'Rezballers' hold nothing back on the court

Kids living on Native American reservations have taken pride in their home-grown game. Carmen Renee Thompson

This story appeared in the Winter 2009 edition of ESPN RISE HARDWOOD.

It's one of the best times of the year right now on many Native American reservations around the country. Why? Because it's officially basketball season. And while watching college and pro hoops is hugely popular, getting out and playing their own style called "rezball" is a source of pride for tons of kids who live on reservations.

The nickname is short for reservation ball, and the game is best known for its quick pace and relentless aggressiveness. While high school teams on many reservations often play a blended style of traditional basketball and rezball during the season as they vie to make and win state tournaments, these squads often feature some of the best local rezballers.

But no matter the season, rezball games are taking place at indoor gyms, on outdoor courts or wherever someone has put up a hoop.

"There's not much to do on the rez other than play basketball," says Brice Hornbeck, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe in South Dakota who was an All-Star for Little Wound High School on the Pine Ridge reservation and now plays
basketball at North Dakota's University of Mary.

Josie Balentine, who played for the Seminole tribe's club team on Florida's Big Cypress reservation, agrees. "It's the only fun thing to do around here," he says.

The game has a rep for being super-fun to watch, too. The rules are the same as in traditional basketball, but the tempo is fast-forward at all times: Players have mind-boggling stamina and the game is a contest of transitions, presses, traps, daring steals and crafty ball-handling. On the best rezball teams, every player is capable of being a shooting threat, making acrobatic drives to the basket and taking tough charges to steal the opposing team's momentum.

It's no wonder crowds pack gyms to sit on the edge of their seats and watch the best squads square off. "People come out in droves -- the old, the young. When there's a little rivalry, everybody just loves it," says Dave Archambault, former head coach of the Lakota Regulators club team in South Dakota.

Every year, boys' and girls' rezball club teams play in tournaments around the country, including the Native American Basketball Invitational in Phoenix, Ariz., which strives to attract college scouts to recruit the best rezball talents. "The tournament showcases these players who may not have many opportunities to be seen," says co-founder GinaMarie Scarpa.

That's because reservations are generally remotely located, sometimes more than two hours away from major cities. Despite the distance, many Native Americans have remained in order to be close to their tribal communities and roots. Some reservations are places of high unemployment, low graduation rates and few resources, while others have more favorable conditions and opportunities.

The big things they all have in common, however, are rich tribal cultures, histories and traditions. And rezball, which has become another way to help keep tribal spirit and identity alive.

"People play all the way up into the age 40-and-up masters leagues just to be able to compete," says LJ Andreas, a former player with the Rez Runners of the White Mountain Apache reservation in Arizona. "To run up and down that court competing -- that's what everyone likes to do."