FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - The crowd of 6,000 at Northern Arizona University's Skydome was thoroughly bored during a recent afternoon as the Navajo girls' team from Winslow was easily beating its foe at the regional Class 3A basketball tournament.
But then, cheers rang out during a timeout and youngsters surged toward the rail of the arena.
Northern Arizona guard Kodiak Yazzie had arrived to prepare for NAU's night game against Weber State. Dozens clamored for his autograph as he accommodated all with a smile before disappearing beneath the grandstands.
It's a familiar routine for Yazzie, 23, a member of the Salt Clan from the southwestern part of the Navajo Nation.
Wherever he goes, hero worship follows. That's what it's like when you're generally regarded as the best Native American player in Division 1-A basketball. Yazzie reflected back to his senior year at Coconino High School in Flagstaff. There was a cult of personality that followed him whenever his high school team would play on the reservation.
"I remember one time when we played at Chinle and I threw down a couple of dunks. After the game, there were all these little kids asking me to sign autographs," he said.
Yazzie, a six-foot, three-inch senior, averaged nine points a game for the Lumberjacks, who were in the semifinals of the Big Sky Conference basketball tournament and were hoping for their first appearance in the NCAA tournament since 2000, when Yazzie was a redshirt freshman.
Yazzie, regarded as one of the best defenders in the Big Sky, always drew the defensive assignment on the opposing team's top offensive threat throughout the season. That, despite the trauma of finding out before the start of the season that he had a hole slightly larger than the size of a quarter near a valve in his heart that will require surgery after Yazzie graduates in May.
This strangest of chapters in Yazzie's life started in August when he was poring over a customer's financial background while interning as a loan officer at the Native American Bank in Denver.
He felt a slight pain in his chest that persisted for a week. Then, the next week the pain was even worse.
Yazzie flew back to Flagstaff to prepare for his final year in school. His mother insisted that he see a cardiologist.
During a probe of Yazzie's heart, doctors found the hole. They also determined that they could not catheterize and patch the hole because it was too close to the valve and there wasn't enough tissue on which to attach a seal
"He just broke down and cried in the recovery room when we broke the news," said Yazzie's mother, Donna Zimmerman of Flagstaff. "He was so upset. He wanted to quit school and basketball."
But a number of cardiologists huddled and quickly concluded that since Yazzie was young and in excellent physical condition, he could play his senior season without much risk. Since then, he has taken an aspirin a day to keep his blood thin.
The surgery will be conducted on May 12 in Phoenix, four days after the honors' student receives his bachelor's degree in Business.
Yazzie also feels lucky just to be on the court.
"At one point I wondered if I was going to be here at all," Yazzie said.
Zimmerman said her son constantly monitors whether he is having extended heart palpitations. So far, so good.
Meanwhile, NAU Coach Mike Adras said he's going to be sad to see Yazzie go since "he's one of the most cerebral players I've ever coached in analyzing defensive situations."
Although Yazzie never developed a relationship with his father, he has stayed close to his grandparents, who are in their 80s and herd sheep in the Birdsprings community of the Navajo Nation. As a child, Yazzie said he often found himself at the knee of his grandfather listening to ancient stories.
Yazzie also said he had a positive basketball role model in his cousin, Edison Bahe, another former Flagstaff Coconino High star in the late 1980s, who is generally regarded as the best big man ever from the Navajo reservation. Bahe played collegiate ball at Yavapai College in Prescott.
Yazzie said he plans a career in business finance following graduation. He said he hopes to be able to help Indian tribes receive private financing for various projects like housing. But first, there's the operating table.
"The positive thing here, though, is that the cardiologists have told me that on a scale of one to 10, that this surgery is only a one for difficulty," Zimmerman said. "He'll be as good as new."