketball that was developing on campus to generate as many sold tickets as possible, while Naismith considered selling tickets an exploitation of the student athletes. Allen argued that bringing money into the university through the sale of basketball tickets would benefit the other university sports as well.” Of course, ultimately, Phog’s opinion won out. Money has a way of making that happen.

I think they were both right, at least in theory. And yet, selling 10-cent tickets for admission to a game isn’t exactly on the same scale as earning hundreds of millions of dollars in sponsorship deals and television contacts. How we got from there to here is a longer, much more complicated story than I’m capable of telling here, but in short it has a lot to do with the growth of American business after World War II and the commodification of so many aspects of our lives theretofore unknown. However, it also has to do with the growth and popularity of the game. That is to say, it has a lot to do with us and our intense fandom that demands winning and thus incentivizes massaging, bending, and sometimes breaking the rules. (Whether we think those rules are sensible or foolish is another matter altogether). We should remember this when the penalties come down on our beloved Jayhawks and we’re sad and angry and eager to cast blame. Here are my own thoughts on that matter: the players certainly aren’t to blame, even the ones who knowingly accepted money. The coaches and shoe companies, sure. The agents and the NCAA, you bet. But so am I and people like me, the fans who love the game all out of proportion. We are all complicit in this scandal and we should be part of finding a solution.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but our love and demand for the game has created a mighty big and lucrative pie, so it seems sensible to let players have some of it, not just coaches, universities, and the NCAA. We should allow players to profit on their name, image, and likeness, allow them to have a job or profit on their abilities the same way every other college student can, and we can provide all players, from stars to the last person on the bench, with a modest monthly living stipend and lifetime academic scholarships.

Thankfully we are finally starting to see movement on some of these issues. If nothing else good comes from the scandal, perhaps it will have at least pushed the conversation forward and helped usher in necessary changes. I think that’s something all of us fans should cheer for.

Andrew Malan Milward was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and raised in Lawrence, Kansas. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is the author of two short story collections, The Agriculture Hall of Fame and I Was a Revolutionary. His fiction has appeared in many venues, including ZoetropeAmerican Short FictionVirginia Quarterly ReviewThe Southern ReviewGuernica, and Best New American Voices and has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award. He is an assistant professor of English at the University of Kentucky.