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Hoops Pioneer Cliff Johns Talks About Schimmels, Valvano and Life

A story about Navajo Cliff Johns, the first Native American to play basketball for Lute Olsen at the University of Arizona.

After growing up in Pinon, Arizona, Cliff Johns, Navajo, says he understands what it is like to overcome challenges and break through barriers often faced by young Native people on and off reservations. 

After graduating from Winslow High School in 1988, Johns sought an architecture degree at the University of Arizona while also doing what he loved: playing basketball. Excelling in intramural basketball for a few years on campus, he was noticed by a Wildcats assistant coach, asked to try out for the varsity team, a major NCAA powerhouse, and earned a spot on the squad as a walk-on, playing for legendary head coach Lute Olsen. Playing the 1992-93 season, Johns became the first Native American player to play for Olsen at Arizona. Today, Johns, an architecture and planning professional, is the Project Manager of Development at Fort Defiance Medical Center on the Navajo Nation in Fort Defiance, Arizona.

Following the Schimmel sister’s amazing performance with the Louisville Cardinals during the recent NCAA women's basketball tournament, Johns talked with ICTMN about the state of Native hoops and his own career as a player and a successful high school coach as part of our Conversations With Champions series. 

Native basketball players often face difficulty in reaching success, can you talk about this?

There is a barrier and a threshold that we as Indian tribes and young kids try to get through. To get beyond that and to get into real society and in the competition level, it is very competitive. I was the head coach at Shiprock High School in the Four Corners area near Farmington, New Mexico. I've gotten my taste and feel of border town rivalries and what it takes for Native kids to really overcome that barrier. 

I saw the Schimmel sisters overcome this and I am very inspired by their accomplishments, their dedication and their foundation. Overall, the Schimmel's have had a good ride. Even though they lost [in the national title game], I was very happy for them.

It is interesting because in their story about their NCAA progress, something jumped out at me. They watched the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about [North Carolina State head coach] Jim Valvano and his process back in 1983 when [NC State] won the national championship game in New Mexico. That really got to me because that's what sparked my dedication to the sport of basketball. A lot of what Jimmy Valvano left behind and his legacy, and how he was as a coach, a father and husband, and how his life was on and off the court. 

Did you ever meet Coach Valvano?

I attended [Valvano's] basketball camp in Raleigh, North Carolina for two summers trying to learn the fundamentals. It was in those sessions that I really felt inspired about how Valvano’s passion for the game. He was very verbal but also effective communictating nonverbally, and a lot of young kids gravitate towards that. 

There were three simple factors about life and basketball that Jimmy Valvano would share with his players and basketball campers. One: your family. Jimmy would talk about family and how important they are. They are your support system and number one throughout the whole process. You have to love and respect your family and listen to them. Two: The love for the sport. The passion, the dedication, the blood sweat and tears and how much time you put into it into learning the fundamentals is the second most important part. Third: your spirituality. You have to have some sort of spiritual roots and spiritual identity going through this process. 

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You have to keep these three concepts in mind to be successful in life and successful on the basketball court. I have always kept this in my mind. In paralleling this with the Schimmel sisters, they have all of these qualities. It is obvious through their parents and the support and love that they have. They also have that cultural aspect, which drew a lot of attention. 

What did you think of Jude and Shoni’s performance in this year’s NCAA tournament?

The incredible passion they had for the sport and the love they have for it, it was really inspiring when I saw that. It is something that we wish for kids.  During the semifinal, when they were playing Cal Berkeley, my 11 and 9 year-old sons were with me. I said, "Look sons, look at these two ladies, they are Native. It's very seldom you see Native people on a stage like this and this is the Final Four. Look at how they're playing and look how competitive they are, you can do this, it's up to you guys. Someday you will look back at this and you will say I remember those two girls playing."

Nationally we are known now, that Native people can play basketball. The NABI Foundation has been trying to expose this--but now it will just make them grow more. There are kids out there, I guarantee you that are out there this week shooting baskets and trying to do that move Shoni did against Brittney Greiner. Stuff like that, is very inspirational. 

What did you think of the amazing behind the back pass between Shoni and Jude at the Cal Game?

It is called instinct and you know that you have done it numerous times mentally. It is just a physical trigger. Everyone was like; "wow, they must have been doing that for a long time." In addition to all of this, Jude got a 3.8 grade point average and got national recognition for it. I think that is missed here. Academic achievement is really important at the collegiate level. The reason why I played for Coach Olsen is because he wanted to know what my grades were.

Any thoughts about where Native basketball is going from here?

You're going to see more of the Schimmels. Maybe this will get coaches the drive up to the reservations and begin to look and see what is out here. There is a lot of hidden talent that is all I've got to say.

Coaching in the mid 2000s, I always found the girls program excelling on the [Navajo Nation] rez. I've always seen more potential scholarship opportunities for them to go and play elsewhere. I have always noticed that and I have always had a good impression on the way women's basketball has progressed. 

That's all I have to say. All of this touches your heart as a parent and I know Shoni and Jude’s mother and dad are proud. 

Albany's incredible Thompson Trio