Angel Goodrich plays the Native game

Angel Goodrich inspired her Cherokee tribe by earning the first division-one scholarship for an athlete from Sequoyah HS in Tahlequah, Okla.  She continues to inspire Native Americans through her game in Lawrence, Kan. Family has not only guided Goodrich but molded her game.

By Max Goodwin

Native Americans were among the first people to embrace basketball in the game’s early years. Basketball would become a part of their culture for the next century in many Native American communities.

Basketball is a game that senior point guard Angel Goodrich, who is half-Cherokee, has always had fun playing. It’s a game that inspires childhood memories of family, friends and community.

“It’s just something I want to do,” Goodrich said, sitting down in the women’s basketball media office last week, three days after the first exhibition of the season. “It’s a game I want to do until I can’t do it anymore,”

Angel learned the game with her brother, Zach. He was 11-months older than Angel, which gave her the opportunity to always play “up”. Listening to the advice of her mother, Fayth, Angel would never play anybody her own age and most of the time played against guys. Angel developed her own unique style based on quickness, deceptiveness and aggressiveness.

She had to play that way, at 5-feet-4′ Goodrich is the smallest starting player in the Big 12 (only TCU’s Meagan Henson is smaller). The whole Goodrich family is small Angel says. That never stopped them from playing the game they love though, it just made them play it a certain way.

Angel and Zach didn’t play in AAU leagues, they didn’t have regular coaches. Fayth would bring the kids to tournaments and let them play. There were no set-plays, just running up-and-down the court and enjoying the freedom of the game.

“It was just like we would hear about a tournament and it was just ‘oh, you want to go play?’ ‘yeah, let’s go play.’” Goodrich said. “We would gather up some friends and we would play.”

Basketball was a big deal in Angel’s community of Tahlequah, Okla. especially once Goodrich emerged at Sequoyah High School, an all-Native American school in Cherokee County. When Kansas began recruiting Goodrich, coaches would have to call Sequoya HS ahead of time, or there would be no place to sit in the sold-out gym.

Sequoyah won with Goodrich as their point guard – a lot. In her first three years the Lady Indians won three straight 3A state championships. Goodrich’s senior season ended with Sequoyah just three points away from winning a fourth. Even so, Goodrich’s game had inspired the support of people in Tahlequah.

“It was amazing how many people came to our games and how big the Native community came and supported us” Goodrich said.

Native Americans have struggled to find their place in the game despite the fact that basketball has been a part of Native American culture for more than a century. In 2009-10 the NCAA Student-Athlete Ethnicity Report stated that just 0.3 percent of NCAA division I women’s basketball players were American-Indian.

In James Naismith’s book ‘Basketball; Its Origin and development’ he described how Native Americans were among the first people to take to the sport and how they played the game with their own style.

“Besides, the Indian teams are usually made up of comparatively small men,” Naismith wrote. “The fact is a distinct handicap to them; but their ability to move quickly and their art of deception overcome the disadvantage of their height, so that wherever these teams play they are assured a large crowd of spectators.”

About 71-years after those words were published, on the court named for the man who originally wrote them, Angel Goodrich is running across the lane, looming behind a wall of overgrown post players, hidden from the view of the Washburn point guard who dribbles the ball at the top of the arc in Kansas first exhibition of the season. Just as the guard makes the pass out to the wing, the diminutive Goodrich springs into the passing lane before taking off down the court with the ball on a fast break. The art of deception, the quick movement overcoming her disadvantage in height and turning it into an advantage.

By not copying her game from anybody and learning to play the way that came naturally and fit her, Angel Goodrich’s game became a perfect representation of the past Native Americans, who were among the first to embrace the sport.

The way that Goodrich plays links the game to its history. The way she carries herself serves as an example for the future players.  She has been a role model since playing in front of packed gyms in high school, when young kids would wander on to the court after games and hug her, for no reason she says.

Goodrich’s picture has been displayed on posters around campus as one of 24 examples of KU Women of Distinction. She is one of 30 seniors in women’s college basketball that has been named a candidate for this season’s Senior CLASS Award, which focuses on the total student-athlete and encourages them to use their platform in athletics to make a positive impact as leaders in their communities.

It was Zach, her older brother that served as Angel’s role model. She watched as Zach struggled just to get playing time because of his height in high school. Then she saw as he achieved his goal of playing college ball at Sterling College. Zach was named a NAIA Division II second-team All-American last season in his senior year.

“The adversity he had to go through made me see a lot in him,” Angel said. “That kind of pushed me.”

It all seems to go back to family.

“My mom has always pushed me to not let anyone tell me what I can and cannot do,” Angel said. “Just her, my brother, just my whole family, we’re all small, just hearing the support and them being there and us just teaching each other to just keep pushing has probably built me to the person I am now.”

When she talks about playing at the next level, the WNBA, her speech slows, and every word becomes clearer. She knows what something like that would mean to her community and the people that have watched her game grow and flourish.

“That is definitely one of my dreams,” Goodrich said. “For it to mean something to other Native Americans that would mean so much. To see them look up to me and say ‘she made it, she did something.’

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