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April 9, 2013

‘Rez ball’ on full display

NEW ORLEANS — When Louisville’s Shoni Schimmel whipped a no-look, behind-the-back bounce pass to younger sister Jude for a fast-break layup in the women’s Final Four, former WNBA player Ryneldi Becenti was on a Native American reservation watching on TV — and grinning at the sight of a free-wheeling style of basketball she knows quite well.

“It’s funny,” said Becenti, a former Arizona State star in the 1990s who played a season for the Phoenix Mercury and then professionally in Europe. “You can see the ‘rez ball’ in them. ... She threw it behind the back, already knew where her sister was, and they don’t hesitate to do it.”

Louisville’s string of upsets in the NCAA tournament — they’ve knocked off Baylor, Tennessee and California in succession — has been followed closely by Native Americans nationwide because of the captivating play of the Schimmel sisters, who grew up on a reservation in Oregon.

The sisters are getting a lot of mainstream attention now, and relishing it because it helps them promote the idea that there are great young athletes on reservations around the country who deserve a look.

In a sense, they aim to be female versions of Boston Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, and follow in the footsteps of legendary Native American athlete Jim Thorpe, an Olympic gold medalist and football player in the early 1900s.

On Monday, the eve of Louisville’s national title showdown with Connecticut, Shoni Schimmel noted that her mother brought her and her siblings up on stories about Thorpe, and that her older brother made Thorpe the subject of a school presentation.

“One thing that my mom has talked to me about is, you have to go out there and show that you can come off a reservation and you can make it,” Schimmel said. “Not a lot of people believe in Native Americans because they just get so comfortable with living on the reservation, because it is very comfortable. We love it there. It’s always nice to be there. But at the same time, you have to get out of your comfort zone.”

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