The game was over, the press conferences complete. The lights on the scoreboard, showing the №3-ranked University of Louisville’s 68–48 loss to №1-ranked and unbeaten Connecticut, had been shut down in the KFC Yum! Center.
But the story was only beginning.
Ride up the elevator, to the main concourse. Walk around to the back of the arena, to the Woodford Reserve Bourbon Bar. It’s packed, but they aren’t serving drinks. The serpentine lines wait raucously but patiently for the U of L women’s players, who sit at a long table, signing autographs. Shoni and Jude Schimmel are there. Sara Hammond. Asia Taylor, Tia Gibbs, Antonita Slaughter. Every player.
Cardinals coach Jeff Walz told them, “You’re going to sign till the last person leaves. Expect to be here past midnight.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. The line wraps from the Ohio River side of the arena, all the way around the massive building until you reach the Main Street side.
It’s no ordinary line.
They are holding their signs. “The Navajo Nation Loves Shoni and Jude.” One teenage boy holds a sign, “Will you marry me Jude?” There are more. “AK Tlingits for Shoni.”
You read that right. AK. Alaska.
We’ve grown used to groups of Native Americans coming to Louisville from all over the Midwest, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, cheering for the Schimmels, who grew up in the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Mission, Oregon. Monday night, they came from everywhere. A boy sitting next to me held up his sign, “Ft. Belknap Montana loves the Schimmels!” That’s more than 1,500 miles from Louisville.
The U of L ticket office said they came from 36 states. And Canada. Might have been more. Mississippi Choctaws and the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewas and the Ho-Chunk Nation from Wisconsin. They brought babies wrapped in blankets. There were old fans, standing in the line with canes and walking sticks.
This is the story. I only wish I had a better score sheet.
But I’ll try to tell you a little about what it means here.
The first U of L women’s basketball game I ever attended was in Manual High School gymnasium. The team hadn’t even moved into the glorified practice gym of Cardinal Arena in the fall of 1986. Attendance was maybe a couple hundred. Maybe.
I only tell you that because Monday night, after U of L’s Senior Night for Shoni Schimmel, Taylor, Slaughter and Gibbs, there were more people waiting in line for the autographs of these women’s players than watched the first U of L women’s team I ever saw the entire season.
It was a big enough deal Monday night that a crew from HBO’s “Real Sports” was on hand to document the occasion.
Because of the documentary “Off the Rez,” because of the resonance of the story of the Schimmel sisters and their family, their mother Cici and father Rick, their surprise marriage after last year’s upset of Baylor, and the willingness of these two players to speak to groups of people young and old and to share of themselves, U of L women’s basketball has come to mean something more than just basketball.
Shoni Schimmel not only is finishing her career as the program’s №2 all-time scorer, but as one of its great all-time ambassadors. She has represented the program in international competition, in capacities in front of various audiences around the nation, and in a White House forum.
And if she, and her sister Jude, have become the focal point of immense pride for the university, they are the subject of even more pride for Native Americans, who turned up by the busload and vanload from remote areas of the nation, through ice storms and snow, to pay tribute in Shoni’s final home game.
I’m not sure the meaning of it even had hit Shoni Schimmel as she talked about it after the game. But it seemed to hit home with some of her teammates. Gibbs said, “We’re witnessing something that hasn’t been done in women’s basketball. We go anywhere in the country, and we’ve got more fans in red than the other team has at their home court. It goes to show Shoni and Jude’s character. They’re special people. And what they’re doing for the Native American culture is special. They’re kind of showing them what can be done if you jump out in a leap of faith. And that’s what Shoni and Jude did, came clear across the country, and they’re making a huge impact on all native Americans.”
U of L coach Jeff Walz said the whole phenomenon just kind of happened. He wasn’t planning on it when he recruited the sisters, and still marvels a bit at how it has grown.
“I’m not sure [Shoni] had anticipated that it would get to this point,” Walz said. “I know our run last year in the NCAA tournament had a big impact. She and Jude were on the speaking circuit all last summer, going from reservation to reservation, speaking and sharing their story, giving hope to a lot of kids. This entire year I’ve tried to tell people that. We played at Oklahoma and we probably got close to 2,000 Native Americans come and watch that game. We played at Memphis the other day and, I think, set their attendance record since they renovated their arena. And three-fourths of them were Native Americans. Every place we go, there’s a big following for (Shoni and Jude), What we’re doing now is just not the basketball part of it. It’s signing autographs afterwards. Our entire team does a great job of making sure they give back.”
What have these sisters meant to Native Americans? I can’t tell you that. Let one of them tell you.
Edwin Marshall of the Muskogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma was one of about 15 from his area to make the icy drive to Louisville.
“Tribal members not only of our tribe but all over Oklahoma and all over the United States, when the Schimmels are playing, I promise you they’re watching,” Marshall said. “For the University of Louisville to host a Native American night says something about the impact that Shoni and Jude have had, . . . It’s not about the John Wayne Indians that you’ve always seen. They represent the values and they represent the image of what Native America really is. The truth about Native American youth is it’s nothing like you think it is. It’s far better.”
That’s what these sisters have done. They have shown what is possible. And while doing it, they’ve carried themselves in a way that parents in the Native American community want their children to see.
Shooting basketball the other day, Shoni Schimmel remembered the talk she had with her mother, who also was her coach, when deciding what to do for college.
“Being from a reservation, she told me, it’s only four years, why not go see the world? It’ll be over faster than you know it.,” Schimmel said.
The time has gone faster than anyone imagined. And Louisville is fortunate that this is the part of the world Shoni Schimmel chose to see.