In August, Netflix released “Basketball or Nothing,” a gem of a series about a high school team in Chinle, a dusty pocket of Navajo Nation in northeast Arizona. The show ticks plenty of binge-watching boxes: an eye-catching setting, nail-biting moments on the court and compulsively watchable characters - particularly Raul Mendoza, the team’s grumpy-yet-avuncular coach.
The show does have a flaw, though, and it’s embedded in the title: The series suggests that the kids vying for a state title will have their lives entirely foreclosed upon them if they can’t find a way to escape the reservation and get a college degree. “There’s really nothing going on in Chinle,” are the first words uttered in the series. Water is scarce, we are constantly reminded; unemployment and addiction are abundant.
It’s not an incorrect assessment, but it is a narrow one. So it’s worth watching the series in tandem with Michael Powell’s engrossing, more expansive book, “Canyon Dreams,” which covers the same team during the same 2017-18 season and clarifies its story. For the players at Chinle High School, the rez and the rest of the world aren’t binaries in opposition. They’re connected worlds that they’re compelled to navigate as skillfully as they do the hardwood courts.
Basketball, Powell writes, is a “harmonizing force in this immense land,” an essential part of day-to-day culture in Chinle. That means long lines at the ticket window on game days (some people hitchhike to out-of-town matches) and lots of people tuning their radios for game broadcasts throughout Navajo Nation, which stretches across northern Arizona and New Mexico. But it also means Mendoza is treated as a standard-bearer for an entire community. Family members give him an earful about respect every time he benches their kid. “In past seasons with different teams, witches had cast spells at him, and warlocks had conspired, and angry relatives had loosened the lug nuts on his tires,” Powell writes.
Powell, a former Washington Post reporter and now a New York Times sports columnist, lived on Navajo Nation briefly a quarter century ago. He writes with a clear affection for the place, and as much respect and understanding of Navajo culture as an outsider can muster.
His position may explain why the central figure in his narrative is Mendoza, who is an outsider himself. Part Mexican and part Tohono O’odham (a southern Arizona tribe), Mendoza was hired by Chinle less for his precise cultural fit than because he has a state-title ring and a history as a counselor who keeps kids on track. Unemployment on Navajo Nation is 45%, fewer than half of Chinle High School graduates go to college, and nearly every player on the team has a story about a broken home to share. “Do you know what I’m proudest of in this life?” Mendoza tells Powell. “Not a single one of those teenagers I counseled committed suicide. They lived, every single one of them.”
But Powell also widens his range to encompass the history and culture of the region. In Albuquerque, he catches up with a former Chinle player who’s trying to make a life for himself after an injury, uncertain about life off the rez. Watching an English class at the high school, he notes how the Anglo teacher has to be attuned to cultural differences. (Likening a character to a snake? “A snake was a powerful creature in touch with the spirit world and to talk of one was to risk that your hands and heart could swell dangerously.”) Resident activists have made yearslong, contentious efforts to foil exploitative developers, as “the desire for jobs in a land with crushing unemployment collided with the urgency of preserving a sacred heritage.”
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
What mainly defines the culture in Chinle, in Powell’s eyes, is a resilience that he’s careful not to sentimentalize. For the most part, the kids here are just kids: They chase girls, party, half-listen to Mendoza’s pleas to buckle down on defense. They are concerned about their futures but also blithely adaptive. One student with Ivy League ambitions, lacking a laptop and reliable electricity, writes English papers on his phone.
The games, for Powell and Chinle alike, are at once an escape hatch and a glue for the community. And the mood lifts whenever Powell covers a game day. Chinle High’s boys tend to be shorter than their competitors, especially when they leave Navajo Nation and play against mostly white teams around Phoenix. But life at a high-desert elevation has given them the endurance to compete, and once Mendoza’s hectoring sinks in, the book becomes a gripping, propulsive story about a playoff run.
The basketball and cultural stories aren’t parallel but braided, the problems woven around possibility. As a teacher tells Powell, “You never have to worry here about waking up in the morning and asking yourself, ‘What am I doing here? What is my purpose?’”