When the No. 12 Kayenta Monument Valley girls basketball team upset No. 1 Ganado last week, it was an emotional post-game meeting for the two head coaches.
“You saw me and Ganado’s coach [Mike Bitsuie] hugged a couple of times – I’ve been playing against him since middle school,” Monument Valley head coach Jason Franklin said. “We played against each other in the state championship in high school, and now we’re coaching against each other.”
The relationship between the two coaches, both back playing at their respective alma maters, encapsulates the tight-knit community that comes with reservation ball.
And “rez ball” was on full display at the 3A state semifinals at Gila River Arena in Glendale on Friday and will be again on Monday for the 3A boys and 3A girls finals.
All four of the girls teams competing represented the Navajo Nation. The games between No. 3 Page and No. 2 Fort Defiance Window Rock, and between Ganado and Monument Valley reeled in thousands of fans from the nation’s largest reservation.
Those games served as bookends for the boys semifinal game match-up of No. 2 Winslow and No. 6 Chinle.
4 ½ hours to Glendale
The six schools traveled an average of 285 miles from northern Arizona to get to Gila River Arena, and all sorts of passionate fans came in their wake.
“I have two teachers here. They called in sick just to come out and watch me play. They’re the loudest ones at the end of the game – I can see them from here,” said Lelisa Watson, who scored 19 points for Page in their win over Window Rock.
“I heard a bunch of classes are empty today, so it’s great to see everybody here.”
AIA officials estimated there were around 7,000 fans on hand for the four semifinal games. The crowds were likely tempered by heavy snow in the north of Arizona on Friday morning. Those who did make it past the road closures cheered loudly and constantly. Even long after their own teams were eliminated, fans would latch on to other schools from the reservation.
“The reservation is one giant family, so even if there’s one reservation team in the final four, we’re all coming. We’re all going to watch,” Franklin said. “Snow or no snow.”
Fans chanted together all night, waving pom-poms and singing along. The Monument Valley team even had a small parade when they left on Thursday.
And teams fed off the energy throughout the night.
“It’s so much fun, and I don’t care where they come from – Chinle, Window Rock – they’re the best fans in Arizona. Maybe the whole Southwest,” said Winslow head coach Scott Corum.
“These are knowledgable fans, they love basketball, and they put their love into their kids, and it makes it fun. It makes it fun to be a part of.”
Fans were excited to see their teams have the chance to move on to the state title, but the massive following that reservation ball brings is more layered than just that.