Several Native American young men stand in the center circle of a basketball court and are asked to answer the question "Who are you dedicating this practice to?" Each player responds acknowledging a parent, their family, or another important person in their life. Coach Rob Johnston talks to the players about why the team is called the Warriors and explains the significance of living up to the name in school, on the court, and in everyday life. At most practices, these young men are given life lessons along with basketball training from their coach and they always listen intently which shows the respect they have for their coaches.
As I began this project, the Warriors coaches were one of the first people that came to mind. I got to know them when my son joined the team last year and I noticed right away that this team was run differently than most. Native American youth are often faced with a different set of challenges than a lot of their non-Native peers and one challenge is the lack of opportunities in their communities for sports training. Athletes are usually left on their own to train for sports during the off season. In the Phoenix area, the Az Warriors have filled this gap and provide quality basketball training with built-in mentors who provide opportunities to compete in tournaments such as the Native American Basketball Invitational (NABI). It's obvious how invested the Warriors coaches are even throughout the school basketball season as they make it a point to go to a school game for each player. My son was surprised to see them at two of his games and their support meant a lot to him.
The Az Warriors basketball team started in 1995. Initially, they were comprised of only players from the Salt River Community with a mission to engage the youth in promoting healthy lifestyles. There were boys and girls teams for all ages. Today, the Warriors team is open to all high school Native youth and they welcome any players that want to be a part of the team without tryouts. The number of teams depends on how many players are participating in the program. Over time, the program has changed their goal to being an athletic leadership development program. The coaches strive to provide opportunities for leadership and personal development for the players while playing the game they love. They provide a circle of support for the youth and help athletes achieve their goals in athletics, education and life in general.
This unique basketball program runs under the Native Wellness Institute, which is a non-profit organization with a mission to help Native communities heal and move forward from the impacts of historical and inter-generational trauma. This mission is carried on with the Warriors basketball program as they work to build confidence in the players by focusing on their athletic ability and basketball skills, all while challenging them to work as hard as their ancestors did.
Another display of dedication is that all of the Warriors coaches are volunteers who are former players. Robert Johnston is the head coach of the Varsity team and oversees the program. Cody Blackwater is the assistant coach. The JV team is led by head coach Tyren King and Stanford Vasquez who is the assistant coach. Tyren King and Hank Hibbler are also trainers for the team as well as the Ventura Basketball academy.
Coach Rob shares that he sees the program as a modern day Warrior society. By participating, the player are taught about respect, community, honoring elders and women, to be winners on and off the courts, and to be champions of change. The popular term for Native basketball is “rez ball.” This term is not encouraged by the Warriors program as they feel it is limiting to the players’ abilities and any limiting styles or mindsets can hinder growth and potential in competitive sports.
When asked what sets the program apart from others, Coach Rob responds by stating that the Warriors do not consider themselves a club team but more of a developmental program. He states that the program isn’t just focused on wins. They focus on helping each individual player be the best they can be. In conclusion, he shares “I can say as a coach my favorite moments aren’t seeing a player holding up a championship trophy, but rather seeing them holding up a college diploma.”
The Warriors program ongoing goals are to provide instructional videos for players all over the world that follow them, to provide more camps and clinics for younger players and to continue community outreach. They also plan on continuing to build relationships with Indigenous people from other countries through their World Indigenous Sports Exchange program.
This basketball program is like no other. It might not have the “big name” players or be on the “elite” circuits but there is no question that this program is one-of-a-kind in that they are invested in the success of each of their players on and off the courts. They have a true family atmosphere and it’s obvious that the players have a great amount of respect for their coaches. It’s not about trophies and bragging rights but more about watching each player be the best they can be and reach their goals. There’s no mystery as to why alumni players come back to help the program and remain involved years after they played for the team
You are appreciated Az Warriors coaches past and present. Thank you for investing your time & resources into the team. Thank you for giving the gift of opportunity and mentorship. There’s no doubt you are showing your players by example how to be champions of change.