In the midst of Navajo Nation sits the Chinle Community Center: a 2,000-seat monument to the most popular participant sport among the nation's most populous Indian tribe. The canter, which is in stark contrast to the surrounding open range and deserted, dust drapedtown, frequently plays host to a fleet of pickyp trucks as crowds gather for basketball - but a form of basektball not seen elsewhere.
Members of several generations participate in tournaments that draw teams from as far as 200 miles away, and efforts of local heroes do not go unrecognized. Fans admire the agility of a middle-aged, thoroughly over weight Navajo player who manages to leave his defender rooted as he guides body and ball to the hoop, and the relentless effort displayed by a Navajo team seemingly mismatched against towering Anglo (nonIndian) adversaries.
The spirit of each encounter is throughly enjoyed by the local basketball crowd, one unique to Naismith's game. Basketbll at Navajo Nation is more than a game. But it is not of such importance as to permanently increase anybody's anxiety level. Navajo spectators have the ability to become immersed in a contest, but loses are accepted quietly. The lack of antipathy on the loser's side is puzzling to a visitor bred on Celitcs-Knicks games or crosstown rivalries that provide more fireworks after the game than during it.
The crowds reaction to defeat is downright disconcerting to a graduate of little League high school or playground competition, where calm acceptance of defeat is a rare sight. Navajo players and their rooters offer a reasonable balance between winning and losing. Losing may not be the aim, but it does not foster the anxiety and hostility seen elsewhere.
Recent events at the Chile Community Centre emphasized this attitude. An all-Anglo team suffered defeat at the hands of a Navajo team, which had been subjected to racial epithets and war whoops throughout the game. Afterward the defeated visitors reactions ranged from near tears to aggravated racial hostility.
A later reversal of that decision only increased the animosity of the team from south of the reservation. On the other hand the Navajo players snowed restraint in their ability to deal with both the defeat and the attack on their humanity.
Sportsmanship was most evident at the centre's premier basketball event. Within Navajo Nation, there is a rivalry that matches that of Notre Dame-UCIA game. The matchup: Window Rock versues Chinle. The game draws a turquoise draped crowd froma 75mile radius Families, including new-born babies and great grand-fathers travel in the back of pickups from hogans 50 miles from the nearest trading post to pack into the community for the game of the year.
The main and only paved, road in town is lined with pickups. Inside, the stands are a row of cowboy hats and Tony Thomas. People line up three deep behind each basket, which forces beleaguared officials to occasionally halt the game.
The game itself this year was played in contrasting halves. The first period which was all Chinle brought [WORD ILLEGIBLE] one side of the floor, while the second half unleashed the frenzy the Window Rock fans who had trayeled two hours from the capital of Navajo Nation.
Window Rock's most prominent sheerleader affectionately known as "Mother Hubbard" wore the long flowing skirt favored by traditional Navajo women. She is 80 years old. At games end, she could be seen striding through the muddy parking lot holding up one finger and declaring that a medicine man had guaranteed the out come.
Meanwhile, the victorious Window Rock team exited through a side door to avoid the jostling crowd. The postgame scene turned out to be hilarious as the focus of attention was drivers attempting to maneuver their wallowing pickups through the muck.
This spectator, frustrated by the defeat was left standing amid a crowd of Chinle backers who seemed unaffected by the outcome. The lesson wasclear. My frustration and anxiet drained away. Defeat may never be the same again.