NEW ORLEANS — When Louisville’s Shoni Schimmel whipped a no-look, behind-the-back bounce pass to younger sister Jude for a fast-break layup in the women’s Final Four, former WNBA player Ryneldi Becenti was on a Native American reservation watching on TV — and grinning at the sight of a free-wheeling style of basketball she knows quite well.
“It’s funny,” said Becenti, a former Arizona State star in the 1990s who played a season for the Phoenix Mercury and then professionally in Europe. “You can see the ‘rez ball’ in them. ... She threw it behind the back, already knew where her sister was, and they don’t hesitate to do it.”
Louisville’s string of upsets in the NCAA tournament — they’ve knocked off Baylor, Tennessee and California in succession — has been followed closely by Native Americans nationwide because of the captivating play of the Schimmel sisters, who grew up on a reservation in Oregon.
The sisters are getting a lot of mainstream attention now, and relishing it because it helps them promote the idea that there are great young athletes on reservations around the country who deserve a look.
In a sense, they aim to be female versions of Boston Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, and follow in the footsteps of legendary Native American athlete Jim Thorpe, an Olympic gold medalist and football player in the early 1900s.
On Monday, the eve of Louisville’s national title showdown with Connecticut, Shoni Schimmel noted that her mother brought her and her siblings up on stories about Thorpe, and that her older brother made Thorpe the subject of a school presentation.
“One thing that my mom has talked to me about is, you have to go out there and show that you can come off a reservation and you can make it,” Schimmel said. “Not a lot of people believe in Native Americans because they just get so comfortable with living on the reservation, because it is very comfortable. We love it there. It’s always nice to be there. But at the same time, you have to get out of your comfort zone.”
As their reputations have grown, the Schimmel sisters have met fellow Native Americans at games far and wide. Sometimes, their fans have driven hours to see them play, hoping to meet them. They’re rarely disappointed.
The sisters chat with fans after games whenever they can, and recalled two such instances this season at DePaul and Syracuse.
“We know how much they drove,” Shoni Schimmel said. “We know how exciting it is for them, but it’s also an honor and a privilege for us.”
The whole family is in New Orleans for the Final Four, and during the tournament they have become magnets for fans with Native American backgrounds.
“They figure out where we’re sitting and come and see us, take pictures and talk,” said the sisters’ mother, Ceci, adding that some fans she’s met traveled from Mississippi, Oklahoma, Montana and Canada.
The tournament has been an eventful one for the family. Ceci and Rick Schimmel, who’ve been together more than two decades and have eight children between the ages of 24 and 3, vowed to finally get married if Louisville shocked Baylor in the Oklahoma Region semifinals, which they did, thanks in part of the sisters combining for seven 3s.
The marriage occurred in Oklahoma City while the sisters were at practice the day before they beat Tennessee, but they’ve seen a video of it.
“It didn’t seem realistic,” Shoni Schimmel said. “It kind of seemed like something you’re just watching like, ‘Oh, that’s cute.’ But it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s our parents.’”
Jude said she and Shoni were thrilled that their stellar play led directly to the marriage given how much time their parents had devoted to help them succeed in basketball.
Basketball is wildly popular on reservations.
The Schimmels grew up on the Umatilla reservation until about five years ago, when the family moved to an Oregon community nearby.
But while the sisters left the comfort of the reservation, they did not leave behind the artistic style of play with which they felt comfortable.
Shoni Schimmel will take — and make — shots from all over the court that sometimes look ad-libbed, including well behind the 3-point line. She developed her range in the family drive way, sometimes so late at night that her parents urged her to stop so the sound of the bouncing ball wouldn’t annoy neighbors.
But the “rez ball” comes out more when the sisters are on the court together.
“It’s just magic when those two are on the court,” said Don Wetzel Jr., who operates the Montana Indian Athletic Hall of Fame. “It’s tough to play rez ball when there’s just one of you.”
The sisters learned basketball mostly from their mother, who played through high school and a couple years in junior college. Their father, Rick, who is white, also was an athlete, though more of a baseball player, playing one season at Stanford.
Rick Schimmel said he’s taken a liking to the style of basketball on reservations.
“There’s a freedom to go out and be creative and showcase athleticism, skill,” he said. “They make it fun.”
One of the reasons the sisters chose to play at Louisville is because coach Jeff Walz was willing to foster their creativity rather than stunt it by yanking them from games if an attempt at razzle-dazzle fizzled.
“Some coaches think I’m crazy, but I want them to go out there and have fun,” Walz said this week.
Back in New Mexico, on the eastern Navajo Reservation, Becenti watches the Schimmels and hopes more major college coaches are as well.
“Right now they’re making such a statement on the court, I hope it’s opening the eyes of other coaches who say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to scout these reservations,’” she said.
Shoni and Jude have five younger siblings who play basketball, including one girl, 13-year-old Milan, who is 5-foot-6 and left-handed. Milan hopes to play in college, and might find more than Walz tracking her development.
Earlier this week, UConn coach Geno Auriemma called Shoni and Jude two of the most exciting players in women’s college basketball, adding: “what they’ve done ... has had everyone stand up and take notice of these two kids and the joy they play with, the fearlessness that they play with.”
Then, Auriemma added, “I gotta get a couple of those players for myself.”