Ariz. - The crowd of 6,000 at Northern Arizona Universitys
Skydome was thoroughly bored during a recent afternoon as the
Navajo girls team from Winslow was easily beating its foe
at the regional Class 3A basketball tournament.
then, cheers rang out during a timeout and youngsters surged toward
the rail of the arena.
Arizona guard Kodiak Yazzie had arrived to prepare for NAUs
night game against Weber State. Dozens clamored for his autograph
as he accommodated all with a smile before disappearing beneath
a familiar routine for Yazzie, 23, a member of the Salt Clan from
the southwestern part of the Navajo Nation.
he goes, hero worship follows. Thats what its like when
youre generally regarded as the best Native American player
in Division 1-A basketball. Yazzie reflected back to his senior
year at Coconino High School in Flagstaff. There was a cult of personality
that followed him whenever his high school team would play on the
remember one time when we played at Chinle and I threw down a couple
of dunks. After the game, there were all these little kids asking
me to sign autographs," he said.
a six-foot, three-inch senior, averaged nine points a game for the
Lumberjacks, who were in the semifinals of the Big Sky Conference
basketball tournament and were hoping for their first appearance
in the NCAA tournament since 2000, when Yazzie was a redshirt freshman.
regarded as one of the best defenders in the Big Sky, always drew
the defensive assignment on the opposing teams top offensive
threat throughout the season. That, despite the trauma of finding
out before the start of the season that he had a hole slightly larger
than the size of a quarter near a valve in his heart that will require
surgery after Yazzie graduates in May.
strangest of chapters in Yazzies life started in August when
he was poring over a customers financial background while
interning as a loan officer at the Native American Bank in Denver.
felt a slight pain in his chest that persisted for a week. Then,
the next week the pain was even worse.
flew back to Flagstaff to prepare for his final year in school.
His mother insisted that he see a cardiologist.
a probe of Yazzies heart, doctors found the hole. They also
determined that they could not catheterize and patch the hole because
it was too close to the valve and there wasnt enough tissue
on which to attach a seal
just broke down and cried in the recovery room when we broke the
news," said Yazzies mother, Donna Zimmerman of Flagstaff.
"He was so upset. He wanted to quit school and basketball."
a number of cardiologists huddled and quickly concluded that since
Yazzie was young and in excellent physical condition, he could play
his senior season without much risk. Since then, he has taken an
aspirin a day to keep his blood thin.
surgery will be conducted on May 12 in Phoenix, four days after
the honors student receives his bachelors degree in
also feels lucky just to be on the court.
one point I wondered if I was going to be here at all," Yazzie
said her son constantly monitors whether he is having extended heart
palpitations. So far, so good.
NAU Coach Mike Adras said hes going to be sad to see Yazzie
go since "hes one of the most cerebral players Ive
ever coached in analyzing defensive situations."
Yazzie never developed a relationship with his father, he has stayed
close to his grandparents, who are in their 80s and herd sheep in
the Birdsprings community of the Navajo Nation. As a child, Yazzie
said he often found himself at the knee of his grandfather listening
to ancient stories.
also said he had a positive basketball role model in his cousin,
Edison Bahe, another former Flagstaff Coconino High star in the
late 1980s, who is generally regarded as the best big man ever from
the Navajo reservation. Bahe played collegiate ball at Yavapai College
said he plans a career in business finance following graduation.
He said he hopes to be able to help Indian tribes receive private
financing for various projects like housing. But first, theres
the operating table.
positive thing here, though, is that the cardiologists have told
me that on a scale of one to 10, that this surgery is only a one
for difficulty," Zimmerman said. "Hell be as good