On the reservation, basketball is life.
In an area where a one-way school bus ride can take over an hour, where running water is a luxury and a decently sized town is comprised of several hundred people, it can be pretty demanding to find time to just be a kid.
But on the basketball court, everything changes. Even a simple hoop, hung from a pole in the dirt yard of a family’s house, can provide hours of fun. It’s why basketball has taken the Navajo Nation by storm. All you need is a ball and a hoop – maybe a friend or two.
At St. Anne Mission in Klagetoh, Arizona, a single basketball court has become an inpromptu gathering place for an entire community. It’s not much – a basic slab of concrete and two hoops, nestled under the huge sky and wide vistas of the surrounding reservation. But to the families and children of Klagetoh, this court is something almost sacred – a place for anyone, regardless of age, background or fitness, to come and play.
John Yonushonis has been visiting the mission as a volunteer for nearly ten years, and the basketball court has become his biggest project.
“Anywhere from ten or as many as thirty people every single day of the year can be using that court because it’s the only thing that offers any type of availability for exercise and families to get together,” he said.
At first, the court only needed basic surface repair. But over the years, after harsh winters and despite the mission’s best efforts, it has slowly devolved to the point where professional reconstruction is required.
Brother Charles Schilling is the administrator at St. Anne’s. He’s been running the mission for four years, and he’s gotten to know the people who live here, young and old. Most aren’t Catholic, but he sees them every day playing basketball. Like Yonushonis, Br. Charles wants to provide them with a space that fits, at the very least, the basic needs for the sport.
“It’s a concrete surface right now, and there are spots on it where the concrete is starting to kind of chip in weather. I’m sure it’s an effect of winters we have here, where it freezes and the concrete just chips,” he explained. “What we want to do is put in an all-weather surface that’s more resistant to – especially – the winters. And we want to enlarge the court. It’s not quite a regulation court, as it presently stands.”
But this is a mission that, like most in the Diocese of Gallup, relies almost exclusively on the generosity of outside donors in order to sustain itself. Each summer, groups of young people on mission trips come from throughout the country to help with maintenance and work projects. At the end of each day, they too find themselves drawn to the basketball court, where they meet local families.
“It’s kind of a natural way young people can start relating to one another, through sport,” reflected Br. Charles. “And then they can carry that conversation through in just a sharing of ideas. So the people who are visiting us, engaging in conversation with people their own age, learn about their situation and also share what their lives are like.”
To Br. Charles and Yonushonis, the basketball court has grown into an essential part of the St. Anne’s ministry.
“I think it’s important for young people, especially those who aren’t associated with or familiar with the Church – their connection with us is going to start with something that they find fun and recreational,” said Br. Charles. “Our hope is from that that they may be open to being invited to come to classes, to come to church, to get more involved in the spiritual aspects of what we do. It’s a different approach to evangelization, but we’re hoping it might be something we can work to strengthen and evolve.”
There are physical benefits as well. Like many poor areas, much of the Navajo Nation is a “food desert” – an area where fresh or healthy food is either unavailable or too expensive to afford in decent quantities. Obesity and diabetes are common and ongoing problems. So even if the benefits of the basketball court are purely physical, the mission considers it a success. This is especially true when the entire family gets involved.
“I tell people I’m always impressed by these young people, these kids, because they just come out to play,” said Br. Charles. “I’ve never seen a fight, I’ve never even really heard a harsh word spoken. So it’s really a positive thing that we kind of provide for the community here. They have no other place to play. I mean people have hoops, you know, set up on their house. But there’s no place where there’s a court where they can actually play a game. The nearest other place would be in Ganado, which is 14 miles away…it’s everyone from grandpa to the grandkids who come out and play a game, occasionally, on our court. It’s a very nice thing that happens here.”
Along with the all-weather surface, Yonushonis hopes to include lighting for night access and safety. He’s found a Navajo father and son contractor team for the renovation, and plans to fundraise the cost of the court through donations and a silent auction.
In the meantime, the Klagetoh basketball court beckons, filled with families who find joy in the simple pleasure of a ball and hoop.
If you’d like to find out more about the project, or contribute to the fundraiser for a new basketball court, you can find the project’s GoFundMe page right here