Sports Blog Series by Natalie Diaz

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The following is the introductory blog for Natalie Diaz’ Basketball/Sports Blog series. Natalie Diaz was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. She was part of the Old Dominion Lady Monarch basketball team that made it to the NCAA Championship game in 1997. After playing professional basketball in Europe and Asia for several years, Diaz returned to Old Dominion and completed a double MFA in poetry and fiction. Her first poetry collection is When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press). She was awarded a 2012 Lannan Literary Fellowship, the 2012 Narrative Prize from Narrative Magazine, and a 2012 Native Arts & Culture Foundation Artist Fellowship. Diaz is part of the IAIA low-residency MFA faculty in Santa Fe and currently lives in Mohave Valley, Arizona, where she directs the Fort Mojave Language Recovery Program, working with the last remaining speakers at Fort Mojave to teach and revitalize the Mojave language.


Though I spent most of my life practicing the game, played four years of Division I collegiate basketball at Old Dominion University, and later played professionally in Europe and Asia, I have rarely written about basketball in a direct way. Other than two poems, this subject only flashes through my lines of fiction and poetry. This inattention to such a big part of my life surprises people—I began playing basketball long before I could heave the ball anywhere close to the rim and stopped just before deciding to try an MFA. I’ve played basketball longer than I have not played it. So why haven’t I written about it?

Though it’s been years since I moved and defended in a way that made me worthy of my college nickname, “Hurricane,” the gap between basketball and me is not as wide as my “not-writing-about-it” might lead you to believe. I carry the game with me in many ways—from the titanium screws in my knee, to my missing ACL, to perpetual dreams of both making the big shot and turning my ankle so badly I wake up holding my breath. The game never left me.

When I say the game never left me, don’t get it twisted. You won’t find me wheezing or hocking loogies or squeezing my inhaler to power me up and down the court in a pair of cotton gym shorts or doing quadruple pump-fakes before winging an errant bank shot in an old-white-guy-pick-up-game at the local rec center. Not me. You won’t hear me calling “Next” in the tribal gym, arguing fouls with the younger, more warrior-looking players, guarding them in a one-man-full-court press (why do old-guy basketball players do this?), or untying my own shoelaces so I can stop and catch my breath. I’ve lit novena candles so that I won’t become that forty-plus, only-woman-in-the-pick-up-game wearing a scrunchie in her hair and no sports bra who is the single player with elbow pads, knee pads, and a mouth guard diving on the floor for every loose ball. No, the game never left me, meaning I have found in writing what I found in basketball—muscle, momentum, rhythm, tempo, touch, fast, slow, quickness, sweat, noise, body, and to put it plainly, work. I’ve brought my game to the page.

I learned to play ball on the rez, on outdoor courts where the sky was our ceiling. Only a tribal kid’s shot has an arc made of sky. We balled in the rez park against a tagged backboard with a chain for a net, where I watched a Hualapai boy from Peach Springs dunk the ball in a pair of flip-flops and slip on the slick concrete to land on his wrist. His fibula fractured and ripped up through his skin like a tusk, which didn’t stop him from pumping his unhurt arm into the air and yelling, “Yeah, Clyde the Glide, muther fuckers!” before some adult rushed him off to the emergency room. I ran games in the abandoned school yard with an 8-foot fence we had to hop, where I tore so many pairs of shorts on the top spikes, and where when my little brother got snagged trying to climb down, my cousin and I let him hang by the waistband of his underwear for an entire game of 21. And if that cousin hadn’t overdosed on heroin a few years later, he might have proved us right and been the first rez Jump Man. I got run by my older brother on our slanted driveway, the same brother I write about now, who taught me that there is nothing easy in our desert, who blocked every shot I ever took against him until I was about 12 years old. By then, his addictions had stolen his game. I learned the game with my brothers and cousins, with my friends and enemies.

We had jacked up shoes and mismatched socks. Our knees were scabbed and we licked our lips chapped. We were small, but we learned to play big enough to beat the bigger, older white kids at the rec center on “The Hill,” which to get to we crossed underneath the I-40 freeway, across the train tracks, and through a big sandy wash. We played bigger and bigger until we began winning. And we won by doing what all Indians before us had done against their bigger, whiter opponents—we became coyotes and rivers, and we ran faster than their fancy kicks could, up and down the court, game after game. We became the weather—we blew by them, we rained buckets, we lit up the gym with our moves. We learned something that was more important than fist, at least at that age. We learned to make guns of our hands, and we pulled the trigger on jumpers all damn day. And when they talked about the way we played, they called it “Run’n’gun,” and it made them tired before they ever stepped on the court. Just thinking about a pick-up game against us made the white boys from the junior high and high school teams go to sleep. While they slept, we played like dreams.

For me, writing is often “Run’n’gun.” It’s fast. It builds up. It runs and runs and runs. Every word is a shot, not a lob, not a hope, but a precision that comes from putting in the work, from making a gun out of your mind. It is a story of our bodies, their limits, and how those limits are broken until they break us. When I hear from people that they were “surprised by the speed” of my poems or how “the images accumulated,” how they felt “overwhelmed,” that there was “so much,” almost “too much,” my only answer is that if you think I move fast now, you should have seen me then—with the loaded rock in my hands.


Read more of Diaz' sports writing here and here.