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A WOMAN of THE PEOPLE
Gary Smith
March 01, 1993
Ryneldi Becenti, star of the Arizona State women's team, struggles to balance the demands of major college basketball with the ancient traditions of her tribe
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March 01, 1993

A Woman Of The People

Ryneldi Becenti, star of the Arizona State women's team, struggles to balance the demands of major college basketball with the ancient traditions of her tribe

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Yes, he reassured himself sometimes, it was a blessing that he was unemployed this year. Instead of driving home after Thursday night games, he could go to the tiny apartment Ray Jr. had rented since leaving the Navy and finding work for the state court system in Phoenix, and sleep on the floor with eight or nine other relatives who usually came to see Sis play.

The ride was four hours old, the sun blazed on the roof, and the Becentis sucked on hard candy to fight dry mouth. Ryan dozed off. Reyes' foot itched to bury the speedometer's needle. Ray thought. The earth convulsed and the seasons changed, desert sandstone and astonishing rock formations giving way to snow-crusted mountain ridges crowded with pine trees, which in turn gave way to an explosion of boulders and 20-foot-tall organ-pipe cactus.

Finally they saw it, the industrial haze of Phoenix. Now they could relax a little—just a little. Not long ago a white policeman in Phoenix stopped their car just after a game for a broken taillight and grabbed the cedar sprig from the dashboard.

"What is it?" the cop demanded.

Ray said nothing. It was best, he had decided long ago, to say nothing.

"Drugs?" the policeman demanded, holding it to his nose and sniffing. "You sure it's not drugs?"

"Look at 'em all!" Sis's Arizona State teammates had cried the first time it happened. "Look at all those Indians!" Not only had a couple of hundred Navajo from the reservation filed into the arena but also a couple of hundred other Diné who lived in the Phoenix area had come to see her play. They would keep coming and coming, composing half the crowd at most games, doubling Arizona State's attendance record for women's basketball last season and certain to help set another record this year.

Sis took a quick glance around the stands. There was her dad, sitting low, as always, so he didn't have to hobble up the steps, and alone, as always, so he could concentrate on her. There was brother Ryland, all the way from the naval base in San Diego on that $90 round-trip airfare, as he was for almost every home game. There were Ray Jr., Reyes and Ryan, their faces painted Sun Devil yellow and maroon. There was Aunt LaVern, who had once flown to New York City to watch Sis play and had driven three days to Miami for another game, and Aunt Anna Mae, who had rented a van and driven 10 hours to see Sis play in Nebraska this season, and Grandma Thelma, who had clapped so hard for Sis after driving seven hours to watch her play at the University of Arizona in Tucson this season that the turquoise shot right out of her silver bracelet. Cousin Adrian was there too, videotaping the game for his sister, Westy Begay, who for some reason—something about being in medical school in North Dakota—hadn't come. Old schoolmates and girls playing for Navajo high school teams looked on too. Almost everyone was there but poor Grandmother Hubbard, the 76-year-old woman who used to hitchhike to Sis's high school away games and zing M&Ms at the referees and opposing coaches who incurred her wrath; once, when the chocolate-coated pellets had failed to convince a ref of his boneheadedness, she had reared back and bopped him.

It still amazed Sis. She couldn't have lasted four years away from home, she surely would have ended up just another Native American college dropout, a casualty of homesickness and isolation, were it not for the loyalty of the Diné and her dad. "I can go for two weeks without seeing them," she says, "but then comes a day when I need to. When I see them, all the tension goes out of me. I would've lost my confidence without them."

She was certain of one thing. No matter what idea, what opportunity, what man she might bump into if she remained on this trajectory, no circumstance could keep her from returning to the People, to coach and coax kids to dream, after she had chased her own star as far as she could. She was going to do that, she swore. "I can talk freely on the reservation," she says. "I can run with my three dogs in the open space outside my house and jump over the stream and scream as loud as I want, 'HEYYYYYYY!' and nobody will hear me. I'll come back when I've conquered everything. I have so many friends there, and so much family, and there's so much joking. I can be who I am. But when I go back, it takes me awhile to get used to it. My dad's probably right to have his fears. I get so bored there sometimes...."

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