SHIPROCK, N.M. – In the sacred Navajo hoop dance, performers bounce and hop as they whirl hoops around their arms and bodies, a ritual honoring the circle of life.
For Ryneldi Becenti, a smaller hoop within that greater circle helped guide her life.
Whether it was a rusted rim tacked to a tree or iron attached to glass under the bright lights of a WNBA arena, watching a ball go through an 18-inch hoop held sway over Becenti, bringing her closer to her deceased mother, making her a role model for her people, taking her from the reservation around the world and back again.
“It is in my blood,” Becenti said. “I slept, ate and drank basketball. It was all I had.”
Becenti’s hoops quest came naturally.
Her parents were both good players, traveling around northern Arizona to Native American tournaments. Her grandmother was a player, too, a feisty one from the old half-court days who would later wing M&Ms from the stands at officials when she disagreed with calls against Ryneldi’s teams.
Weekdays were for work.
Weekends were for hoops.
And from a young age, Becenti was good at putting a ball through the hoop. Had a passion for it like few others, even for the basketball-obsessed peoples of the reservations.
That combination of skill and will sent Becenti off the reservation to Scottsdale Community College, then to Arizona State, where she became the first Native American player to start for a major college team.
She dominated there from 1991-93, setting numerous assist records and leading the Sun Devils to the NCAA tournament for the first time in nine years while adding excitement to a long-dormant program.
Becenti went on to play in the WNBA, another first for a Native American, and took her game overseas, playing in Sweden, Greece and, briefly, Turkey.
When her father became sick in 2000, Becenti returned home to take care of him and stayed when he passed, passing along the skills – basketball and otherwise – she learned on the outside to the kids of the reservation as a coach in Window Rock, Ariz.
For all that she accomplished, on and off the court, Becenti recently added another prestigious honor to what’s become a long list: On Saturday, she became the first woman’s player to have her number honored by Arizona State.
Other players put up better numbers, played in Tempe longer, led the Sun Devils deeper into the postseason. Few had the impact Becenti did in a short time.
“It’s just what she’s meant to the state of Arizona, her people,” current Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne said. “What she did on the court was incredibly impressive in only two years, but she had such a profound impact on so many people.”
When Becenti left the reservation, she brought part of it with her.
It was in her game, the fast-break mentality of “Rez” ball fused with an innate ability to see things few others could.
It was with her in the stands, the hundreds of Navajos who travelled to every one of her home games – five hours one way from Window Rock – and the Native Americans who showed up at road games not because they knew her, but because she was one of their own.
It was with her in spirit, too, her role model status to the people back home – people who had little or nothing – helping her fight through the loneliness, the strangeness of the outside world. No way was she going to join the long line of return-to-the-reservation failures.
“When I started getting more and more support, it made me work harder because I realized I could do it, that I could make it,” Becenti said. “And it helped me continue to keep playing.”
Becenti’s connection with a basketball hoop wasn’t just about the circle. It was more the angles its takes to get there.
Sure, she could fill it up; jumpers, runners, ankle-twisting crossovers to get to the rim.
Her real gift was making it easier for those around her to put the ball through the hoop.
Bounce passes through a web of legs, no-lookers on the break, passes that appeared to be going out of bounds only to hit a cutting teammate perfectly in stride at the last second. Just when her coaches, teammates and fans thought they had seen it all, Becenti would come up with something new.
When then-Arizona State coach Maura McHugh saw what Becenti was doing just up the road in Scottsdale, she had one thought: “We’ve just got have her.”
“She just had a great instinct for the game, knew where everyone was on the floor and could make the most the most amazing passes,” McHugh said. “You’d just shake your head at some of the passes she’d make, couldn’t believe she make them or even find them in crowd.”
Putting a ball go through a hoop wasn’t merely a passion for Becenti.
It was a connection to a mother who died far too young.
Eleanor was Ryneldi’s driving force, pushing her daughter to never let up, never accept good enough.
When Eleanor died of liver failure when Ryneldi was in eighth grade, it crushed her, made her stop playing basketball.
She couldn’t imagine playing without her mother.
Once she started again, basketball became her conduit to Eleanor.
Becenti’s driving force was still there, following every step of her career, pushing her to never back down.
“My drive and my motivation came just from her, doing everything for her,” Becenti said. “I think that’s how I became so successful, because I wanted it so much. The way I saw it, if I succeed, she succeeds.”
The circle of hoops eventually brought Becenti back to where she started.
For those who leave the reservation, there are two typical outcomes: The person becomes enamored with the outside world and never returns or comes back defeated and settles back into a rut of alcohol and poverty.
Becenti’s case was anomaly; she came back on her own volition.
Yes, the impetus came when her father, Ray, got sick and asked her to take care of him. But after he died two years later, Becenti stayed and became a coach in Window Rock, passing along the lessons she learned on the court and around the world.
She wanted to share her circle with her people.
“It was one of the greatest feelings because I had accomplished everything that I wanted in my life and when I was younger, one of my goals was to become a teacher and a coach,” Becenti said. “After accomplishing everything that I had, this was my chance to teach and coach and it was exciting being able to tell the kids about my experiences.”
Becenti has taken a break from full-time coaching and is helping a friend with a girls team in Shiprock as a volunteer. She still plays whenever she can, traveling to tournaments around the country to show younger players this 40-something has still got it.
The hoops circle of her life keeps spinning.