Native Americans and Basketball: 6 Facts

You can't miss the fact that the Schimmels are playing for Louisville tonight. But who knew about Nike's "Air Native"? 

Shoni Schimmel (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Shoni Schimmel (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Tonight, sisters Jude and Shoni Schimmel and and their University of Louisville teammates will compete with the University of Connecticut in college basketball’s biggest game. By now, most fans know the two athletes belong to the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla. But the relationship between the sport and Native communities doesn’t begin or end with the two Cardinals.

In advance of tonight’s matchup, Colorlines‘ Jamilah King and Jorge Rivas have pulled together a primer on “Rezbal.” The first little-known fact on their list: It’s a big thing.

1. “Rezball” is a big thing.

Basketball is such a huge deal on many Native American reservations that it has its own name: rezball. The slang term describes either the game itself or an uptempo style of play. To nurture young rezballers, the Native American Basketball Invitational (NABI) holds annual tournaments throughout the Southwest …

2. Like the history of reservations, the beginnings of basketball in Native American communities isnt pretty. 

Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania produced one of the first major Native American basketball teams in the country. Founded in 1879, about two decades before the invention of the sport, Carlisle, like subsequent federal boarding schools, had a blantantly racist mission: to “civilize” Native Americans …

3. Native American basketball is the stuff of fine literature.

Award-winning Native American novelist and poet Sherman Alexie writes beautifully about basketball. Among his most celebrated work is the young adult novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” which follows a basketball-loving Native boy’s first year at a rich, white private high school as he deals with his family’s struggles on the reservation …

4. Nike designed a basketball shoe specifically for Native American players. Yeah, you read that correctly.