Shoni Schimmel isn't a rock star or a movie star. Though as she walks around New Mexico's capital city — sometimes with her parents and five of her seven siblings as an entourage — the second-year WNBA player seems like she is. Especially at the Santa Fe Indian School, where her mom is the varsity boys basketball coach. Schimmel has visited many times, but her presence is still cause for excitement. If students spot her between classes, they scream her name and wave frantically. Those who meet her in the school's pueblo-style buildings reach for whatever objects are nearby and ask her to autograph them. Sometimes kids present her with pieces of paper, but often it's an object they will keep close to them, such as their shoes, iPhone cases, or even the shirts they are wearing. It shows just how much Schimmel's celebrity status has increased over the last year.
The 22-year-old became the highest drafted Native American player in the WNBA when the Atlanta Dream selected her with the eighth pick last April. Schimmel's large fan following made her No. 23 jersey the league's top seller, and the Dream's first player off the bench was even voted a starter on the Eastern Conference All-Star team by the fans.
She thanked them by scoring an All-Star record 29 points in her debut and also dishing out a game-high eight assists. She helped the East win, earned MVP honors, and infused the game with something extra: a little bit of style.
Schimmel learned to play growing up on a Native American reservation, dishing out behind-the-back and no-look passes. That snazzy, fast-paced style is known around the country as Rez Ball.
Schimmel's game led Dream coach Michael Cooper to call her Showtime, after the Lakers teams he played on in the 1980s. Following her memorable rookie year, the point guard is ready to become a true WNBA star worthy of her nickname.
GROWING INTO THE GAME
Schimmel grew up on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, a community of about 3,000 people in northeast Oregon. Everything the Schimmels needed — family, close friends, and an outdoor basketball court — was nearby.
When she was four, Schimmel began playing basketball. She developed a passion for it despite her older brother, Shae, telling her that a girl couldn't play with the boys. The siblings were the perfect competitors, and the tight-knit community was the ideal place to play, often until the early hours of the morning.
Schimmel became a gym rat and incorporated the Rez Ball style into her game.
"It's not your typical X's and O's basketball. It's a lot of different types put together," Schimmel says. "It's the AND1 mix-tapes, the Globetrotters, the NBA — and it's not structured. You play with your heart and your senses. You never know what to expect, which is why I like it."
Schimmel sold breakfast burritos door-to-door in order to pay entry fees for AAU tournaments and competed against boys. By the time she was in high school, she was consistently embarrassing the grown men she played against in pickup games.
"Living on the reservation built me into who I am," Schimmel says. "My grandparents taught us about Native American culture and history, and my parents coached us. They helped me become comfortable trying new things and with who I was on the court."
Though the family's life was comfortable on the reservation, Shoni's parents wanted to show their children that they could move and still maintain their Native heritage. Her mom, Ceci, took the head coaching job at Franklin High in Portland, Oregon. The move would prove to be invaluable to her eldest daughter.
In Shoni's senior season at Franklin, ESPN ranked her the eighth-best recruit in the country. She averaged 29.8 points, 9.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists, and 5.5 steals per game, attracting a long list of college suitors.
Though she'd already had success at Franklin, many people — some from her own community — questioned if Schimmel could succeed beyond high school. According to the Census Bureau, Native Americans are far less likely to receive college degrees than any other major ethnic group in the U.S.
Schimmel decided to travel 2,300 miles to the University of Louisville to play for coach Jeff Walz, who was intrigued by Schimmel's style.
"Shoni was able to change the game with her shooting and passing," Walz says. "She had unbelievable range and great court vision. You always wanted to have your hands up because if you were open, Shoni was going to find a way to get you the ball."
Schimmel adapted to the faster game speed and quickly figured out which moves and passes she'd made in high school wouldn't work in college. "I had all the right things [in my game], but it wasn't until college that I had some help understanding the game," Schimmel says.
She was named to the Big East's All-Freshman team after starting 35 times and earned all-conference honors over the next three years. As a junior, Schimmel led Louisville to the national championship game with her younger sister Jude, then a sophomore.
The Cardinals lost that 2013 title to UConn, but the next spring Schimmel, who studied communication, earned the accomplishment her community values most: a degree. "I take pride in it because I want to be a leader," she says. "Hopefully Jude and I have shown people that if we can do it, they can do it."
Her influence has indeed expanded beyond the basketball court. Says Christie Abeyta, a U.S. history teacher at SFIS, "To see her maintain fundamental values that indigenous people around the world share — she's given Native communities a role model."
DARING TO BE DIFFERENT
In many ways, Schimmel's move to the WNBA mirrored her transition to college: She had an immediate impact.
Over her first four games, she had 37 assists, a league record for that time frame. Though she struggled with periods of limited playing time and turnovers (4.6 per 40 minutes), she remained a crucial player for the Dream, helping them dazzle fans and finish with the Eastern Conference's best record. "When Shoni has the basketball in the open court, people are just waiting for the next pass or shot," says Walz. "She brings a flair to the game and makes it more exciting."
Schimmel wants to help lead the Dream to a title. She'll watch film and figure out ways to be even craftier and smarter, and she'll continue to take Rez Ball to a new level.
"What's the point of living in a box?" Schimmel says. "You have to get out of your comfort zone in life to be able to make it where you want to be. While it's not going to be pretty every day, there's no limit to what you can do. I'm some little Indian kid from Oregon, and [being in the WNBA] is something you dream of or see in a movie. Next thing you know it's my life."
Photos: Eric Swanson for Sports Illustrated (portrait, with students), Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images (action)
Shoni Schimmel Will Dazzle and Inspire this WNBA Season
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