There’s a quotation in our guest Michael Powell’s new book Canyon Dreams: A Basketball Season on the Navajo Nation that jumps right off the page. It’s from Raul Mendoza, the then-70-year-old career high school counselor and basketball coach at Chinle High School in the heart of the Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona.
“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.”
Which should tell you, Canyon Dreams, like Raul Mendoza, is about much more than basketball. Michael Powell, like Raul Mendoza, is invested in the kids – the long-distance runner at point guard whose athleticism guarantees him a chance at a four-year college education beyond the Rez; the natural, a pure shooter who forced his way past senior starters even as a freshman; and the moody, inconsistent big man who was always much smaller than the opponents he was guarding.
And both men, the writer and the coach, are outsiders invested in the Navajo nation and the Chinle community, where suicide-prevention is a valued and necessary skill, and where basketball – boys and girls – often offers the most exalted, maybe most defining moments of a young athlete’s life.
Unless they fail. Or at least that’s what it feels like, to the players and to their coaches. Win or lose, branded forever.
Perhaps that’s because they perform in one of the most intense, emotional spotlights in sports, before an audience as critically attuned to hoops as French-Canadian hockey fans in Montreal or the Italian opera crowd in Milan.
How did this happen? How did Native Americans scattered, thinly and widely, across miles of desert, mesas and canyons, become connoisseurs of the so-called “city game?”
And can the deeply-felt presence of this game make up for the absences from the Navajo reservation of other forms of entertainment or job opportunities, or all too often, parents?
Filling just a few of those voids is what has made Raul Mendoza’s long career as a counselor and a basketball coach so demanding and so fulfilling.
Michael Powell has been a writer at the New York Times since 2007, and a “Sports of The Times” columnist since 2014. Before joining the Times, he worked for the Washington Post from 1996 to 2006, where he covered the 2000 presidential campaign and later served as New York bureau chief. He has been part of teams that won the Pulitzer Prize and the Polk Award. Powell began his career in 1984 at the Burlington Free Press, going on to positions with the Bergen Record, New York Newsday, and the New York Observer. He studied American and African history at SUNY Purchase College, worked as a tenant organizer in East Flatbush, and received his master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1984. Powell and his wife have two sons. They live in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn.