TUBA CITY, Ariz. - It may be summertime but the basketball practices inside the palace of Arizona high school sports arenas, Warrior Pavilion, are just as intense as in mid-January.
Coach Jamie Roe runs his Tuba City High School Lady Warriors through yet another defensive scheme, teaching the girls to double team the opposition in the corners, trying to force yet another ill-advised cross-court pass.
They catch on quickly, which comes as no surprise to Roe, who says that his team "never rebuilds, we just reload."
After all, the Lady Warriors had won three straight Arizona Class 3A state championships before the star player on last season's team tore a ligament in her knee during the state semifinals and the season quickly came tumbling down.
But redemption, in the players' eyes, lies in their participation in the first Native American Basketball Invitational. The Lady Warriors received a first-round bye and will play the winner of the Monument Valley, Ariz., game against Ignacio, Colo., on July 9 in Kayenta, Ariz., before the action shifts to America West Arena in downtown Phoenix.
The Lady Warriors will be among the favorites in the 12-team girls' field but, then, what else is new? Three starters return from last season's team and Roe said that the junior-varsity team won twice as many games as it lost.
Tuba City High School basketball is a well-oiled machine that rivals the NBA for singularity of purpose and dedication. The Tuba City boys also won back-to-back state championships during the girls' three-year run of state titles.
The Lady Warriors travel throughout the Southwest during the summer and play 50 games against a large cross section of competition. Then, they cool their heels somewhat during the regular high school season and normally play about 30 games. The game is so popular here in the western regional center of the Navajo Nation that Roe takes not one, but two, teams with him on the road in the summer.
"Basketball totally dominates the culture here," said senior point guard Brandi Atene, who is also one of the best cross-country runners in Arizona. "We play it morning, afternoon and night. You don't see a house here without a hoop nearby."
This is one reason that Atene's running mate in the backcourt, senior Alicia Slim, was more than a little delighted when her father was hired for a civil-engineering job in Tuba City three years ago and moved his family with him from Gallup, N.M.
Slim said it was tough leaving behind all her extended clan's sheep, cattle and horses in New Mexico. But Atene said Slim has a really nice shooting touch, especially from three-point range, and what better place on the rez to put that on display than Tuba City.
About 5,000 passionate fans a game turn out to cheer on the Warrior teams in a multimillion dollar arena that's the envy of many NCAA universities. There's enough space on the floor of the pavilion for three basketball courts. A snack bar serves a cafeteria-sized area of tables at the entrance to the arena. Elevators take fans to their upper-level seats.
And, once the fans are in place, it's like a den of surround sound, Atene said.
"The community really backs you. We're all like one big family here," Atene said.
Atene said she spent her early years in the isolated Navajo Mountain area near the Utah-Arizona border, the same area which produced her cousin, Bobby Manheimer, who starred at Monument Valley High before playing Division 1-A basketball for Lamar University in Texas.
"Our family moved to Flagstaff and I started playing youth hockey and football with the boys," Atene said. "That was good preparation for what I'm into now."
Roe hopes that will be another tournament title in Phoenix, where thousands of Tuba City fans rock America West Arena during the state high school basketball tournament in March.
"We work year round on achieving basketball excellence. This is another opportunity for us to display the results of that effort," Roe said.