With rich hoops roots, Native American twins Kyarrah and Kyannah Grant bud into stars
Kyarrah and Kyannah Grant run about 30 miles each week. Twice a week, the fraternal twins sprint alongside the glimmering, blue-black ripples of Lake Pushmataha about 35 miles north of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians reservation -- the place they call home.
Most people are fishing or boating or admiring the cedar, pine and cypress trees that guard the lake. But the Grant sisters do not have time to stop or stare along the trail. When Kyarrah tries to zip ahead, Kyannah pushes farther. When Kyannah pulls away, Kyarrah zooms faster.
"It would take a lot for me and Kyannah to get tired," Kyarrah says.
The pair, half Dine of the Navajo Nation and Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indian, wreak havoc on the basketball court. They led Choctaw Central High School to the Mississippi Class 3A state championship last year, defeating Amanda Elzy 75-42 to finish with a 31-3 mark.
Trapping and disrupting nearly every defensive possession, the twins knew where the other one was to double, to steal and, of course, to score.
Opponents can't tell the rising seniors, both 5-foot-6 and 130 pounds, apart. Look closely, and you'll see that Kyarrah has a scar on her left eyebrow. One day when she was 3, she dozed off on a water slide at a park, and as her head tilted to the left, she clipped a nail on the way down.
Today the sisters lead the break for a team that is the pride of the reservation. Fans usually arrive at 4:30 to save seats for 6 p.m. games, and about 5,000 traveled to the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson for the state final. What the twins lack in size and strength they more than make up for with spunk.
"If they were 6-foot, they'd have everybody in the country looking at them," says Bill Smith, Choctaw Central's coach.
They're determined to play college basketball, considering Divisions I, II and III.
"You don't see a lot of Natives in basketball programs, so being one of the few that will be in a basketball program -- at a high level at that -- I feel a lot of pride," Kyarrah says. "Just knowing that we can be one of those examples where other kids can look up to us and know they can do it, too. They don't have to stay on the reservation."
Queen of the court
Off to the side of the Grant home is a 20-by-30 concrete slab with a hoop. The sisters' previous court in Arizona (they moved at age 10) was all dirt with a goalpost stuck in the ground. But the sisters never cared what the court looked like; they just wanted to get swept up in its magic, dribbling until their hands grew heavy. They'd sit when their parents played in tournaments; sneaker squeaks were the soundtrack to their childhood.
That's when the one-on-one games started -- battles to become queen of the court. Kyannah is the better ball-handler and Kyarrah the better shooter (they both averaged 11 points a game in 2016-17), but games are evenly matched.
"The trash talk is almost nonstop," dad Shaun says. "For the most part, it's friendly, but there have been times they've almost come to blows."
Once, they were going at it for nearly an hour, yelling, boxing out and throwing elbows, with neither willing to back down. Their mom, Gwynn, pulled them apart and took them inside. "Later we came back outside to play again," Kyannah says.
Fortunately for Choctaw Central, the twins don't have to go against each other. They don't even have to say a word, sensing when the other will cut and where the other needs the ball. "Our teammates tease that we have telepathic abilities," Kyannah says.
They've even fooled their teachers. One morning in eighth grade, Kyannah wasn't ready for a geometry test, so she and Kyarrah dressed identically: black sweatpants, maroon jacket, black sneakers, black hair tie, slicked-back ponytail. Kyarrah took the test for her sister and scored 100 percent.
But when Gwynn found out? Both girls got a spanking and were forced to apologize to their teacher.
"It hasn't happened again," Gwynn says. The girls each boast a 4.3 GPA now.
A basketball family
Kyarrah and Kyannah were destined to pick up a ball, almost as if the peach dots awaited their grips.
Gwynn's parents, Raymond and Loretta Hobbs, played at College of Ganado, as did Gwynn's aunts: Louise Gilmore, Rose Salabiye and Anna James. Gwynn's sister, Pam Hobbs, played at Pima Community College, while her cousins Melissa Jones (Northwestern Oklahoma State University) and Jeremiah Rector (Haskell Indian University) also hooped.
Gwynn wanted to be like her uncle, Raymond Salabiye, the one with the smooth handles, the bull's-eye stroke, who played at Yavapai Community College. They lived together on the Navajo Nation reservation in Toyei, Arizona. Every morning she grinded through pushups and situps with him, and every night she dribbled and shot with him. Even when he wanted to be alone, Gwynn crept behind the house and watched his swishes disappear into dark sky.
"I wanted to be one of the best to come off the reservation," Gwynn says.
She earned a scholarship to UNLV (1992-95) and dazzled with a jump shot so pure the rim rarely denied her. She still owns program records for single-season 3s (71) and career 3-point percentage (40.6). She ranks 10th in career points (1,504). In May, she was inducted into the school's Athletics Hall of Fame.
She was a pioneer, as few Native Americans played Division I at the time (Ryneldi Becenti, also from Navajo Nation, played at Arizona State and in the WNBA).
"I think it was more of a surprise that there were Native Americans playing Division I basketball," Gwynn says. "When you tell people the truth of who I am and where I come from, they ask a lot of questions, like, Do we still live in teepees or not? No, we live in regular houses like everybody else. Most of us have electricity and water.
"But it comes as a surprise that there are Native Americans coming off the reservation to play basketball. Numerous have played at the juco level, too. They get overlooked."
Gwynn instilled hustle in her daughters through a drill called Monsters. "Because it'll probably kill us," Kyarrah says. It used to. The two would sprint baseline to baseline four times, then do five jump tucks, five side jumps, five pushups and five situps, all in 45 seconds. They fell short as kids.
"Now, she's pushing the time lower and lower," Kyarrah said.
Shaun, who played at East Central Community College in Decatur, Mississippi, from 1995-96 would attach a parachute to the girls to run with back when they were so skinny that the wind threatened to blow them away. Now, they charge up the field with the parachute, as if demanding the wind clear out.
Kyarrah and Kyannah hope to play for the same college. Gwynn often shares stories with them about college ball: going all-out on defense, having killer instinct. She also tells them about encountering people who didn't know Native Americans still exist and that reservations still exist.
"I was shocked. Like, what? That's crazy," Kyannah said. "It kind of motivates me to show that, 'Yeah. We're still here, and we can do anything everybody else can do, and we can do it better if we need to.'"