IT WAS the shot—and the shout—heard 'round Indian Country. It's hard to say which was more audacious, more galvanizing, but everything about that 12-second stretch in the NCAA tournament regional semifinal in Oklahoma City last March was pure chutzpah. There was scrappy No. 5 seed Louisville, a 24-point underdog, taking on Baylor—the top overall seed, defending national champion and winner of 74 of its previous 75 games—and its star, 6'8" senior Brittney Griner, who had more blocks than any other woman or man in NCAA history and was being hailed as the greatest player the women's game had ever seen. Who were the Cardinals to ruin her coronation? But Louisville coach Jeff Walz had a plan: sandwich Griner at all times to deny her the ball; launch threes at every opportunity; and, for God's sake, don't try to score in the paint. Griner swats four shots a game!
This is an article from the Nov. 18, 2013 issue
Walz's plan worked. With 9:56 to go, the Cardinals were up by 14, and their 5'9" junior point guard, Shoni Schimmel, was tearing down the right sideline on a fast break. When Griner loped over to challenge her, Schimmel dribbled behind her back and headed for the key. As she and Griner rose toward the rim, Schimmel turned her back to the hoop and Griner shot out the insanely long right arm that had brought so many layups to ruin. "Oh, Lord," thought Louisville associate head coach Stephanie Norman as she braced for the ball to rocket into the fifth row. "Shoni, you little turkey."
Schimmel flipped the ball over her head, a shot she had practiced hundreds of times on the rez.
Schimmel hit the floor as Griner was called for a foul, but she popped up to roar defiantly into the Lady Bear's chest. Trailing on the play, Schimmel's sister Jude, a 5'6" sophomore guard known for her stingy defense and on-court cool, also screamed, joining a chorus in Native American communities across the country. Back in the Schimmels' hometown of Mission, on the Umatilla Reservation in eastern Oregon, their cousin Josh Barkley ran out of his house shouting as war whoops erupted from neighboring homes. On the Tulalip Reservation in Washington, Ron Iukes, the tribe's youth recreation specialist, jumped off his couch and hollered so loudly he woke up his baby.
Shoni Schimmel made the and-one to stretch the Cardinals' lead to 17. Then Louisville withstood a furious Baylor comeback—and Shoni's fouling out for the first time in her collegiate career, after scoring 22 points—to win 82--81. The Ville would go on to beat Tennessee and Cal before losing by 33 to Connecticut in the championship game in New Orleans.
What Schimmel yelled at Griner after making the layup—Schimmel says she doesn't remember, and Griner declined to comment—hardly matters. For many fans, that was the moment the Umatilla Thrilla cemented her place in Native American legend, not to mention women's basketball lore. But for her it was business as usual. Everyone knows you don't tell a Schimmel there's something she can't do.
DON'T LETothers set limits for you. That's the message Jude and Shoni Schimmel spread this off-season. Throughout the summer the sisters honored invitations from tribes around the West and Midwest: Would you come speak to our people, give them a message of hope? In between obligations such as summer school, the ESPYs (Louisville's win over Baylor was a candidate for Best Upset) and Shoni's stint with USA Basketball's World University Games team, the sisters caravanned with their parents, Rick Schimmel and Ceci Moses, most of their six siblings and various other relatives and friends to visit tribes in eight states.
Shoni Schimmel, a likely top 10 pick in next year's WNBA draft, represents something new in Native American sports—a national hoops superstar. No full-blooded Native American has played in the NBA, and only two have made the WNBA. Meanwhile, Jude, a fundamentally sound, do-the-dirty-work player who contributed 5.7 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists a game last year as Louisville's sixth woman, is a standout in the classroom; her 3.74 as a sociology major earned her the Elite 89 award, given to the athlete with the highest GPA at the championship site of each NCAA sport.
"I don't think these two realize the impact their example has on kids," says Marlin Fryberg, a tribal leader on the Tulalip Reservation, north of Seattle. "Potential is one thing, but actual success is quite another. That's why these girls are so important to the whole Indian nation. They're going to get degrees and come back and give back. For the adults here, they're our heroes too."
Shoni also dreams of other successes. "I want to play in the WNBA; I want to coach," she says. "I want to be able to give back to the Native American people and get them to get out there and have that hope to make it off the reservation."
IT'S A GLOOMY Saturday in mid-August, and Fryberg is standing near the bleachers of one of the Tulalip tribe's two gyms as he watches Shoni and Jude and their siblings take on a group of Tulalip youngsters. The Schimmel party—16 people in all, spanning four generations—arrived groggy this morning after spending Friday at the Muckleshoot Reservation in Auburn, Wash., for a schedule of events much like today's: basketball and fitness clinic, buffet lunch, screening of Off the Rez (a 2011 documentary about the Schimmel family's move to Portland and Shoni's quest to earn a college scholarship), Q&A and autograph session. About 200 people showed up for Friday's event, including a pack of girls so besotted with Jude and Shoni that they followed the sisters into the ladies' room to get autographs.
The mood in the Tulalip community center is more somber. Five hundred red T-shirts with SCHIMMEL SHOWTIME printed on the back lie in neat stacks awaiting a big crowd, but only about 150 shirts will be claimed. A week earlier a 21-year-old Tulalip woman took her own life, adding to a tragic statistic: Suicide among Native American teens and young adults is 2½ times the national rate. The tribe is in mourning.
But as the clinic gets under way, the mood begins to lift. "This is part of the healing," says Mel Sheldon, the Tulalip tribal chairman, as he watches a dozen kids do push-ups in front of Ceci Moses. "You couldn't get these kids to do push-ups under most circumstances. But Shoni and Jude's success really motivates them."
Later, after the paper plates of stew, mashed potatoes and corn have been cleared away, the sisters talk and take questions from the crowd. Shoni hammers her main theme: If we can work hard, avoid drugs and alcohol and follow our dreams beyond the rez, you can too. We're just like you.
That's only partly true. Like a lot of people in their audiences, Jude and Shoni have faced racism and money problems, but few of the children they speak to have such strong and involved families as the Schimmels, who include a great-grandmother, both grandmothers, both parents and a tight-knit group of siblings. The athleticism Jude and Shoni inherited provides another advantage.
Rick Schimmel, who is Caucasian, was the 1987 Oregon high school baseball player of the year as a shortstop and pitcher at Pendleton High. He earned an academic scholarship to Stanford and dreamed of playing in the majors. Two weeks before he left for his freshman year in Palo Alto, Calif., he went to the Pendleton Roundup, a major rodeo, and caught sight of Ceci, a beautiful, spirited ninth-grader-to-be from the Umatilla Reservation who was working as an usher. Their first date was at a McDonald's. By spring Ceci, then 14, was pregnant. Rick finished his freshman year at Stanford and transferred to Portland State. Some townsfolk tsk-tsked, but Rick says he was ready to be a father.
Ceci was a good athlete too, and she had dreamed of earning a scholarship in cross-country or basketball. But by the time she graduated from Pendleton High in 1992, she and Rick had two kids, Shae and his younger sister, Shoni. Over the next 17 years they would have six more children. They never found the time to get married, something that always bothered the kids. "My mom says in the Native world it's not about the status of it all—it's more about the relationship," says Jude, "but for us kids it was a huge deal."
Everyone played basketball, on outdoor courts or at the tiny reservation gym. Shoni's earliest memory of the game is losing in a tournament when she was four. That lit a fire. Shae fanned it by telling Shoni that girls couldn't play with boys. "I got that itch to be better than all of them, just to prove a point," she says.
At the hoop outside the family duplex on Cottonwood Lane in Mission, Shoni practiced the moves she picked up from her And1 Mixtapes, sometimes till 2 a.m. She skipped women's night at the gym and mixed it up with the guys instead. By her sophomore year of high school she was drawing comparisons with Pete Maravich and was embarrassing grown men with her no-look passes and long-range bombs.
Even by the standards of Rez Ball—the high-flying, anything-goes brand of hoops seen in Native communities around the country—Shoni's game dazzled. "She wasn't just something different for a girl; she was different for this part of the United States," says Mike Royer, her coach at Hermiston (Ore.) High. Royer initially balked at all that flash in a 14-year-old freshman. "Then I realized the pass she whipped behind her back that split two defenders and hit a teammate in stride was the only way she could deliver the ball right where it was needed," he says. "People here ate it up."
Royer retired from coaching in 2008, after Shoni's sophomore year. Ceci Moses decided it was time to follow her own dream. She had coached Shoni and Jude in Indian tournaments and on the AAU circuit; could she make it at the high school level? She applied for five positions throughout the Northwest, but when Franklin High in Portland offered her a job, she felt paralyzed. She had always lived on the reservation. She knew why it was so hard for people to leave, despite the poverty, unemployment, alcoholism and soaring rates of diabetes and tuberculosis. "Honestly, life on the reservation is fun," says Moses. "Everyone knows each other, and it's not about who has the fanciest car or house, because everyone lives check to check. It's comfortable. I was afraid to leave. But this was my chance to show my kids, Don't ever let your dreams die."
Ceci and Rick packed up their three daughters and four sons (a fifth boy, Sun, would be born in 2009) and moved to Portland just as documentary filmmaker Jonathan Hock followed up on a tip about a great girl basketball player in Oregon. "There's a Ken Kesey quote I love: 'I believe a man has the right to be as big as it is in him to be,' " says Hock. "That's not something people who grow up on the reservation get a chance to believe. Yet here was a woman with seven kids who was taking it upon herself to make sure her children knew that. And here was a girl who was an extraordinary player who was carrying generations of hope. It was an amazing social and personal experiment."
Hock's three-person crew shadowed the family for 19 months and captured a profound transformation on the court. In their first year at Franklin, Ceci, Rick (who served as assistant coach), Shoni and Jude spurred a team that had won only four games the previous year to a 21--5 record and the 6A state quarterfinals, even though Shoni missed eight weeks with a broken foot. (Picking up the slack, Jude was the conference player of the year even though she was just a sophomore.)
The next year the Quakers went 22--5 behind Shoni's 29.8 points, 9.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 5.5 steals per game. Ranked by ESPN as the eighth best recruit in the country, she had her pick of top college programs. Her choice was 2,100 miles away, in a state with no reservations. She says, "One thing Mom told me, 'It's four years of your life.' Why not go out and see the world instead of staying on the West Coast and being where I've already been forever?"
Besides, the Louisville staff wasn't likely to stifle her creativity or her penchant for launching 30-foot shots. "She's a dynamic playmaker, something our game is starving for," says Norman. "Some might call her high risk, high reward. But we like to live a little dangerously, so she fit in well."
Shoni fit in so well that she was the Cardinals' starting point guard from Day One. She was named to the Big East All-Freshman team in 2010--11 and the All--Big East first team the next two years. Still, the tug of home was difficult to resist, even after Jude joined her at Louisville two seasons ago. Shoni missed her siblings' bickering; they missed her camp-counselor way of organizing family football games and picking out the goofy movies they all loved to watch. "When I went home, it was hard to leave," says Shoni, "but I felt I had to go back to school. I had to go out there and prove wrong everybody who says Native Americans can't make it on the outside."
Wherever she has played, Native Americans have gathered. At some road games, says Walz, Louisville fans have outnumbered the home crowd. After the seventh-seeded Cardinals were upset by 11th seed Gonzaga at the Spokane Regional during Shoni's freshman year, she walked out on the concourse and found 400 Native Americans waiting to greet her. "It's crazy to think we bring so many people together just playing basketball," says Shoni.
WHEN THE NCAA brackets were announced on March 17, Shoni texted Jude, "We're going to beat Baylor." Jude wasn't sure. Their mother, who had always implored her underdog Franklin players to believe in themselves, also had doubts. "They're not going to win," she told Rick as they drove their Suburban to Oklahoma City, five of their kids asleep in the back. They had drained their savings to make this road trip. Moses figured it would be one game. She'd take some pictures of Griner, then make the 1,900-mile trip back to Portland. "But Ceci, it's a day of miracles, it's Easter Sunday!" said Rick.
"I said, Well, if a miracle happens, I'll marry you," says Moses. "From then on, it was a bet."
After Louisville beat Baylor, Jude was near tears, "not because we won but because our parents were finally getting married," she says. She looked into the stands and pointed to her ring finger. Ceci and Rick were wed in the Oklahoma City Courthouse two days later, before the Louisville-Tennessee game.
Shoni and Jude missed the ceremony because of a shootaround. If they had been present, there would have been shouts all around.
Who will be the top women's basketball players this season? Check out Richard Deitsch's women's All-America team in the tablet edition of SI, free to subscribers at SI.com/activate