NY Times author of "Canyon Dreams" examines prep basketball on Navajo Nation in new book

Michael Powell's book focuses on Chinle HIgh School boys team

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • "Canyon Dreams: A Basketball Season on the Navajo Nation," recently was published by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin/Random House.
  • Author Michael Powell became interested in the subject while living in Fort Defiance, Arizona, a quarter-century ago.
  • Powell's book invites immediate comparison's to H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's seminal "Friday Night Lights."
Author Michael Powell's "Canyon Dreams: A Basketball Season on the Navajo Nation" chronicles a season with the Chinle, Ariz., High School boys basketball team.

FARMINGTON — As a native New Yorker, writer Michael Powell had a lot of adjusting to do — to the landscape, lifestyle and culture — when he moved to Fort Defiance, Arizona, a quarter century ago where his wife was a midwife for the Indian Health Service.

Powell, his wife and their two young sons took up residence in a trailer on the Navajo Nation in 1993. That months-long experience might have turned out to be just an unusual footnote in Powell's life after he went on to become a sports writer and columnist for The New York Times.

Instead, it became something much greater — an introduction for Powell into how the sport of basketball permeates and reflects society on the Navajo Nation, where high-octane "rez ball" draws huge, intense crowds to high school gyms that regularly exceed the population of a given town.

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Powell's interest, and storytelling instincts, were aroused. It would be years before he fully acted on them, but he returned to northeast Arizona a few years ago to chronicle the quest for a state title by the 2016-17 Chinle High School boys basketball team and its coach, Raul Mendoza. The author shares what he observed in his book "Canyon Dreams: A Basketball Season on the Navajo Nation," recently published by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin/Random House.

Those experiences of living on the Navajo Nation and exploring the passion of its people for basketball — something Powell shares, given his New York upbringing — had a profound effect on him, the author said.

Players on the Chinle High School boys basketball team get ready for a game against Holbrook High School at the Wildcat Den stadium on Dec. 13, 2016.

"In the sense of that place, that land, that culture, yes," he said during a telephone interview on Dec. 19 from Milwaukee, where he was traveling to cover that night's NBA heavyweight battle between the hometown Bucks and the visiting Los Angeles Lakers for The Times. "The hooks were in before, but now the hooks go pretty damn deep."

Powell rented a studio apartment in Chinle throughout the season. He described the differences between his stay there and his normal life in Brooklyn with a mix of wonder and bemusement.There was the joy of being able to get up every morning and go for a hike in Canyon de Chelly National Park instead of enduring yet another subway ride, he said. But that was balanced by the frustrations of dealing with limited cell phone service and quickly learning the wisdom of stocking up on groceries and other household necessities during his frequent trips to Albuquerque, Gallup or Flagstaff.

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Mostly, though, Powell was there to immerse himself in the culture and try to understand why basketball had such a hold on its people. One of his first steps was developing a sense of trust with his subjects.

"It's not a strictly linear culture, not like setting up a bunch of interviews and doing them in a row — not that that's the best way to go about it anyway," he said. "It's more like you want to be there when the chances present themselves. I found people quite welcoming as long as you put in your time — and put being a Type A New Yorker aside."

Raul Mendoza, varsity basketball coach at Chinle High School, coaches his Wildcats team during a game against Tuba City on Dec. 14, 2016.

Powell, long accustomed to covering sports at the college and professional level, reveled in the access he had to the players and coaches in Chinle.

"The great aspect of writing about a high school team is, you can just walk into the locker room and be there every day at practice," he said, comparing that experience to the limits placed on him as a media member covering the NBA, "where you're looking at it with your nose pressed to the glass."

Even with that increased access, there were some obvious differences to be gotten over as he built relationships with the players, Powell noted. After all, he was an older, Anglo guy trying to relate to Native teenage boys.

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"So, it's different. But no one was hostile to me in the least," he said.

Biding his time and making the effort to blend in, Powell eventually found himself invited to some family dinners — large, elaborate gatherings that included extended aunts, uncles and grandparents. One of his lasting impressions about social life on the Navajo Nation, he said, was the range of everyday discussions.

"I would get into conversations about things that are sometimes quite a bit deeper than you would find in New York or Albuquerque," he said. "It's that sense of tradition that cuts beyond what you immediately see on the surface."

Players on the Chinle High School varsity basketball team at practice on Dec. 12, 2016.

Powell's efforts to relate the story of a distinct, geographically isolated place and culture, not just write a book about a high school sports team, make it nearly impossible not to compare "Canyon Dreams" to "Friday Night Lights," H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's seminal 1990 account of a season with the Permian High School football team in Odessa, Texas, a community where football had taken on a grossly outsized importance. That book not only became a bestseller, spawning a film version and TV series, it became the gold standard for books of that genre.

Powell acknowledged "Canyon Dreams" covers many of the same elements as Bissinger's book, but he said he never worried about his book being characterized as a basketball or Navajo version of "Friday Night Lights."

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"I'm aware that the book exists," he said. "I even read part of it years ago. In fact, I took it with me and decided not to read it. I didn't want to have it like a parrot talking to me in my ear. I only recently read it, but it never served as a template for me, even though it's a beautiful, brilliant book."

It has long been the job of writers to cast their stories in a multidimensional fashion, Powell said, one that examines a central theme — in this case, basketball — from a 360-degree perspective.

"How do you tell more than that one aspect of a story? How do you tell more than a politics story if that's what you're writing? You do it by telling a story in the round," he said. "There have plenty of other books that have done a similar deep dive. And when you start getting compared to something like ("Friday Night Lights"), that's probably a sign that you did you job."

Raul Mendoza, varsity basketball coach at Chinle, Ariz., High School, talks to his team before the start of a game against Holbrook High School on Dec. 13, 2016.

With "Friday Night Lights," Bissinger succeeded in drawing a nuanced and empathetic yet honest portrait of an entire community, not a mere sports book. Powell hopes he has done something similar with "Canyon Dreams."

"If he had written a formulaic football book, bad on him, and bad on me, if that's what I had tried to do," Powell said. "But he didn't. And I think this is a really good goal to shoot for in a broader sense."

In the forward to his book, Bissinger wrote of the tremendous affection he developed for the community and especially the players after a year spent living in Odessa to research "Friday Night Lights." While reporters and writers are taught to maintain a professional distance from their subjects, Powell said he never worried about avoiding those feelings during his extended stay in Chinle.

"If you're being honest with yourself, if you spend that much time somewhere, you can't help but start to feel the job or the pain of the people you're writing about," he said. "I don't worry about that aspect at all. … You have to feel what people are going through. The bigger challenge is writing about it in a clear-eyed way. I think I did that."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or via email at measterling@daily-times.com.