On the first day of high-school basketball practice on the White Mountain Apache reservation, new assistant coach Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was shocked to see a style he had never experienced before, either with the Lakers or at UCLA under John Wooden or in high school or on the streets of Harlem. What coaches and players described as “Apache basketball” involved a nearly berserker level of abandon, but even more unusual were two other features: the players seemed reluctant to bump into each other, and they played in almost complete silence. It’s hard to imagine how one can defend or rebound effectively without being willing to, as they say, put a body on someone. And talking is essential both in the most formal aspects of the game (Abdul-Jabbar notes that the best teams are usually the most effective at communicating) and in the most informal, with the trash talking that pervades basketball culture.
As he tells it in A Season on the Reservation, Kareem arrived eager to learn more about Apache life (he was friends with a learned Apache man who had taken him to ceremonies and climbed Mount Baldy with him), but imagining that basketball was a universal language in which he would be the revered expert. It turned out that even basketball has dialects, and in the town of White River, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were only second-magnitude stars compared to Armando Cromwell, who had led last year’s team to second place in the state tournament. Of course Jabbar’s many championships and MVP awards entitle him to great respect, but he is so full of crabby-geezer griping (today’s players don’t learn the fundamentals, don’t work hard, my Lakers would beat Jordan’s Bulls….) that it is kind of fun to watch him struggle with the kids’ skepticism.
Jabbar gains some insight into the roots of Apache basketball from a list of Dos and Don’ts, intended as a guide for Apache youth:
Under the title of “Etiquette of Apache Don’ts” it mentioned some things that may have explained the boys’ reluctance to talk to one another or bang each other with their bodies on the court. It said not to:
whistle at night
misuse words when angry
make fun of people
make fun of deer
push another person
spit on people
bump people on purpose
step over people
marry into the same clan
act smart and snobbish
use makeup (facial)
Chew on fingernails
touch physically unnecessarily
make fun of traditions
pull another person’s hair
count the stars
bother with things you don’t know about, especially crown dancers
And finally it said,
Apache females do NOT participate in sweat-hut ceremonies
Fascinating in so many ways…I especially love the bland and universal “make fun of people” followed by “make fun of deer.” I certainly don’t condone deer-mockery, but would be very curious to see how it’s done. There’s bound to be a good story behind “count the stars” too, and it would be interesting to hear more about the prohibition on planning ahead. The item on not marrying inside your clan is rather depressing—your traditions must be very seriously threatened if you have to tell people in writing not to marry their kinfolk.
It is not surprising to see some version of “keep your hands to yourself,” but somebody does seem a bit obsessed, and the awkwardness of “touch physically unnecessarily” indicates some straining for emphasis. There is an interesting echo of this in the coaches’ introductory talk, where the expected prohibitions (smoking, cussing…) are joined with the warning that, if the players must sit with their girlfriends at athletic events, they are not to hold hands. Jabbar reports this without comment, and elsewhere notes that several players on last year’s successful team had impregnated their girlfriends. There appears to be some cognitive dissonance here concerning the gulf between traditional norms and current practice.
The document also suggests a culture that does not reward attention-getting verbal displays. According to Jabbar, young Apaches do not like to be singled out from the group, and in particular do not respond well to direct criticism, which is the only kind of coaching he knows. The The refusal of the head coach, Mr. Mendoza, to confront players’ mistakes pretty much drives Jabbar up a wall, and though he tries to respect the players’ values, his success is limited, and the tense relationship with the flashy, error-prone point guard eventually boils over into a physical fight.
A further indication that we are not in Kansas any more (we are in fact in Arizona) comes when Mendoza gathers the team for an extended lecture on the challenges they face, which turn out to include various forms of witchcraft. Members of the community, he claims, are using spells and “voodoo dust” to sabotage him personally and the team as a whole. It is helpful to be told that Mendoza is a “strong Christian,” as are many on the team, but that the old time religion still has a large following on the White Mountain reservation. Still, I get the feeling that Jabbar and I are way out of our depth trying to decipher this situation.
And that is probably my favorite thing about the book, the fact that Jabbar’s attempts to tidy everything up for a Young Adult audience often fail and we are left with a tangle of threads. For example, is the low value placed by most Apaches on formal education a problem to be remedied or a tradition to be respected? How are we to feel about a poverty-plagued community where teachers start at $22,000/year but which spends $6 million on a new high-school basketball arena? Well, I should confess that I do have opinions on these things, mostly because the traditional way of life doesn’t really seem to be available any more: instead of the women tending cornfields and the men herding cattle and hunting deer, the alternative to education these days is apparently a low-paying job at the saw-mill or the casino.
I remain agnostic on the important issue whether you can win in basketball without talking.
(The title is taken from Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. Basso spent a long day with some Apache cowboy friends, looking for lost cows. At the end of the day, one friend said, “Not many cows today, but many good places.” Basso is also a source for my statement about the low esteem for official learning among traditional Apache; he reports with approval various negative comments about reading including that it isolates people and that it has little to do with everyday life.