Window Rock boys carry state-title dreams of Navajo Reservation community

Window Rock boys carry state-title dreams of Navajo Reservation community


Window Rock boys carry state-title dreams of Navajo Reservation community


CHINLE — Just outside the entry tunnel of the Chinle High School gym, little Navajo boys and girls line up and stick out their hands, hoping for high-fives from their idols from Window Rock High School.

Then the Window Rock Scouts burst onto the floor for the start of the boys basketball sectional championship game against Snowflake, one step away from the state tournament.

Less than two hours later, surreal waves of fans, shooting photos and clamoring for autographs, mob the floor and swarm Window Rock senior guard Kyler Ashley — the smallest player at 5 feet, 7 inches — who scored 21 points in a 32-point rout.

After 20 minutes, Ashley is the only player still on the floor, and Coach Brad Thorsted tries to get him off the court. But Ashley’s grandfather and father played at Window Rock, and he used to be one of the kids seeking autographs from reservation stars. He’s not about to turn a kid away.

“You get kind of used to it after a while,” said Ashley, the best player on the reservation this season, who plays with the memory of his deceased grandfather, Homer Sr., in his heart. “My team gets to the locker room. Hopefully, they’ll wait for me.

“It’s good to have fans like this. I’m proud of it. I try not to let them down.”

Hours earlier, at 11 a.m., Saturday, a line of fans formed outside the ticket window at the 6,000-seat Wildcat Den, with snow falling, even though the first game of the day, the girls sectional final between Winslow and Tuba City, wouldn’t begin for another 5 1/2 hours.

Many of those fans had driven hours across the Navajo Reservation, the largest Indian reservation in the United States at more than 24,000 square miles, to stake their spot.

This remote, isolated land is filled with mesas, miles of nothing, sheep, stray dogs, gutted-out homes, trucks and basketball hoops. Lots of hoops, and little kids who grow up with dreams of being state champions, of being like Kyler Ashley.

Boys as young as 5 form teams and play together until their high schools days are done.

It doesn’t matter how far away the game is, how bad the weather is, or how treacherous the roads are. High school basketball games are their heaven.

“Out here basketball is not a sport, it’s a religion,” senior forward Ian Bahe said. And “Kyler is the messiah.”

The biggest crowd to ever attend a boys high school basketball game in Arizona was in 2000, when 16,010 fans jammed a sold-out America West Arena (now US Airways Center) in Phoenix to watch Tuba City (Navajo) play another reservation team, Whiteriver Alchesay (Apache).

When Thorsted, who is White, moved four years ago from Utah to the reservation with his wife, who is Navajo, he was warned of the hoops mania.

He met his wife in Utah, where she played high school basketball.

“Her dad showed up like two hours before the game so he could get a good seat, and it was an empty gym,” Thorsted said. “It’s exciting, it’s great, it’s fun.

“One thing we remind the kids, the Navajos who are going on to college, this isn’t how it’s going to be everywhere you play basketball, so enjoy it while it lasts. The boys embrace that.”

Window Rock is one of the best stories of the four high school boys basketball divisional state tournaments, which began this week. Thorsted, an assistant at Window Rock the past three seasons, took over the program seven games into this season after Tom Shields, hired from New Mexico in the summer to be the head coach and the athletic director, was removed from both posts in what was called an administrative decision.

It was early December, and the team had just lost a heartbreaker to rival Chinle in the championship of their Coca-Cola Classic holiday tournament, a day after beating a very good Phoenix Shadow Mountain team, which plays in Division II, on a last-second 3-pointer by Ashley.

The Scouts (27-2) have not lost since, adapting from fast tempo to slow down with poetic grace. Thorsted has led them to 23 consecutive victories, including Saturday’s, which made them the No. 1 seed going into the Division III state tournament. Window Rock plays Show Low in a second-round game Friday at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

Thorsted did that by preaching teamwork and one play at a time.

“He gave us the raw materials, and we worked with it,” said Bahe, who has a 3.67 grade-point average and has applied for entrance into Stanford. “He cares for us more than just players but as people. He inspired us to work hard for him.

“We don’t ever question what he’s doing. We trust him. I trust him.”

Two years ago, Holbrook, which is not on the reservation but does have some Navajo players, captured state.

This year, Window Rock has the best chance to become the first reservation school to win a boys basketball state championship since Tuba City in 2001.

This year’s Window Rock team will also be the last to play its home games in the 1,800-seat Field House nicknamed “Thunderdome” by former coach Bo Whitelock.

Window Rock passed a bond in 2008 to begin plans for a facility that will trump Chinle’s jewel next season. It will open in August, with about, 1,000 more seats than the Wildcat Den, which opened in 2007.

Richard Showalter, a Window Rock school board member, said it isn’t to one-up rival Chinle.

“I think our community deserves it,” Showalter said. “It’s a long-time coming. Eighteen-hundred seats just doesn’t cut the mustard for people who have to stand in line from 7 in the morning to when they open the doors at 4 o’clock. We see our elderly standing in the wind, rain and snow. It’s time for a new one.”

After hundreds of pictures Saturday night, Thorsted finally got Ashley to the locker room and began to address the team.

“We don’t want to be champions of the rez,” Thorsted told them. “We want to be state champions. Every high school player in the state wants that. You guys have an opportunity. You don’t want to look ahead. It is our ultimate goal. We’re not going to lie about that. One game at a time, one day at a time, one play at a time, one thing at a time. That is the only way you can have success not only on the basketball court, but in life.”

Thorsted thanks each player for buying into what the coaches are doing, for staying together. He emphasizes the books.

Then, he huddles them one more time.

“This is just one stop on the way,” he says. “You must stay focused. Do not doubt.”

On three, the Scouts yell out, “Team!” and go out into the cold night air, never losing sight of the dream.


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