Photos by Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times
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The Chinle boys varsity team warmed up for a game against Holbrook High.
and hid from w h it e invaders. Crows soared above sandstone walls as we ran our hands along petrified sand dunes and felt cool mystery. A mile from that canyon, I sat in a diner and talked with Mendoza. He has coached Native American teams for 35 years. He tried to retire, but mistress basketball tugged him back. To work here is exhilarating and exhausting. After wins, Navajos shake his hand at gas stations and the supermarket. After losses, some mutter, questioning plays and substitutions. His boys hail from many corners of this largest of reservations. (The Navajo Nation sits a mile above sea level and sprawls across three states. It is the size of Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut combined. ) Nachae Nez, a 5-foot-9 senior shooting guard, played in Holbrook as a freshman. While there, he spun to the hoop and tore up his knee. He is studious, and he figured academics were his way out, so he enrolled at Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington, N.M. Nez rebuilt his knee and led Prep in scoring. Then his mother was laid off from a flour plant, and they were evicted from their home. He returned to Chinle for his senior year. He still has eyes on college. "I want to get a degree in agriculture and serve my people," Nez said as we sat in the stands. Angelo Lewis wandered by. A 6-foot-3 sophomore with broad shoulders, he has a deft passing touch. Lewis had called Mendoza. He could not start his grandfather's pickup truck and feared missing practice. "Check the battery and alternator, n Mendoza replied. Lewis made it. Distances are daunting. Mendoza put 90,000 miles on his car during the past two years. Cooper Burbank is the freshman starter. He is 6 feet 1 and rawboned, with a preternatural ease on the court. He grew up in Red Mesa, Ariz., a dot in the desert plains. His middle school had a student population of 108. His mother, Joni Burbank, a teacher, wanted her son to go college and worried that he needed a bigger challenge. A freshman starter from a distant town could stir unease in older teammates. His grandmother died when he was in the seventh grade. He met his father just once before he died. Mendoza remained in Arizona to attend high school. What propelled hi m a l ong that path? Mendoza shrugged â€” a portion of our lives remains a mystery. As a senior, he told a counselor, "I want to go to college." The counselor laughed at him. Mendoza took a battery of tests and aced math. He applied to a college and was awarded grants. He met
his wife, Marjorie, a Navajo, in college. She got pregnant, 'Sometimes, change is uncomfortable,' Joni and they dropped out. Mendoza worked in a f a ctory, Burbank said. 'We need to face that, so that it sets making $30,000 a year. us up for bigger and better things.' It was good money, yet Then his grandmother ordered him to board that again he felt an a che: H e wanted to coach and teach school bus. children t o n a v i g ate new An American teacher asked his name. worlds. When he quit his facI said 'Carlos Lopez' because he was the kid tory job, his friends hooted: "You' re crazy! You w o n' t sitting next to me,' Mendoza said. 'I failed first make any money teaching!" grade because I didn't speak English.' He paused, laughing. " Sure enough, m y f i r s t job at Window Rock, I made Nation. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar served as his assistant $9,500 a year." coach one year, a not entirely satisfactory experience. Mendoza has worked ever since as a guidance counMendoza hoped that Abdul-Jabbar, an N.B.A. great selor and coach in the Navajo Nation and the Apache who was a student under the Hall of Fame coach John Nation in the White Mountains. His wife teaches on Wooden, would teach a few tricks to the students. the reservation. "There were a lot of media distractions," Mendoza These nations are bounded by mountains and forests said. "I asked him to teach a tall kid the drop step. and buttes, with embracing clans, leaders and spiritualJabbar looked at me and said, 'The boy doesn't want ism woven deep. Each is poor, plagued by alcoholism to do that.'" and drug abuse and fractured families. Mendoza laughs. Humor is his salve. Mendoza posted winning seasons in the Apache The Apache reservation suffered an epidemic of teen-
Robert Begay (21) shot against Tuba City.
Confederated Umatilla Journal
age suicide. Mendoza is a master at infusing the rez ball whirlwind with offensive and defensive discipline. His proudest accomplishment, however, was this: None of his teenagers took their own lives. "I told the kids, 'I understand, I knew fear,'" he said. "I learned how anger can affect you." He came to reckon with the power of magic, which he declines to dismiss as superstition. Mysticism and hexes and sorcerers are the stuff of daily l ife here. Mendoza saw the eyes of a sober man roll back in his head in the Apache Nation, a sign an astral self might be roaming. During a game, he and his players experienced a strange delirium. He was told later that magic dolls â€” kachinas â€” had been secreted into the arena. Belief in the unseen is palpable, a collective consciousness powerful and present. Once, his best Apache player began to drink a lot. What, Mendoza asked, is the matter? "Three shadows follow me," the boy replied. "One is tall and stands by the basket and swats the ball away. Nava'o Nation basketball Pa e 8B