Championship dreams in Phoenix
Their friendship was on pause briefly when Sequoia Lucero and Sialik King stepped onto the basketball court in late February at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix.
The Canyon Athletic Association’s Division 2 State title was at stake in Arizona’s charter school league and the game included two Native teams familiar with one another on and off the court.
Lucero attends Skyline-Gila River High School and is from the Gila River Indian Community while King goes to Salt River High School on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. The two communities are sister tribes, both home to O’odham and Piipaash people, and are separated by roughly a dozen miles and Phoenix’s eastern urban sprawl. It was fitting that the two top teams facing off have roots to the land long before Phoenix became a city or Arizona was a state.
Late February, early March usually means high school playoff basketball. When Native teams across Indian Country work for a state title run, Arizona had two Native schools face each other for the top prize. On gameday, with rezball in the spotlight, Lucero got the best of King and Skyline-Gila River beat Salt River 63-40 in a game that felt closer than the final score. Lucero was the best on the court and was named player of the game.
“I’m happy we won,” Lucero said. “I got a title freshman year and now I get to get out with another one too.”
Lucero is staying in the Phoenix Valley and plans to play college basketball at Benedictine University at Mesa.
The charter league usually completes its state tournaments a few days before the more familiar and larger Arizona Interscholastic Association takes over the basketball scene in Phoenix. The association has more schools and more divisions made up of public and private high schools across the state. The 3A division regularly has a team or two from the Navajo Nation that makes a run to the championship games in the boys’ and girls’ divisions.
Top-seeded Alchesay High School on the Fort Apache Reservation qualified for the boys’ 2A state semifinal on Feb. 28. Games are scheduled at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the old Phoenix Suns arena. Ganado High School on the Navajo Nation reached the 3A state semifinal to be played on the same day. Championship games are the next day.
Spoiler alert: The Navajo Nation’s Chinle High School, known for being highlighted in Netflix’s 2019 “Basketball or Nothing” docuseries, lost in the second round of the 3A playoffs. The series focused on Chinle’s goal of a state championship.
Lucero and King have known one another for years and they often play on the same team in club basketball or in off-season basketball tournaments. This is often the basketball norm for smaller tribes around the Phoenix Valley to mix with the larger urban Native population.
“It’s nice to play against a sister tribe,” King said. “I have friends on the other team.”
Last season, Salt River beat Skyline-Gila River in the state semifinal but fell in the championship game. This year, Skyline-Gila River beat Salt River in the regular season and finished the season undefeated. Salt River completed a successful season with two losses and a second-straight runner up trophy.
“Just being able to be here is the best thing,” King said after the championship game. “Not many teams can play in a state championship game. We are almost all seniors and have been together for years. Those are my sisters and I’m honored to call them my sisters, we are a family as a team.”
King will graduate in a few months and she might be a member of the last senior class at Salt River High School. The school has struggled through the years to meet state standardized test scores. Not meeting test scores means less state funding. Salt River Schools recently held a student transition event that featured nearby Mesa Public Schools. King was a team captain and leader of Salt River’s volleyball team that battled adversity of making national news when opposing fans made racist gestures and directed slurs at the team during a playoff game.
“I feel honored to actually be able to graduate from Salt River,” King said. “If this is the last year, to be part of the last basketball team is special.”
Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @daltonwalker
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