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Homecoming for the Schimmels

Louisville team gets rare inside look at players' reservation life
by: JAIME VALDEZ Shoni Schimmel (left) and her sister, Jude, prepare to ride horses during last week’s visit to the Pendleton area by the Louisville women’s basketball team.

PENDLETON -

Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution stands less than a quarter mile from the Blue Mountain Community College gym. The despair and lost opportunity that radiates from the gray prison contrasts sharply with the hope and limitless potential that fill the gym.

On Friday morning, Aug. 5, nearly 100 people have gathered to watch the Louisville women's basketball team conduct a two-hour practice.

Cardinals coach Jeff Walz had been toying with the idea of bringing Louisville to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation since he first visited it in December 2008.

The reservation is the childhood home of former Franklin High stars Shoni and Jude Schimmel. The NCAA allows each team to make one international trip every four years, and with Shoni entering her sophomore year at Louisville and Jude an incoming freshman, and the Cards scheduled to go to Vancouver B.C., the following week, this was the perfect time to make Walz's idea a reality.

The Louisville team begins warming up, and the Schimmels' great grandmother, Delores Moses, shakes her head.

'This is really something, that a big team like this would come to a little cow town,' she says.

Once the team starts to play, it is as if Shoni and Jude are back in high school again. Jude runs the floor as hard as she can, and it takes Shoni only two minutes to make a behind-the-back pass.

During the next two days, Louisville will see and do almost everything there is to see and do on a reservation. But the practice is one of the most special moments of the trip for the Schimmels' mother, Ceci Moses.

When she was 24, Moses was a mother of three. Her oldest son, Shea, was 9, Shoni was 5 and Jude was 3. With kids in tow, Moses walked onto the Blue Mountain basketball team and eventually earned a scholarship.

'I was telling Jude earlier this morning that this was my old stomping grounds when they were all babies,' Moses says.

Looking at her daughters and the rest of the Louisville players, she adds, 'It's crazy. A Sweet 16 team is here.'

The significance of being Division I athletes and playing on the same court that their mother did is not lost on Shoni and Jude.

'It's pretty cool just to know my mom played in this gym and I'm practicing here,' Jude says.

'To be able to be her kid, and have your team there and play on the court she played on, is just awesome,' Shoni says.

*****

After practice, the team drives to a the Nixya'awii Community School gym. Hundreds of Native American children have gathered. The Cardinals are scheduled to conduct a health and wellness camp. That is secondary for the children, though. They want to meet Shoni and Jude.

As Shoni squints into the sun next to a World War II veterans memorial, a group of children comes out of the gym to listen to her speak.

'Shoni!' one girl yells, sprinting to the 5-10 point guard. Shoni rewards the girl with a hug, then has to give out several more.

The Schimmels themselves are a big family. The eight children have two hands-on grandmothers, a great grandmother and parents who would do anything for them. It quickly becomes clear that the kids on the reservation are a part of Shoni and Jude's family, too.

When Shoni asks if there are any questions for her, a little boy raises his hand.

'You're Keith, right?' Shoni asks. 'I used to baby-sit you.'

'I remember,' Keith answers. 'Where's Jude?'

Shoni laughs and tells him that he will meet Jude inside the gym.

After the camp has ended, a mass of children gathers around the Schimmels. The kids beg for and receive hugs and autographs.

Kailyee Fragua, 13, stands in line clutching a Shoni Schimmel Louisville jersey. Kailyee and her father, Roger, flew from New Mexico, where they live on one of the state's 19 Pueblos, just to meet the Schimmel girls.

'The tribe made known that this was going to happen late last week, so I bought two very expensive plane tickets at the last minute to come up here,' Roger Fragua says. 'If it means that much to people from New Mexico in Indian Country, just imagine what it means to the people right here at home. You can see by the excitement in the kids' faces here that what it represents is just a lot of hope.'

When Kailyee returns to her father's side, she is not disappointed by the meeting with her hero.

'Shoni was really nice,' she says.

*****

During her senior year of high school, Shoni decided to get a tattoo. The word 'timena' is written in cursive on the inside of her left wrist. It means heart in her tribal language.

Shoni and Jude have nothing if not heart. It's the reason they give so much of their time to Native American children. It's the reason they were able to break all stereotypes and thrive after they left the reservation three years ago, when Moses got the job as Franklin women's basketball coach. It's the reason they have been so successful on the court.

After dazzling high school crowds with 'Pistol' Pete Maravich-like ball-handling skills, Shoni started her entire freshman season at Louisville. She averaged 15.1 points and 4.9 assists per game and was a first-team Freshman All-America selection.

Her favorite passing target was senior forward Monique Reid, who averaged 15.5 points per game.

'I haven't seen too many players like Shoni,' Reid says. 'Maybe guy players. I'm just really happy she's on this team. That was the missing piece to our team. We had people who can score, we just needed a good ball-handler.'

Walz expects Shoni to be even more of a force this season. Improving her assists-to-turnover ratio and her shooting percentage are his short-term goals for her. In the larger picture, Walz wants to see Shoni take even more of a leadership role.

'We're expecting the growth from a freshman year where no one really knows what to expect from you, to where now there are expectations,' Walz says. 'We're expecting her to grow as a player, grow as a person, and eventually evolve into more of a leader for us.'

Having a year of college experience should help Shoni live up to Walz's expectations.

'I know a lot more of when to do stuff,' she says, of maneuvers such as the tricky passes, 'and when not to do them.'

Often playing in Shoni's shadow, Jude has largely been overlooked throughout her basketball career. But the 5-6 guard's passion and drive to do anything she can to help her team win made her a player Walz recruited hard. Walz says he plans to use her immediately.

'For our first 10 days of practice, I was very impressed with Jude,' Walz says. 'She does a fantastic job of defending. She rebounds extremely well for her size. She passes well. She does a lot of good things.

'Her will to compete is what's going to put her on the playing court. She'll find time to play, just because she competes so hard. It might be five minutes, 10 minutes or 20. What (players) do when they get on the floor is up to them.'

Jude has fit in well with her new teammates.

'She fit in quick and easy,' senior guard Tia Gibbs says. 'The first week (that Jude was at Louisville this summer), that's my little sister. I call Shoni my sister, and Jude just came as my little sister.'

Jude's first goal at Louisville is to get on the court. When she does, she expects to reverse the role she had in high school - now passing first and shooting second.

'My first goal is just to get as much playing time as possible,' Jude says. 'Then I want to be a passer mostly, not so much a scorer. Get my teammates open and let them do the work.'

After a Sweet 16 run in the NCAA tournament, some have predicted the Cards could be ranked as high as No. 4 to open next season. Shoni has little doubt that Louisville can meet expectations.

'Our team is going to be better than we were last year,' she says. 'We're going to go a lot further than the Sweet 16. We have the ability to do that. We've just got to take advantage of it.'

*****

After leaving the Nixya'awii Community School gym, the Cardinals visit the Nixya'awii Governance Center and meet members of the tribe board of trustees.

The players take a long tour of the Tribal Center and Museum. There, they learn about the legend of Coyote, the changes brought by the white man and the modern-day life of Native Americans.

The day ends with a return to Wildhorse Resort and Casino to sign autographs for dozens more people.

Now it is Saturday morning -and Jude is scared. The team is going to a ranch on the reservation so the players can go horseback riding. Jude has never been on a horse.

Her ambitions as an equestrian ended several years ago, when she and Shoni were at a friend's house in Hermiston, where they played high school basketball before their mom got the job at Franklin. Jude watched as Shoni was bucked from her horse. Shoni went forward, doing a flip before she landed.

'I plan on jumping (gates) on the horse,' Jude says, then rolls her eyes and adds, 'Yeah, right. I'm terrified.'

Jude has a few extra moments to prepare herself, because the bus gets lost between the resort and the ranch. A tribal police officer finally flips on the cherry top of his car and escorts the team to the ranch.

When the horses are brought out, Jude takes a deep breath and climbs into the saddle atop a gray horse with black legs named Smokey. Jude, Shoni, and the rest of the Cardinal players circle a large barn at a slow walk.

At first, Jude is stone-faced as she feels the power of the massive animal between her legs. As she continues riding, though, she finally cracks a smile and gives a thumbs-up sign.

When she gets off the horse, Jude is breathless and excited.

'I trotted for like two strides,' she says. 'It was fun. It wasn't as scary as I thought it was going to be. I actually knew how to control him a little bit.'

Learning to ride a horse is a microcosm of everything the Louisville team discovered during the trip. Walz is thrilled that his players are getting to see a world so few people know anything about.

'It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance for a lot of players,' he says. 'And it's not like we were tourists. We've got firsthand information, firsthand access to learn about all their history here, all their culture. That's what makes it unique. We're very fortunate to have Shoni and Jude along with us.'

*****

Just after dawn, the Umatilla reservation is filled with both desolation and hope. In one moment, it feels like as much of a prison as the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute. Then, in an instant, you can feel the reservation giving off all the hope that radiated from the Blue Mountain basketball court.

Single-wide trailers fill the reservation's neighborhoods. Even the residential cul-de-sacs are decrepit. The houses are dirty. The grass on which people park their cars is brown and un-mowed.

Driving along, though, you begin to see a pattern. Each neighborhood has a basketball hoop.

Most are without nets. One stands in a grass field. But the hoops are there.

Soon, Shoni and Jude will be living with a few other teammates in a house on the Louisville campus. The reservation will always be their home, though.

'I'm going to make a new home in Kentucky, and our home in Portland is our second home,' Jude says, as the team bus drives through the reservation. 'But this always will be home.'

*****

While the team was touring the Tribal Center and Museum, the guide hauntingly articulated what the reservation means to Native Americans.

'A lot of the people who move away come back to be buried here,' the guide said. 'That is the ultimate homecoming.'

The trip to the reservation with their Louisville teammates was a homecoming of sorts for Shoni and Jude. With their lives and college careers sprawling out ahead of them like an open-court fastbreak, it will be a long time before Shoni and Jude come back to the reservation to stay. The ultimate homecoming is many moons away.

'When you're young, you just kind of go out there and wander,' Shoni says, as the bus leaves the reservation to take the team to Portland International Airport. 'Coming back here for the final years of your life is the point where you're settling with everything. Now, I'm still trying to see the world.'