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Film Review

Media Review: Basketball or Nothing

 

Last updated 4/8/2020 at 2:37pm

Netflix

There's not much to do in Chinle, Arizona besides play basketball or do drugs. Everyone in town knows where to find the purveyors of both activities; in an early scene in Basketball or Nothing, Chinle High School Athletic Director Shaun Martin shows us the overpass under which the meth heads like to hang out, and the stakes are crystal clear. The Chinle boys' basketball team doesn't just provide an outlet for this small group of high schoolers, it's an alternative to despair for the whole town-something to root for, to hope for, to support and encourage. Superfan Mo Draper, for example, hasn't missed a game since the 1970s, even though sometimes he has to hitchhike to get there.

"Winning the state title around here . . . it's gonna be the greatest thing that ever happened to Chinle." says fan Vinny Yazzie. More people show up for these high school basketball games than do so for teams from towns twice the size of Chinle. That's Wildcat pride, and you get the feeling it's a fierce, desperate sort of pride.

It may seem like a lot of pressure to put on a group of teenage boys, but this group of kids never seems to mind. Over the course of Netflix's six-episode series, we meet and get to know them. There's Chance, the team defensive specialist, always asked to guard the other team's best player. His sad, soulful eyes reflect the fact that he lost his dad when he was five and remembers him every time he takes the court. There's junior Angelo, nicknamed "Lo Lo," who's a big kid and a great passer from the post. Sophomore Cooper is the team's most skilled scorer, with a quick step to the hoop and a solid eye from the three-point line. And 5 foot 4 Josiah, who is the starting point guard at the beginning of the season but finds himself on the bench after a couple of early losses. He's a joker, the class clown, and dreams of attending Arizona State after high school. For all of these boys, basketball is more than just a game, it's a way-maybe the only way-for them to pursue education after high school.

Leading the team is head coach Raul Mendoza, who's been coaching for nearly 40 years, has coached alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and has been featured in the New York Times. It's his job to convert the boy's love for Rez Ball-all fast breaks and hard fouls-into a disciplined, systematic style that can win games at the state level. When we watch the show, we spend a lot of time with Mendoza, who's clearly both passionate and talented as a coach.

The team gets off to a rough start, losing two of their first three games in heartbreaking fashion before pulling it together and finishing the season 12-4. It took that early adversity for them to really listen to their coach, trust each other on the court, and figure out how to play as a team. They win the regional championship-meaning they're the best on the rez-then head to Phoenix to play in the state championship.

Off the court, we get to meet the families of the players and learn a bit of their stories. There are outdoor chores that need to be done, including tracking down cattle from the back of a horse, as well as dealing with little brothers and sisters who look up to them.

They're all good kids, respectful of their elders, devoted to their families and pretty withdrawn and formal. Any outsider who's spent much time on the reservation will recognize this natural reserve many Navajos have around people they don't know, and it's the chief weakness of this documentary series-off the basketball court, the boys never seem relaxed. We rarely see them interact with each other in any way that reveals much personality or character. It's hard to feel like we really get to know them. Probably only their families and close friends really get to see what they're really like.

Netflix

But on the court, their personalities are more fully on display. Sometimes sports documentaries seem to focus on everything but the actual sport, but that's not the case here. Over six half-hour episodes, I felt like I was able to recognize the individual styles of several of the players and recognize when and how the team was playing well, even without the voiceovers and shots of the scoreboard.

As the team heads to the state playoffs, you'll find yourself rooting for them alongside the citizens of Chinle, and maybe even armchair coaching their last few games. I enjoyed this look at a Native community with its focus on the basketball team, and I think many of the readers of this paper will enjoy it as well. And who knows, you might even see someone you know.

Will Krishchke and his wife work with InterVarsity in Durango, Colorado, where his wife directs Native Ministries for InterVarsity.

 
 

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