David Smith
Navajo Times

CHINLE — The 11th Annual Realscreen Awards ceremony was held virtually this year as the organization recognized documentaries and works of non-fiction. This year there were four nominees for best sports documentary.

In the running were “The Last Dance,” featuring NBA legend Michael Jordan, “LANCE,” about Lance Armstrong and “D. Wade: Life Unexpected,” about basketball’s Dwayne Wade.

But the winner for best sports documentary was none other than “Basketball or Nothing,” featuring high school athletes from Chinle.

“Basketball or Nothing” is a series that follows the Wildcat team and the journey to the state championships. In addition to basketball, the documentary also reveals the hardship of the people, the struggles kids on the reservation had to face and how despite those struggles they emerged victorious.

Winning the award is an achievement that Shaun Martin, Chinle High’s athletic director, said is something that all Navajo should be proud of.

“It’s a new world and the future is bright when Native American youth like our kids are mentioned in the same sentences as Michael Jordan, D. Wade and Lance Armstrong,” Martin said.

This is a story that director and producer Matthew Howell wanted to share when he first heard about the Navajo Nation when he read a New York Times article about “rezball,” and the community that surrounded it.

“I thought it was a great story,” Howell said. “And I thought that the way of the story, the resiliency of the kids there were inspiring and I thought it would be great to get out there and maybe we can do some kind of documentary about the program and the community.”

He came out to the Navajo Nation in 2017 and met with Martin, Superintendent Quincy Natay and coach Raul Mendoza (who was featured in the article Howell had read). Howell pitched his idea for the documentary to the three men and they agreed.

“That was the biggest thing with this series, none of it didn’t work if the community doesn’t welcome us,” Howell said. “So the community of Chinle just opened their arms to us and that allowed us to tell the story. So I think the people who should get awards are the people of Chinle, because they didn’t have to do that.

“All these people that say, ‘Yes, you’re allowed to come and tell these stories,’ they’re the stars of this show,” he said. “So if they didn’t do that, we wouldn’t have had a show.”

Mendoza expressed surprise when he heard the documentary won the award. He knew it was good, but considering the other nominees it was still surprising nonetheless.

“I think a lot of people don’t know a lot about the Navajo Tribe or the culture or what they do and the different parts of the show gives a glimpse of what the Navajo Tribe goes through and the way life is on the reservation,” Mendoza said.

“So that was probably one of the things that made it more special, the way it is and just being … I mean me working with the kids is hard, how difficult it is for them to make it to school each day and being able to succeed in the classroom and being able to play basketball and also the aspect about their support,” he said.

When filming first began in 2017, Mendoza wanted the team to remain focused.

“I tried talking to the kids, ‘Look don’t let this be a distraction, let us just do what we have to do and do the best we can.’ But like I said, it turned out they thought it was a distraction but I don’t think it was, as far as words distract kids from their focus on school and basketball,” he said.

“I thought it was something that was unique the way they handled it,” he said. “I was really happy about that, it was something the kids were able to experience.”

Following the release of the documentary, Mendoza received requests to coach students as far away as Eastern Europe and students who were willing to travel to the reservation and be a Wildcat.

“It (the film) opened up a lot for Chinle as far as what it’s like to be there,” he said, “other people wanted to see and, like I said, not just locally but across the world. So, it was really unique that it happened and now with the award it’s going to create more interest I think.”

What many think sold the documentary, what led to the documentary of the year award, were the kids, the Chinle basketball team.

Cooper Burbank was one of the main characters in the feature. He is now playing basketball for Pima Community College.

“When I first heard the news, it was really crazy,” Burbank said. “Because it was among a great group of shows. Over the pandemic, there was also a series called ‘The Last Dance’ about the Chicago Bulls, which was very good.

“As far as I know, that was a top competitor, so having ‘Basketball or Nothing’ up there competing with that to win the award is amazing,” he said.

Burbank and the rest of his former teammates spread the word of the award through social media, sharing the original post from The WorkShop Content Studios, which created “Basketball or Nothing.”

“Overall, I thought that was awesome,” Burbank said. “Because we can show the Native American perspective of basketball. Not many know about it. Because of the film and production crew who took a chance on this, now many people know how it is on the reservation playing basketball and what it means for Native Americans.”

Even before it won the award, “Basketball or Nothing” was released to a wide audience via Netflix and has since gained thousands if not millions of viewings, according to Mendoza.

And ever since then, the cast has been told how much their stories have made an impact on people.

“Since the series has come out,” Burbank said. “I had numerous messages come about how it was an inspiration for someone or how it gave motivation and the drive they need to get better and be the best player they can be.

“They send us stories of how they were able to overcome these obstacles, which they say motivates them,” he said. “That feels really good hearing that, that we have such a big impact on other people besides those within our nation.

“And even outside the United States, other people from foreign countries messaging to tell me how it was very influential on them and had a big impact, making them want to get better,” he said. “Even giving them the motivation, they need to get better.

“As a Native American, I think many people could relate to the story that we shared in the series,” he said. “It gives them the energy they need to do what they can do. They see that we can overcome our own obstacles, then they can relate to their own obstacles and know for a fact they can overcome, if they put their minds to it.”

When Howell first read the story about rezball, read about the intensity of the games, the thousands of people who would come to watch and how a community rallied for their young athletes, he knew it was something he wanted to share.

He wanted people to know about the small, overlooked community in the Arizona desert.

“It’s a special place with a special group of people and I hope that people fell in love with some of the characters there because when you meet a kid like Josiah Tsosie or Chance Harvey or Cooper Burbank away from the camera,” Howell said, “I personally find them just so easy to root for and cheer for and that was our goal, to present them in that way so that you can see Josiah Tsosie and say, ‘I hope he makes it,’ and he ends up going away to college.

“To see Shaun Martin kind of be like a father figure to these kids and get to meet the parents and see how resilient they are as they play in the role of these kids’ lives,” he said. “So I was absolutely surprised by the announcement but I was so happy for Chinle and the Navajo Nation because they deserve their story to be told and they deserve for as many people as possible to see it. I was so happy for everybody in Chinle.”

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This story was originally published in the Navajo Times.