By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Ryneldi Becenti stands by herself at center court in the Albuquerque basketball arena known as The Pit. A few minutes remain in a game between Arizona State University and the University of New Mexico. Ryneldi and her Sun Devil teammates are crunching the Lobos by 60 points.
Ryneldi peeks out at the crowd while a teammate shoots free throws. More than 500 of the 600 in attendance are fellow Navajos who made the three-hour-plus trek from the reservation on a bitterly cold December evening.
Dozens of folks who have made an impact on the life of the ASU senior are here, hanging on her every move.
Turquoise-adorned tribal chairman Peterson Zah--on his way to Bill Clinton's economic summit in Little Rock--sits a row behind the ASU bench. Zah and his entourage flew over from Gallup for what Albuquerque media have billed as Ryneldi's "homecoming."
ASU assistant coach Margaret McKeon nibbles on a fingernail and shouts encouragement at Ryneldi.
Ryneldi's father, Ray, watches by himself from about halfway up the cavernous gym. Every now and then, he grunts something down at his only daughter: "Push it!" "Shoot!" "Drive!"
Ryneldi Becenti is the Navajo Nation's most accomplished athlete of her generation. She's substance, not romantic hype. After last season, the 21-year-old from remote Fort Defiance, Arizona, earned All-American honors when Basketball Times put her on its honorable-mention list.
Ryneldi has wowed the crowd--her crowd--with uncanny no-look passes, three-point field goals and a skilled improviser's sense of knowing where the ball is going before it gets there.
But as well as she's played, Ryneldi hasn't been at her best tonight, with good reason. It has been a terrible and glorious week.
Five days ago, Ryneldi's first cousin Aldwin Begay--who had been like a brother to her--died of pneumonia at the age of 28. Three days ago, she won most valuable player honors at ASU's pre-Christmas tournament, then drove back to Fort Defiance with family members. Today, after Aldwin's funeral, she drove down to Albuquerque for the New Mexico game.
Ryneldi's face is puffy from crying and lack of sleep. The huge turnout of friends and family at The Pit warmed her heart, but it didn't erase the overwhelming sadness.
Ryneldi finds her brothers Ray Jr., Reyes and Ryland. (Youngest brother Ryan couldn't make it because of school.)
"We're here, Sis," hollers Ray Jr., who paints his face in Sun Devil maroon-and-gold before his sister's games. "We're here."
Ryneldi nods slightly.
"C'mon, Sis," Ray Jr. continues. "The fat lady done sung already."
Ryneldi Becenti giggles and runs downcourt to play defense.
@body:One of Ryneldi's first coaches is searching for the right words to describe her.
"She is a very, very big deal to us Navajos," says Len Kinsel, sitting in his cramped athletic director's office at Fort Defiance's Tse-Ho-Tso Junior High. "In life, she's a role model. We have so many whose lives go downhill after high school. In basketball, Ryneldi is like a girl Air Jordan--without the tongue."
Ryneldi is also a big deal to Maura McHugh, her head coach at ASU. "I've had many, many very talented players over the years," McHugh says. "But I've never had anyone quite like her. She is more than just a basketball player to a whole lot of people."
Shrines to Ryneldi in the form of news clippings and photos cover the walls of many homes in Fort Defiance, a town of 4,500 a mile or so from the New Mexico border. Word of her latest exploits on the court travels by "moccasin telegram," as the Navajos say, across a sprawling reservation about the size of West Virginia.
Ryneldi's importance to the 185,000-member tribe cannot be overstated, says Mike Patrick, publisher of the fine periodical Navajo Hoops. "Basketball is everything in this part of the world," he says. "I don't think it's much of an exaggeration to say that Ryneldi means to her people what Pele meant to Brazilian soccer."
Ryneldi as a young girl embraced a game that is more religion to many Navajos than sport. Almost everywhere there's a home on the reservation, there's a hoop nailed to a tree or a shed, and there's a girl or boy out there shooting hour after hour.
Indian teams travel far and wide to weekend reservation tournaments where the financial stakes are serious for players and spectators. High school basketball games for both sexes in places such as Window Rock, Chinle and Tuba City routinely draw sellout crowds.
Last year, 11,000 people filled the Skydome at Northern Arizona University for the state's smaller-high-school championships. An economic-impact study later showed almost three in four of those attending the tourney were from the Navajo reservation and bordering towns.
Like soccer, basketball is a team game that cherishes individual skills. You can learn to play on your own, fantasizing you are one of the game's greats, when in fact you are in an urban schoolyard or on a reservation firing shots at a bent rim.