Netflix sports docuseries Basketball or Nothing is more than a Navajo version of Last Chance U, though both track young people using sports as a means to escape various personal challenges. This six-episode show follows the Chinle Wildcats, a high school basketball team from the Navajo reservation in rural northwest Arizona. The area is passionate about basketball like few regions in the United States; the Wildcat Den sports complex holds 6,000 people, exceeding Chinle’s population of roughly 4,500. Yet Basketball or Nothing transcends basketball fandom and even the sport itself, connecting past tribulations with the current conditions the Navajo and other Native American and First Nations groups face.
The sports docuseries shines a light on the past and present struggles of Native Americans.
One immediate standout of Basketball or Nothing is the way it contrasts the bountiful beauty and starkness of the land. Few places on Earth provide such elegance and grace while being situated in relative nothingness. In Chinle, basketball is the main event, perhaps the only activity. The census-designated place has little industry, shopping, or outlets for entertainment—no theaters or semi-pro or minor league sports. Alcohol and drugs have long plagued the community.
The young men, such as the undersized Josiah Tsosie, understand the perils. His alcoholic father left his family to struggle with scarce means, and Tsosie claws for a scholarship. Chinle’s best player, Cooper Burbank, carries the weight of leading his team and community to greatness. (Burbank is a sophomore on the show, but is an all-state player with NCAA Division 1 promise at the time of this writing.) Director Matt Howley plumbs the depths of these boys’ trials and in turn, those of their parents.
One of the series’ great themes is defense, spearheaded by the Wildcats’ legendary head coach Raul Mendoza and the school’s athletic director Shaun Martin. Mendoza wants to push his club away from “rezball,” an aggressive style of play focused on quick scoring and little to no defense (a concept not unlike the ripping and running of the Loyola Marymount teams of the 1980s and early ’90s). This style makes sense for a small lineup whose center (team jokester Angelo Lewis) is only 6 feet 3 inches tall. Mendoza, though, preaches defense as both a strategic foundation and attitude.
Martin, the heart of the series alongside Tsosie, puts the Navajo’s present manifestation in context. Slavery is often called America’s first sin, and it’s perhaps the institution most entrenched in its history—but the country already set its tone in its horrific treatment of native people.
Over scenic bluffs, Martin recalls on of these travesties: the Long Walk of the Navajo, a deportation effort and attempted ethnic cleansing of the Navajo people by the United States, occurring from 1864 through 1866. The scene ties together much of what’s shown on-screen.
Basketball or Nothing is such an engrossing watch that its 30-minute episodes feel like they’re giving their subjects the short shrift. The whole is equal to the sum of its parts, and the subject matter is rich and complicated enough for much more to be told.
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