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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


February 9, 2002 - Issue 55


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Cougar Shoots Down the Stereotypes

by José Miguel Romero Seattle Times staff reporter
Francine McCurtain had come a long way from the days of shooting baskets on a dirt court in the heart of the Navajo Indian Reservation.

A freshman guard for Washington State, McCurtain found herself in the spotlight on Jan. 12 when the Cougars were in Arizona for a game against Arizona State. Playing in her home state for the first time since high school, she was introduced as a starter for the Cougars.

Cheers rose from the stands, a sign of pride from scores of Navajos who had trekked south from the reservation to see her play. The Sun Devils have a hard time drawing 1,000 fans to games, but more than 1,600 were there to see McCurtain go against another player of Navajo descent, ASU guard Rainy Crisp.

"When I walked in, I saw signs with my name," McCurtain said. "I won't forget it. I saw a lot of fans and kids, and people were asking for my autograph (after the game)."

McCurtain has taken her game from the courts sprinkled around government housing in her hometown of Chinle, Ariz., to the packed high-school gymnasiums of Navajo country, to the Pac-10.

Oree Foster, who watched McCurtain dominate opponents at Winslow High School for four years, also attended the game. Foster is the longtime sports editor of the Navajo Times.

"Ninety percent of (the fans at the game) were Native American," Foster recalled. "Everybody knew of her from all the publicity she received in high school. Even people who didn't see her play in high school were there.

"We're very, very proud of her," Foster added. "We want to see these Native American athletes be successful in athletics as well as academics. Sometimes there are stereotypes that natives can't make it. But she has."

That night in Tempe, McCurtain proved she had.

"Hers is a very supportive community," said Pippa Pierce, a WSU assistant coach. "We felt that at ASU."

McCurtain has established herself as the Cougars' newcomer of the year. The soft-spoken, 5-foot-9 gunner has made 41 three-point shots this season, third-most in the Pac-10, and has scored in double figures in 10 games. Her 11.4-point average is second-best on the Cougars.

"Fran has had a very good year," WSU Coach Jenny Przekwas said. "She has been thrown into a very big role for us because of our youth and inexperience. She really understands the game, and it makes a big difference."

Basketball began to make a difference in McCurtain's life at age 6. Her father, Johnny, started coaching little Francine on the dirt behind the family home. Johnny McCurtain had played high-school ball and was a fixture around the Southwest in Native American basketball tournaments. He started taking Francine to tournaments, where her love for the game developed.

Life in Chinle, a reservation town with a couple of fast-food restaurants, chain hotels and a high school, centered around basketball, as is the case throughout the vast Navajo territory that includes parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. McCurtain learned to play what the locals call "Res-ball," a run-and-gun, shoot-first style played in Navajo towns with names like Fort Defiance, Mexican Water and Tuba City.

"You see every house with a basketball goal nearby," McCurtain said.

She was so good so young that her youth coaches ran special plays for her in elementary school.

As a seventh-grader, McCurtain met her basketball role model, former Arizona State sharpshooter Ryneldi Becenti, a former WNBA player who is also Navajo. Becenti attended a youth tournament in which McCurtain was playing and introduced herself after a game.

"She was my idol. I also looked up to Gwynn Hobbs (former UNLV player, also Navajo)," McCurtain said. "They had smooth games, and they opened the doors.''

The doors were to big-time college basketball, where few Navajo have succeeded. But McCurtain is at the vanguard of a new generation of players with Native American heritage who understand that a good game and good grades can take them to the next level. Three of those players are in the Pac-10 — McCurtain, Crisp and Washington's Andrea Lalum, who is part Chippewa and Cree Indian. That goal took McCurtain from Chinle to Winslow High, 2-1/2 hours to the west with a program under the guidance of Don Petranovich, an Arizona prep coaching legend.

Like many kids from the reservation, McCurtain had to live in a dormitory during the week to attend school. Yet she flourished at Winslow, averaging 27 points her senior year. By that time, WSU assistant Cassie Sawyer noticed her, and Pierce had already been to Winslow to see her play.

When colleges came calling, McCurtain's first official visit was to Washington State. The Palouse's extreme climate reminded her of Flagstaff, Ariz., where her older sister lived in college, and McCurtain was sold.

The Cougars are 2-17 and mired in a school-record 14-game losing streak. Yet McCurtain is happy with her college choice, having connected with other Native American students through WSU's Native American Center.

"The season we're having isn't what I expected," she said, "but my teammates and I are working hard every day. I didn't know I was going to start my freshman year, but I got what I wanted."

When McCurtain graduates and finishes her basketball career, be it after college or years later, she plans to return to the reservation, where her goal is to teach and run basketball camps for Navajo youth. The same kids who are playing on the same dirt courts where McCurtain honed her skills.

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Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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