NEW YORK (CNS) — Former Professional Golfers’ Association player Notah Begay III, a Navajo, and part-Navajo Rickie Fowler, a current PGA golfer, are among the executive producers of the Native American-themed docuseries “Basketball or Nothing.”
Spiritual, poetic and heartwarming, the three-hour film is currently streaming in half-hour segments on Netflix. It’s directed by Matt Howley, Gabriel Spitale and Michael Lucas.
The documentary focuses on Chinle High School in the heart of the Navajo nation — a region which covers 27,000 square miles across three states: Arizona, Utah and New Mexico — and its varsity basketball team’s quest, during the 2017-18 season, to win its first Arizona state championship in the 3A class. The program opens on one of their most their devoted fans, Mo Draper
A heavyset Native American man, with a gnomelike beard, and wearing a pink knit cap, he says, “There’s really nothing going on in Chinle” — a town of 4,500 people. In this small reservation community, he continues, “basketball is like an addiction that brings a little bit of happiness to some people.”
School athletic director Shaun Martin, also a Navajo, says the basketball team members are “modern-day warriors,” because, he says, “in our culture, a warrior is someone who represents their people.”
Another interviewee, assistant coach Beau Natay, who played on the 2009 Chinle team that went all the way to the finals only to fall short, adds, “A state title is a chance to get noticed outside the Rez” — slang for the reservation.
To achieve this ambitious goal, Martin hired then-69-year-old Raul Mendoza to coach the team. His 40 years of experience included taking teams to eight final-four rounds of state tournaments. Basketball hall of famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, moreover, was once Mendoza’s assistant.
Learning how to curtail the students’ propensity for a so-called “Rez-ball” style of play proved to be Mendoza’s greatest challenge. The veteran coach preached structure and patience and defense to proteges who preferred to run and gun.
Though his manner is less fanatical, Mendoza’s insistence that the game be played a certain way may remind some viewers of Norman Dale, Gene Hackman’s character in the much-loved 1986 film “Hoosiers,” and the demanding methods he used to spur Hickory High to a state title in 1950s Indiana.
But rural Indiana in the mid-20th century is a far cry from contemporary life on an isolated American Indian reservation — two hours from the nearest Walmart — where nearly 50 percent of people live below the federal poverty line.
Mendoza, furthermore, while often exasperated, was more grandfatherly than autocrat. While he relied on younger coaches to bridge the generation gap, Mendoza’s own experience also helped him relate to his players.
In one of the documentary’s more poignant moments, the coach recalls his troubled relationship with his largely absent father — who left the family when Mendoza was a boy. “I met him when I was 13,” he recalls. “He said, ‘Hi.’ I said, ‘Hi.’ That was it. I was the man of the family.”
Discussions of drug use, alcoholism, divorce, domestic violence and absent fathers makes “Basketball or Nothing” unsuitable for young children. But adolescents and their elders will easily take these mature topics in stride.
The directors obviously understand that a constant back-and-forth exchange is basketball’s fundamental appeal, and viewers will readily get emotionally caught up in Chinle’s games. But the documentarians are also adept at seamlessly interweaving these on-the-court moments with revealing, candid portraits of the real-life drama’s central figures.
Following the fortunes of undersized senior point guard Josiah Tsosie as he pursues his goal of obtaining a college degree in electrical engineering — an achievement he hopes to use for the benefit of his fellow Native Americans — will especially gratify viewers. Demoted from his starting position and contending with injury, he endures hardship not only on the court but at home as well.
Happy memories of his father, Josiah says, were altered by his dad’s alcohol-fueled mistreatment of his mom. Despite such adversity, “Josiah gets up every day,” Martin says, “and tackles it with optimism.”
“Basketball or Nothing” is a refreshingly life-affirming documentary viewers won’t want to overlook amid a glut of choices.
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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.