ARIZONA'S SHOOTING STAR
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.
Ryneldi's paternal grandmother, Thelma Kee, urges her on in a lilting mixture of Navajo and English. Jimmy Skeet, Ryneldi's former basketball coach at Window Rock High, looks on intently.
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.
This is the basketball-mad world into which Ryneldi Becenti was born in 1971. But it's also a world where shattered dreams and forgotten hopes are the norm. She has seen booze, drugs, unemployment and unwanted pregnancies make fodder of many Navajo friends.
"I see them just hanging out," Ryneldi says. "It's hard for me to even think about. After high school, their goals are a blank, even if they're good at sports. You have to be very lucky to make it. And I am."
At five feet seven inches, Ryneldi Becenti is tall for a Navajo woman. Her slender build and narrow shoulders mask a physical strength honed by a summer of weightlifting and daily exercising.
Reserved at first with strangers, Ryneldi soon shows herself as a warm young woman with a playful sense of humor. Her intelligent eyes reveal a sensitive nature. Ryneldi's family and friends are aware of that vulnerable side.
"There always has been an innocence about her," says Amelia Holtsoi, who coached Ryneldi in volleyball as a Window Rock High freshman. "It makes you want to go up and hug her and protect her."
@body:Ray Becenti Sr. realized when his daughter was a little girl how much she loved to play hoops.
Becenti is chatting in the living room of his modest, comfortable home outside Fort Defiance. His wood stove is doing a fine job of keeping the room warm on a frigid winter's day.
The Becenti home sits on a 25-acre parcel about a half-mile down a winding, washboard dirt road. Ryneldi's awards drape the living-room walls, the most recent addition being a handsome plaque for making the Pacific-10's all-conference team last year. A color television is on in a corner, but Ray Becenti won't allow a telephone in the house.
It's the day after the Albuquerque game, and Ray Becenti has some time on his hands. A few months ago, the Window Rock school district laid him off after 14 years on the job as a purchasing agent. He has been a single parent to his five children since his wife, Eleanor, died in 1986.
Becenti says his immediate plans are to watch Ryneldi play and to enjoy what he calls the "beauty scenes"--the unsullied expanse of red-ribbed canyons and purple buttes that greets him when he steps out his front door.
A thoughtful 46-year-old with a keen wit, Becenti thinks of himself as a traditional Navajo: "I can get the medicine man to sing on me or go to a regular doctor if I want. I'm very proud of our traditions. But you end up the same place no matter what you do."
Ray Becenti also is very proud of a little chunk of wind-blown mesa near his sheep corral. Years ago, when his children were growing up, Becenti stuck two poles into the ground about 50 feet across from each other. He attached basketball goals to each pole, ten feet above the ground.
The Becenti outdoor basketball arena was born.
"I gave Ryneldi an undersized ball, a blue-and-gold one," he says. "I told her to dribble it around with her left hand, to get used to it. She went everywhere with that thing. It became a part of her."
Ryneldi's early basketball memories are poetic in their intensity. She recalls them in the same stop-and-go cadence that distinguishes her style on the court:
"It's cold outside. I'm shooting close to the basket so I can get off more shots. It's like I'm taking on a new personality. My eyes feel different. I'm focused. In a zone. I forget the cold. My dad is yelling at me to come in, but I gotta keep shooting til it feels right. Then I can go in."
She was about 11 at the time.
Like youngsters everywhere, the Becenti kids played in all kinds of weather, under the sun and full moon. Sometimes, they would trace out a three-point line with white flour.
"There's not a lot to do up here," Ray Becenti says, with a trace of a smile. "We Indians play a lot of ball."
The Becentis have never had much money. But they are proud people who got very upset recently when an article in the Navajo Times quoted tribal president Peterson Zah as saying they were a "very poor" family.
"Maybe, now and then, all we had to eat was potatoes or something when we were coming up," Ryneldi says. "But we were not 'very poor.' We had a lot. And we always had ball."
Ray Becenti and his late wife, Eleanor, also played their share of ball, as did their parents before them. Ray's mother, Thelma Kee, for one, played hoops in the 1940s at St. Michaels, a Catholic school founded decades ago by the Franciscan fathers.
"Of course I played," says Mrs. Kee, a 66-year-old mother of nine who lives on the reservation and attends all of Ryneldi's games in Tempe. "I've always liked basketball. But I didn't need to play like Ryneldi does and her mom did."
Basketball is in Ryneldi's blood--literally. Her parents, Ray Becenti and Eleanor Begay, met on a basketball court.
The court was at St. Michaels, where the two were in high school. They made quite a team. Eleanor was a go-getter, an outgoing girl from Fort Defiance who couldn't wait to get from one place to the next, both on and off the court. Ray was a hard-nosed guy from Ganado whose roughneck playing style fit the no-blood, no-foul tradition of Indian hoops.
The couple traveled together to play in big-money reservation tournaments, even in their early 20s, after they were married and started having children. (Ryland, now in the U.S. Navy, is the oldest. Then comes Navy veteran Ray Jr., Ryneldi, recent high school grad Reyes and 16-year-old Ryan.)
Many remember Eleanor Becenti as a gritty competitor whose love of basketball was boundless.
"Ryneldi is just like her mom--go, go, go,'" says Shirley McKinley, a Tempe resident who once worked with Eleanor Becenti at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. "I also think Eleanor passed down her determination to Ryneldi, that stuff inside of someone that can't be taught. It came out through basketball."
McKinley sees Ryneldi's success as inevitable. "Ryneldi was playing basketball in her mom's womb," she says. "She just decided to come out when she heard the crowds cheering."
Ryneldi is amused by that notion. But she says her long trek to prominence as one of the best players in women's basketball has been work, not allegory.
"I just got into a habit," she says, flashing a smile as boundless as the big sky under which she was raised. "I have to at least touch a basketball every day of my life."
Ryneldi didn't show her remarkable talent early. Len Kinsel, Ryneldi's fifth-grade teacher, says she was "just another kid who liked to play" when he founded the 12-and-under Navajo Nation peewee basketball league.
But Ryneldi led Kinsel's team to the AAU national championships in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where they finished a surprising 12th. Ryneldi's parents drove to Louisiana to watch her play.
"Ryneldi took it up another notch when she faced the tougher teams," Kinsel says, "and she realized she could compete with them. That set the tone for what she's doing right now."
Friends remember her determination. "I'd see her out playing with the guys all the time," says her former coach Amelia Holtsoi. "You'd literally have to kick her out of the gym, tell her to go home."
Ryneldi revels in recalling how in her teens she proved herself to boys as a dangerous player. "My brothers would take me to a court and get me on a team," she says. "Then it was up to me. At first, the guys went easy on me, no defense. It took them a short while to realize that I'm for real. I was there to win. They had something to lose. They didn't want to get shamed on. I took em straight on."
At home, Ray Becenti pushed and prodded his daughter. He would chastise her for not driving to the hoop from her left side, for looking at the ball when she dribbled, for not pushing the ball fast enough up the court. Ryneldi says she took his stern lessons to heart.
"He wouldn't say, '~You played a great game, Sis,'" Ryneldi says. "He still doesn't. But I knew he was very proud of me and that he loved me."
Eleanor Becenti was more effusive than her husband in praising Ryneldi's good deeds. Mother and daughter were very close. Ryneldi says they could talk about anything.
But Eleanor Becenti became ill during Ryneldi's freshman year at Window Rock and died of liver disease. It was a crossroads in her life, and a loss Ryneldi can still barely talk about.
"It was very, very hard when she died," she says. "I wanted to quit basketball. If God was going to take her, then why should I play? Why should I do anything?" But her grieving dad and brothers urged her to get back on the court.
"They were right," Ryneldi says. "I'll never quit in anything. Never! I play ball for me and my family, and my team and coaches. But most of all, I play for my mom."
@body:Ryneldi was a sophomore at Window Rock High when she says she defied her father for the first time. It happened after girls' head basketball coach Jimmy Skeet decided to bring her up to the varsity during the season.
"My dad wanted me to wait my time, but I didn't want to hold my game back," Ryneldi says. "He would sit in his corner at the gym and yell at me. Then, afterward, he would break my game down, tell me what I did wrong. But I'm glad I did it."
So was Skeet, one of northern Arizona's most successful coaches. Skeet soon built his offense around Ryneldi, who was then about five feet four and growing in stature and in reputation.
Ryneldi continued to work relentlessly on her game. Like an aspiring jazz musician, she imitated the sophisticated moves of her favorite college and professional players. One model was Utah Jazz all-star John Stockton, a little guard with a magical passing touch, court sense and shooting eye. Another was USC star Cheryl Miller, probably the most famous woman basketball player ever.
Ryneldi carried Window Rock to the glory of the Class 3A state championship in her junior year. Depleted by graduation, the Fighting Scouts lost in the first round of the playoffs during Ryneldi's senior year after an undefeated regular season.
When it was over, Ryneldi had broken almost every girls' basketball record at Window Rock. Local and national publications selected her Arizona's Player of the Year after the 1988-89 season.
@body:Major-college coaches hunting for a quick, intelligent, slick-shooting guard sniffed around Fort Defiance during Ryneldi's senior year. Her ambition to play with the "big guys" encouraged her to think about college.
Little has changed since the great Navajo warrior Manuelito said in the 1880s, "The whites have many things we Navajos need but cannot get. It is as though the whites were in a grassy valley, with wagons, plows and plenty of food. We Navajos are up on a dry mesa. We hear them talking, but cannot get to them. My grandchild, school is the ladder."
The big-college recruiters were wary of Ryneldi, however, given the high dropout rate of Native American players over the years. She settled for Scottsdale Community College in the fall of 1989, knowing she had to improve her mediocre high school grades. "I knew I'd be homesick," Ryneldi says, and the adjustment from the Navajo reservation to Scottsdale's fast-paced glitz was every bit as difficult as she had envisioned. But Scottsdale head coach Newton Medder and her new teammates eased the transition.
"Whenever I'd think of going home--and I did--I'd tell myself, 'Girl, you just get back to work. You got a good coach and good teammates, and you aren't going to quit.'"
Ryneldi dominated Arizona's junior-college league in her two years at Scottsdale, winning Player of the Year honors after the 1990-91 season. She scored more than 2,000 points during her stint, the first Lady Artichoke--the team's whimsical nickname--to do so.
Her remarkable ball-handling skills and sharp shooting grabbed the attention of ASU women's head coach Maura McHugh. McHugh met with Ryneldi--whom she describes as "impossible not to like"--and checked out her grade-point average, which was adequate. Soon, she offered Ryneldi a basketball scholarship.
The longtime University of Arizona fan mulled over the offer with her father and brothers before signing with the Sun Devils.
"ASU needed someone who could run a team like I can," Ryneldi says. She giggles to herself, then adds, "But I still love UofA basketball--I mean, the men's team."
@body:Ryneldi lives alone in a multistory dormitory building about a ten-minute walk from the Sun Devil basketball arena. Her small room is a bit messy--in other words, normal for a college student.
Color posters of Michael Jordan in full flight adorn three walls (Ryneldi couldn't find any of her longtime hero John Stockton). A big, stuffed creature hovers over her bed, where one of her brothers hung it.
A basketball waits next to the bed.
A music lover, Ryneldi keeps a Walkman attached to her ears much of the time. The cassettes piled on the floor include Bobby Brown, Metallica and Guns n' Roses. She has a VCR and a TV. Her favorite tape shows highlights of the Sun Devils' march last season to the NCAA tournament.
Ryneldi says her inner life in Tempe is different than it was in Fort Defiance. "Up there, my father would make sure I repeated our tribe's prayers and songs," she says. "Down here, I don't do too much of that. But it's not like I'm cocky or anything. My dad always tells me, 'You get cocky, that's when we'll have our talk.'"
Another difference between Ryneldi's old life and her current one in Tempe is the telephone. Here, it rings off the hook. The calls usually are from her teammates, family members or ASU assistant coach Margaret McKeon.
Ryneldi has a bunch of male friends, but says, "I wouldn't put anyone into the boyfriend category. Not yet."
Final exams are on the horizon, and this is an off day for the ASU women's basketball team. But Ryneldi spent time earlier with Coach McKeon poring over the tapes of the previous weekend's contest against Marquette.
In the game, Ryneldi set an ASU Dial Classic record with 17 assists. The old record was 16, set by McKeon in 1990 when she played for St. John's University.
Ryneldi works endlessly with the 25-year-old assistant coach. McKeon is an intense sort who wears a competitive nature on her sleeve. Ryneldi is just as competitive, but she is more self-contained on the court than McKeon was in her playing days.
Ryneldi says she held herself in "my shell" at the start of last season. But McKeon didn't push things. The relationship between the pair grew slowly, naturally.
"I just let it happen," McKeon says. "Ryneldi was quiet and distant, but she worked hard. We just played a lot of one-on-one and had fun as we worked together. It just evolved. I think that some Navajos--not from her family--have a problem with the fact that we're so close. I mean, a white girl from New York City and an Indian from the reservation!"
But Ray and Eleanor Becenti raised their children to treat others--Indian and non-Indian--with respect. Wariness toward whites is a given on the reservation, but that distrust can be put aside.
"Coach is a coach, a friend and even a Mom figure," Ryneldi says of McKeon. (Ryneldi always calls McKeon "Coach." McKeon usually calls Ryneldi by her last name.) "She proved herself at an all-black school back in New York. She knows what it's like to have to fight for what you get."
Ryneldi's already-solid game blossomed as she warmed up to her ASU teammates and coaches last season. She set a single-season school assist record and averaged 13 points a game.
"She amazed everybody the way she gets the ball to you," says teammate Stacey Johnson. "I'd be thinking, 'There's no way she can get it through there.' Then, I'd be like, 'Dang!'"
As the season wore on, Ryneldi opened up to the racially diverse team--about an equal number of black and white women, plus one Navajo.
"You have your little stereotypes about people," says Johnson, a northern California native. "I had never met a Native American before. I learned a lot about her home life. She can be a clown when she wants, a scream. But when it comes to basketball, she's the hardest worker I've ever seen."
The Becentis attended almost all of Ryneldi's home games. Often, several dozen Navajos make the long trip from the reservation to watch her play. Though women's basketball still isn't a big deal at ASU, the team set attendance records as word of its run-and-gun style and fabulous point guard spread around campus.
Led by Ryneldi, ASU's shining moment last year undoubtedly came in a win over eventual national champion Stanford. Her personal low point probably came in the final game of the regular season, when she missed a crucial last-second free throw against the University of Washington.
"She just stood there with her head in her hands," Margaret McKeon recalls. "I told her it wasn't the end of the world and that we'd work so she would sink it the next time."
The Sun Devil women's team won 20 games and earned a spot in the coveted NCAA tournament for the first time in nine years. ASU then lost a first-round squeaker to DePaul.
Numerous honors came Ryneldi's way after the season: Pac-10 all-conference team, Basketball Times honorable-mention All-American.
Convinced she could "still take my game to the next level," Ryneldi stuck around Tempe much of the summer. She took classes--she's a solid-C student majoring in sociology--and worked out on the court and in the weight room. She also spent some time at home on the reservation, where she gave some speeches sponsored by Navajo president Zah.
"You could hear a pin drop when she spoke to kids," says Zah, who once played basketball at the now-defunct Phoenix Indian School. "She spoke about the obstacles Indian kids will face even when they don't use alcohol and drugs. They really were listening. Ryneldi is going to succeed at whatever she wants to do. Maybe someday, she'll have my job."
@body:Ryneldi's senior season has started well for her and her Sun Devil teammates. ASU lost its first game to the University of Nebraska, but has reeled off four wins in a row. She's averaging 16 points and ten assists per game--All-American numbers.
This semester, Ryneldi took a class in the Navajo language. Her mom and dad used to speak Navajo to each other but rarely to their kids, who have forgotten most of it.
"It's something that is missing out of me," says Ryneldi, who was born into the Tabaaha clan--it means "Edge of the Water." "I want to know more of it for when I go back to the reservation someday."
The key word is "someday," because Ryneldi is fairly certain she won't return to Navajoland immediately after graduation. "I always have dreamed of going back home to live someday," she says. "But I have other dreams, too."
Basketball-playing opportunities for women are extremely limited after college. But Ryneldi dreams of playing pro ball in Europe and maybe, just maybe, getting a shot at the U.S. Olympic team in 1996. "I'll just be 25 at the time," she says, "just hitting my peak. And who would have thought that I'd have made it this far?"
Back in Fort Defiance, Ryneldi's dad isn't sure what to make of his daughter's drive and ambition.
"She's restless," Ray Becenti says, "like a fast train. I tell her that even a train has to sit down every now and then. Sometimes we argue about it, and then we laugh about it."
Others in her hometown are torn about what Ryneldi should do with her life. "I wouldn't necessarily come back if I were her," says her onetime coach, Sharyl Williams. "It would be nice if she did, but if I had a choice, I would go where life took me.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.