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Far from the reservation, sisters bring inspiration to Louisville

Jere LongmanThe New York Times

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Louisville had just advanced to the women's Final Four, and the sisters Shoni and Jude Schimmel had helped cut the nets in celebration, a rare achievement for American Indian athletes. But it was not the biggest family news of the day.

As the sisters left the court Tuesday night, their father beamed and their mother waved and flashed her wedding ring. After 25 years of companionship and eight children, Ceci Moses and Rick Schimmel had been officially married, inspired in part by Louisville's epic run through the NCAA tournament, a mother's deferred dream realized and an accomplishment by her daughters that was as much a cultural triumph as an athletic success.

Although basketball has long been the most popular sport on Indian reservations, seldom has that esteem translated into great performance in the highest college and professional ranks. An NCAA study indicated that during the 2011-12 academic year, only 21 women and four men identified as American Indian/Alaska Native participated among the 10,151 basketball players at the Division I level.

The Schimmel sisters, who belong to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla in eastern Oregon, are not only participating, but also have become indispensable members of Louisville's team. Shoni Schimmel, a 5-foot-10 junior guard, leads the Cardinals in scoring at 14.4 points a game and has seemingly unlimited range on her arcing 3-point shot. Jude Schimmel, a 5-foot-5 sophomore, is the team's steady sixth man.

While Jude is quietly reliable, Shoni is a florid passer with a brash on-court personality. She twice scored more than 20 points and was named most outstanding player of the Oklahoma City regional as Louisville upset Baylor, the defending national champion, and Tennessee, which has won eight NCAA titles.

On Sunday, Louisville (28-8) will face California at the Final Four in New Orleans. Through Shoni's influence, in particular, the Cardinals have adopted a more structured version of what many call Rez Ball, an up-tempo style that is joyful, feverish and fearless.

"It's a very rare position they're in to excel at this level," said Ryneldi Becenti, a star at Arizona State in the 1990s who is the only female basketball player inducted into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame. "I don't think I've heard of any Native American women getting to the Final Four, especially being the biggest part of the team."

For Tuesday's victory over Tennessee here in the regional final, Indians from numerous tribes came in support, holding up signs that said "Rez Girls Rock" and "Native Pride" and "Never Give Up." Many said they viewed the Schimmels as an inspirational counterpoint to the despair of poverty, alcoholism, teenage pregnancy, drug addiction and educational indifference often found on reservations.

Depending on the region of the country, 30 percent to more than 50 percent of Indians do not graduate from high school, according to various studies. And many who do leave for college often feel pressure to return in a culture that finds comfort at home, and fear and suspicion in the outside world.

"This shows you can go to college and you don't have to drink and have babies," said Glory Thompson, 48, a Cherokee from Holdenville, Okla. "Every step you want to take to get somewhere, it's out there. Just because you're Indian doesn't mean you can't go."

Basketball serves a passionate communal purpose and provides an objective measure of success against the bleak statistics of failure on reservations, said Don Wetzel Jr., who operates the Montana Indian Athletic Hall of Fame, founded by his father. Stories abound of cars ringing makeshift courts at night, lights on, boundaries marked with flour, players honing their ball-handling skills by wearing gloves or dribbling over rocks.

"A lot of things are holding the tribes down in a lot of ways," Wetzel said, "but you cross those lines on the court, and it's an equal playing field. What these Schimmel sisters are doing is really impacting Indian country. It's all over Facebook, TV. Everybody is cheering for them."

For as long as she can remember, Shoni Schimmel said, she was obsessed with basketball. By age 2, she was allowed to dribble freely around the house. At 4, she played in her first tournament. By 10 or 12, she said, she sometimes shot outside until 3 in the morning. Her parents knew she was safe "because they could hear me dribbling."

"Rez Ball," Shoni said. "It's run and gun, shoot whenever you're open, trust in your heart."

As Shoni entered her junior year of high school and Jude her sophomore year in 2008-09, however, the family left the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Mission, Ore., for Portland. Moses, now 40, began coaching her daughters at Franklin High School. Rick Schimmel, now 44, who is white and played baseball briefly at Stanford, became the assistant coach.

Some relatives resisted, but the move was necessary, Moses said. Her own basketball and track career had been disrupted in high school, she said, when she gave birth to her eldest son at 15. Later, she had to settle for basketball at community college, Moses said, because her coach seemed reluctant to promote Indians to university recruiters.

For her daughters, Moses planned a different outcome. To help them gain exposure, they would play at a city school and showcase their talents against top-flight competition.

"I was afraid," Moses said. "I love the reservation. But I wanted my babies to have a fair opportunity. Plus, I wanted to show people what I could do. Even though I didn't want to leave the reservation, I told myself: 'If I don't do it, my kids are going to follow suit. They're going to see, well, Mom never left, why should I?' I wanted to show the kids that if you really want your dream, sometimes you have to go out of your comfort zone and go get it."

Urged by her mother not to limit her college possibilities to the West Coast, Shoni chose Louisville in 2010. The Cardinals had reached the national championship game in 2009. They average 9,500 fans a game and have a coach, Jeff Walz, who cultivates a flamboyant, frantic style that suits her. He also provides what she considers a family-style atmosphere. During inevitable periods of homesickness as a freshman, Shoni even baby-sat for Walz's two children.

"That made her feel comfortable and needed," said Jonathan Hock, who directed a documentary about the Schimmel family called "Off the Rez."

To have her sister Jude now joining her "is amazing," Shoni said, adding, "I'm so glad I can share it with her."

Still, Shoni can be a challenge to coach. She leads the team in assists (127) and turnovers (123). In a tense 82-81 victory over Baylor last Sunday, Schimmel made a sublime and maddening play at the same time, dribbling behind her back, flicking a blind shot over the 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner, then screaming at Griner and risking a second technical foul.

"I tell her all the time, she's talented enough to play for anybody," Walz said of Shoni. "But not anybody can coach her because she's going to do some things that make you scratch your head."

Kim Mulkey, the Baylor coach, complained that the referees had lost control and let the game become too personal among the players. Shoni shrugged and said her barking was just an exhale of emotion.

She apparently is not the only family member who acts on the spur of the moment.

On a 26-hour drive to Oklahoma City from Portland, Rick Schimmel joked with his wife that Louisville would beat Baylor because the game was on "Easter Sunday, a day of miracles." OK, Moses said, "If they win, I'll marry you."

On Tuesday, the couple married in a chapel near the county courthouse, records indicate. Their daughters could not attend because of a shoot-around practice.

After Louisville defeated Tennessee and their parents debated whether to drive to New Orleans and the Final Four, Shoni and Jude greeted about 30 Indian fans who had waited for the team bus.

"It's a blessing to show other people you can make it; coming off a reservation, you can do whatever you want," Shoni said. "You've got to set your mind to it and believe in yourself. It's indescribable how I feel that they're following me and supporting me."

 

 


By JERE LONGMAN
The New York Times