Now Streaming: “Basketball or Nothing” on Netflix

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A recent release on Netflix seems to be about basketball, but it is actually about so much more. “Basketball or Nothing” seems to be a typical sports in desolate areas kind of series. Instead, perhaps because of the demographic of the players, coaches and teachers involved, “Basketball Or Nothing” ends up being more of a slice-of-life type of series, rather than just points and dribbling.

“Basketball or Nothing” and the Navajo of Arizona

Even in the 21st century, far too many US citizens are ignorant of what happens on Native American reservations. Watching “Basketball or Nothing,” viewers are forced to grapple with the participants’ realities. Sometimes that reality involves long bus rides to school, gathering water for human and animal purposes, or dealing with the loss of a deceased parent, and knowing where local drug users are likely to congregate and so forth.

A map graphic shows viewers where the Navajo live, and where the narrative takes place. This kind of information draws viewers in, especially those who have little knowledge about contemporary lives of Native Americans.

One by one, viewers are introduced to the players of the Chinle, Arizona basketball team. The players’ personalities shine through: the hard-working boy almost too small to play; the tough kid who could be a better student if he tried a little harder, but who needs no help in dazzling on the basketball court; the freshman who is still learning from the upper-classmen, whose mother works at the school, and so forth.

Most of the students have dreams. And when the player who is smaller than the rest wants to go to college to help his hardworking mother, it is difficult to resist tearing up at his earnest dedication.

As a whole, the Chinle, Arizona basketball team is pretty good, and on the cusp of breaking records and making their school and town proud.

The film’s creators explore the history of championship basketball in Chinle. One of the assistant coaches played on the winning team in 2008-2009. The coach has a long history of creating successful teams. Even though “Basketball or Nothing” is about more than basketball, it is easy to get caught up in the moments that are about the sport, whether a viewer is a sports fan or not. During the scenes of basketball games, it is easy to feel the excitement as what looks to be half the town (at least) packs into a high school gym to watch the game. There are no bars, or movie theaters, or anything else for people to entertain themselves.

When audiences cheer for the Chinle team, they are cheering for the hopes and dreams of individual team members. The team improves its stats, but their progress, and their continual playing keeps viewers rapt. Watching the players at graduation, viewers are allowed to see which of their dreams came true. To tell more would be to reveal the outcome of the show.

Each episode is only about 36 minutes long, so it is possible to watch the entire series in one day.

“Basketball or Nothing” is as enlightening as it is hopeful. Moreover, it gives Americans a look at reservation life that they might not otherwise have had.

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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