Thursday, January 9, 2020

CANYON DREAMS :: Michael Powell

A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and is republished here with permission.

"Nothing about a basketball season is easy. Neither is life," says Raul Mendoza, who has coached "rez ball" for four decades, the only living reservation coach with a state championship ring. He heads the Wildcats of Chinle High School, the largest school on the Navajo reservation in Apache County, Ariz.

In Canyon Dreams, sports journalist Michael Powell recounts time spent with the Wildcats during their quest for a championship. Powell was drawn to the story after living near Chinle 25 years earlier, where he entered a pickup game and ended up feeling that he'd been "caught in the wrong lane with Olympic marathon runners."

Powell merges the profile of Mendoza with that of his players and their environs, set against the backdrop of the community and Navajo history. "The grip of hoops on the Navajo psyche" is plain, and the pressure and hunger to win comes across as an insistent, immutable ache. Some 4,000 people live in Chinle. On game nights, 5,000 crowd the Wildcat Den, seated in a hierarchy as formalized as a royal court.

Mendoza's job is bigger than coaching. He counsels teenagers "perched on that precarious cliff wall" between adolescence and manhood, soon facing the decision of whether to leave their Navajo world. Survival is a question on either side, with reservation life marked by alcoholism, unplanned pregnancies, domestic abuse, suicide and troubling bureaucracy. Powell's immersion in the people and their traditions is heartfelt and lyrical, tied to the land and culture that leave kids to ponder "Can I leave this? I don't know yet. It's my puzzle."

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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