This could become a movie, and not just because Lawrence Fiander is considering a career in cinematography.
At Yakima Valley, Fiander has teamed with Joel Yellow Owl, Jacoby Howe and Shannon Isadore to display what has come to be called Rez Ball to the NWAACC in general and the East Region in particular.
All are freshmen on a Yaks team that is 4-3 in the region, 14-7 overall and is ranked sixth in the NWAACC. All are of Native American descent.
All have played basketball — or Rez Ball, as their ancestral brothers have named it — since they were very young, with the comparative exception of Yellow Owl.
“I got started late,” he said. “Second grade.”
All came to YVCC from different high schools — Yellow Owl from Zillah, Howe from Wapato, Isadore from Toppenish and Fiander from White Swan. And while not the first from their communities or ethnic backgrounds to excel at YVCC, they are the first group in recent memory to play en masse.
They are doing so partly because their coach, Ray Funk, spent his formative years in White Swan and later played for and coached the Cougars. He has known Fiander and Yellow Owl most of their lives and has been familiar with Howe and Isadore through high school.
But beyond the obvious communal connections is another that each, along with the remaining players and coaches on YVCC’s roster, shares: They want to play as a unit, and they want to win.
“Basketball is a very popular sport in the Native American community,” said Funk, who is Caucasian. “Growing up in White Swan and also coaching there, the Rez style has been pretty much the way everyone plays. It’s an offensively-skilled style, and with these guys there is also an emphasis on sharing the ball.”
These guys, for example, have helped Yakima Valley average almost 84 points a game and recently scored 100 or more in four of five outings — all wins. They also have consistently displayed an ability and willingness to hit the open man, whoever that open man may be.
But before arriving at YVCC, and even though they played at different high schools (Yellow Owl transferred to Zillah from White Swan for his senior year), the high-flying foursome made big news on a very large stage.
They won the 2011 NABI (Native American Basketball Invitational) tournament, a four-day event at the US Airways Center in Phoenix. That triumph earned them a trip to Hawaii for another event, and they won that one, too.
“We had no idea that we were going to go down there and mesh that quickly,” said Howe, whose father, Everett, was the team’s coach. “We didn’t know each other that well and hadn’t played together. But each game we wanted to play harder, and we ended up winning the whole thing.”
Howe, after a standout senior year at Wapato in 2010-11, came to Yakima Valley and redshirted last season. Yellow Owl, who helped Zillah to a runner-up finish in the Class 1A state tournament in 2011, planned to redshirt but left school, then returned this year. Fiander and Isadore were high school seniors last season.
The 6-foot-4 Yellow Owl and 6-foot Howe have been starters much of the season with Isadore (6-3) and Fiander (5-10) coming off the bench. Yellow Owl, at 12.3 points a game, is the Yaks’ second-leading scorer behind Montero Rice (15.0), while Howe averages 10.7, Isadore 7.6 and Fiander 7.4.
YVCC struggled last weekend, losing games at Blue Mountain and Treasure Valley, but this group has faced challenges much more daunting than a two-game losing streak.
“All of them are good kids,” said Funk, who’s in his eighth year at YVCC, won an NWAACC title in 2008 and has coached teams to top-six tournament finishes in each of the past five seasons. “Academically they’re doing fine. And my hope is that in three or four years they’ll all be college graduates and will be making positive impacts in their communities.”
All four, in fact, plan to advance to and play hoops at four-year institutions. Howe is hoping to become involved in sports therapy, perhaps as an athletic trainer, Isadore is planning a career in early childhood education and Yellow Owl is seeking to become a physical education teacher and coach.
And Fiander, as mentioned earlier, is considering film editing or cinematography.
Regardless of career choices, each is presently serving as a role model to young members of their communities. To some they represent hope.
“We try not to think too much about that,” Howe said. “We’re trying to stay humble. And our parents remind us to keep our noses out of trouble, and that a lot of people are just waiting for us to mess up.”
So far the only things they’ve messed up are opposing teams’ game plans.
Or as Funk has said, “The idea is to use basketball, and to not let basketball use you.”
Howe was asked to name the key ingredient of Rez Ball. He considered the question, then said, “Just ... to win.”
And, it appears, to win at more important aspects of life than basketball.