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Who would have thought that a young woman bouncing a basketball would draw them outside of the safe place? They couldn't quite explain what kept pulling a few hundred of them through the yellow deserts, blood-red buttes and purple mesas of Arizona on the 5½-hour journey to Tempe to see each of her home games, which usually took place on Thursday and Saturday nights. They knew only that they must go, even if it sometimes meant turning around a few hours later and making the trip home, collapsing into bed at 3:30 a.m. to catch a few hours of sleep before work and then doing it all over again a day later.
If one were an eagle, one could gaze down and see the Diné who were embarking. The 16-year-old girl with cancer from Chinle, who made the seven-hour trip over and over again. The friends and aunts and grandmas who loved Sis, the secretaries and sheepherders who barely knew her, the busloads of Diné high school teams that had spent weeks selling raffle tickets and concessions to fund the excursions. And, too, the man hobbling toward the fleet of 30 rusting, rumpled vehicles scattered across his land—Sis's father, Ray Becenti.
A scrap heap, one might call this, a junkyard...or one might call it an offering of love to Sis. More than a few of these cars and trucks had perished taking Ray to and from her games, and others he had collected simply to cannibalize their parts and sustain his three or four functioning vehicles through another long basketball season. He winced and lowered himself into the battered gold '79 Cutlass—god knew how many miles its dead odometer was hiding. The blue Chevy '73 pickup nearby had gone through three engines and 300,000 miles, the white '79 Chevy pickup with the rod through its engine had gone 175,000, the gray '73 Chevy Blazer with the jammed differential case and the '79 Firebird had each endured another couple of hundred thousand, easy. In Sis's four years of college, Ray had missed only two home games. It took blizzards to keep him away.
Distance didn't daunt the People. For centuries the scarcity of water, vegetation and firewood on their land had forced them to scatter and live in small, remote family groups, often leaving one house for another with the change of the seasons. Ray watched his two teenage sons, Reyes and Ryan, jump into the car, eager for the motion and the distance. Once Ray had been like them, like most of the People; there was something about moving across open country at 65 mph that made their poverty and their past seem to melt away. The vastness of the land made a man feel insignificant, but there was exhilaration in that insignificance, a soaring freedom.
The Becentis, grandma and all, had thrown a mattress into the back of a pickup and traveled 3½ days to greet their eldest son, Ray Jr., when his aircraft carrier, the USS Kitty Hawk, returned to the naval base in Philadelphia. They had driven to Yellowstone to see Old Faithful gush, to Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah, Idaho and California so Ray and his wife, Eleanor, could play in Indian basketball tournaments; sometimes Ray felt like he had watched half of his life go by through a pickup's windshield. But somewhere, somehow, he had turned a corner. Open road, which once had made him think of everything that might be, now made him think of everything that never would be. He was 47, unemployed, with no cartilage left to keep bone from rubbing bone in both of his knees, and the wife who had always sat next to him on these trips was dead. "There's no feeling of freedom when I drive anymore," he said. "Now I think too much. Now I just want to get there."
The wealth of a Diné family is measured by its closeness; Ray's wealth was running through his fingers. His two oldest sons had left for the Navy, and the next oldest, Reyes, was about to enter a vocational tech school 300 miles away in Phoenix. How could Ray stop him? Nearly half of the men on the reservation were unemployed; Ray himself had been laid off in June after 14 years as a property clerk for the local school district. His youngest son, Ryan, a junior in high school, was planning to go to Denver to study after graduation. That left a man with aching knees staring out the window of a dented '79 Cutlass at the sagebrush and the dried-out creek beds, wondering who in hell he would lean on one day not so far off and what had happened, so suddenly, to this world.
That left his only daughter. That left Sis.
The daughter's home was where a Diné parent usually lived his last years—just last summer Ray had changed ownership of the family house in Fort Defiance from the name of his late wife to that of Ryneldi. There was one problem. Ray's daughter was a 5'7" all-conference guard at Arizona State. Ray's daughter had been a junior college All-America for two years at Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College and had led the Pac-10 last season in both assists and steals. No Diné before her, male or female, had ever been a starter for a major college basketball team. Now she was a 21-year-old senior, a sociology major scheduled to graduate in December. Now she was talking about playing pro basketball in Europe and trying out for the '96 Olympics.
Basketball, Ray knew and loved. As a boy, when he wasn't herding sheep or hauling firewood, he had spent every spare moment shooting a small rubber ball at a basket made from a coffee can with a gunnysack hanging from its bottom lip like an old man's beard. But his daughter kept talking about something he didn't know. She kept talking about chasing a dream.
"It's different out here, Dad," Ray Jr. had tried to explain to him one night in San Diego. Ray Sr. had just driven the family 12 hours to see his son graduate from boot camp in the Navy, and he couldn't understand where all the other parents were. "Once you're 18 out here," Ray Jr. told him, "you're on your own."