Court Struggle: Tohono O'odham Community College Basketball Program is No More

In the western African country of Cameroon, the word "jego" means "love, greatness, riches, and favor." In the Philippines, the name "Jego" means "energy." But on the sprawling Tohono O'odham Nation, west of Tucson, a jego is the hot, harsh sudden wind that signals the possible arrival of a summer monsoon storm. The rain doesn't always show up, but the jego never fails to announce its presence with authority.

Such was the case with the Tohono O'odham Community College Jegos men's and women's basketball programs, teams that sprang up out of nowhere, led to an almost-spiritual awakening on the reservation, helped establish an identity for the school and the Nation, and then suddenly were gone like the storm that fails to materialize, leaving the promise of healing precipitation unfulfilled.

The move to cancel the programs was unexpected and left many people in the Nation upset. The teams were wildly popular on the reservation and served as a source of pride and inspiration throughout the Nation. With their abrupt cancellation, many people are upset and don't really care about any answers to the puzzling decision. They just want their Jegos back.

Every Jegos home game was an event. Tribal members came from all parts of the Nation, from the far western edge near Why to the eastern boundary of the reservation in the Tucson metropolitan area. They made the 90-minute drive from the far-northern boundary, just outside of Casa Grande, and a few would even come up from the traditional O'odham land on the other side of the U.S.-Mexico border. (For better or worse, Mexico doesn't recognize the concept or reality of native lands.) Most would head into Sells on Highway 86 (Ajo Way in Tucson), then turn onto Indian Road 19 by the Bashas' to head out to Baboquivari High School in Topawa.

Traversing the winding mountain road could sometimes be tricky. Every now and then, there would be horses or cattle just walking alongside (or even on) the road. But there was a game to get to and a honk of the horn would usually clear a path. Once out of the mountains and onto the straightaway to the high school, the drivers had a view of sacred Baboquivari Peak, where lives I'itoi, the mischievous creator god often depicted as the Man in the Maze in O'odham art. Off in the distance to the driver's left is Kitt Peak, with a backside view of the observatory and the accompanying buildings.

The parking lot at the high school was often full, with rows and rows of pickup trucks and SUVs (and only the occasional Honda Civic). The crowds would file in, individuals and entire families, old and young, city folk and ranchers. (Once when I was coaching a high-school volleyball team, we were playing a game at Baboquivari High. We had a foreign-exchange student from Germany named Eva and, looking into the stands with wide-eyed fascination, she guilelessly asked why some of the Indians were dressed like cowboys.)

From the time the players took the floor for pre-game warm-ups, the crowd was into it. Grandmothers would shout words of encouragement to the players whose names everybody knew. Little kids would run back and forth in the bleachers, yelling "Jegos! Jegos!" And the serious hoop fans would be watching the other team warm up, trying to determine who the star was and figuring out how best to attack the visiting team.

For a decade, it was basketball heaven in a part of America that could use some positivity, a sense of community and maybe a dose of shared self-worth. And now it's gone.

It's been three or four

generations since basketball took root in Native American culture; Rez Ball is now firmly entrenched somewhere between a way of life and a quasi-religion. Every nation has its legendary baller. For the Crow, it's Jonathan Takes Enemy, immortalized in the heartbreaking Sports Illustrated article "Shadow of a Nation." Among the Navajo, it's Ryneldi Becenti, the former Arizona State star who became the first woman ever inducted into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame. If there is one person who embodies what basketball means to the O'odham, it is Roland Ramon.

Built more like a linebacker than a basketball player, laid-back off the court and deadly serious on it, Ramon has pretty much always been a hoop star. For as far back as anyone can remember, girls wanted to be near him and guys wanted to be on his pick-up basketball team so that they could stay on the court all day. Ramon starred for Baboquivari High, leading the Warriors to a couple conference championships under legendary coach Gary Manuel.

He had dreamed of playing college ball, but after graduating in 1996, adulthood snuck up on him. He got a job, had a couple kids and settled into a life of pick-up games after work, the occasional Native tournament, and adult recreation leagues in Tucson. But the itch was always there.

A full 15 years after high school, Ramon was playing ball at the San Xavier Recreation Center, just south of the Mission, when he met Matthew Vargas. Ramon remembered that Vargas was a ball of energy, a fast talker with big ideas. After some time passed, Vargas had an inspiration. Why not put together a team of O'odham All-Stars and take the show on the road? Somehow, he wrangled a game against the Pima Community College team and wasn't in the least surprised when his squad hammered the junior-college squad.

Vargas then took his outrageous idea to the Tohono O'odham Community College Board, suggesting that they start a school team, one that would represent the school and the Nation in the ultra-competitive Arizona Community College Athletic Association. The Board bought in and the Jegos were launched with Vargas as their coach.

The first person Vargas thought of when trying to put a college team together was Roland Ramon. Part of the sales pitch to the Board was that the team would allow some O'odham athletes the opportunity to compete at the collegiate level. But getting Ramon to play wasn't an affirmative action or quota thing. Even into his 30s, Roland Ramon was a stone baller, someone around whom a team could be built.

Ramon remembers the moment that Vargas made his pitch. "I was surprised. I was kinda old and I had put on a lot of weight. But Matt (was insistent). I decided to go for it."

He began running. And running and running in the heat of August and September, sometimes for more than an hour straight. "I had to get in shape," he recalls. "And there's no secret to it. I just kept running."

He says that he thinks that he lost 35 pounds in one month. By the time practice started in October, he was in decent-enough shape. By the time the first games rolled around, he was vying for a starting spot against players who were only slightly more than half his age.

That first season went fairly well. The record wasn't great—not as good as Vargas had hoped, not as bad as he had feared—but he realized that he had something going. One of the first traditions that the team established became a favorite among members of the Nation. After each game, the players would weave their way through the stands, shaking hands with every single fan who had shown up to support them. (They would also shake hands with fans of the visiting team.)

"It just gave everybody that sense of community," says Ramon. "The fans really liked it and the players enjoyed it, too."

Ramon said that he saw changes on the reservation because of the basketball program. "Young boys would recognize me at the store. They'd come up to me and tell me that they wanted to play for the Jegos when they got older. That was cool." One time, he was out on a remote part of the reservation and he saw a young kid wear a Jegos T-shirt. It brought a smile to Ramon's face.

April Ignacio was one of the program's biggest fans from the very beginning. She has told people, "To have this here, in the heart of O'odham land, it means a lot."

Ignacio and hundreds of others were Jegos fanatics from the jump. While it sounds clichéd, it really wasn't a matter of winning or losing. It was about competing and representing.

In 2012, the school added a women's team and, thanks to some furious recruiting by Vargas, the men's team got good in a hurry. With then-sophomore Ramon coming off the bench to hit a couple big shots down the stretch in a win over visiting Scottsdale, TOCC found itself in the top four in the 12-team conference, good enough for a spot in the playoffs to see who would go to Nationals. (That was a crazy match-up—the Jegos against the Fighting Artichokes. Back in the 1970s, some pissy student activists seized control of the Scottsdale Community College Student Council and attempted to get rid of athletics. When they were told that such a move was outside of their power, they changed the school mascot to Artichokes and the school colors to pink and gray. Scottsdale's teams now wear green and gold, but they kept the name Artichokes.)

The next year, the men made it to the Conference championship game. Hundreds of Jego fans made the trip to Phoenix College for a Friday-night battle with the home-team Bears to see which team would represent the ACCAC in the National Championship Tournament. The Jego crowd dwarfed that of the home team and helped keep the TOCC squad in the game. With a few minutes left in the contest, the Jegos made a run and tied the game, but Phoenix ended up scratching out a close win and making it to Nationals. Still, Vargas knew that his program had arrived.

He and his players went to great lengths to forge and maintain ties to the Nation. They would speak at schools, show up at the community center and march in the T.O. Rodeo Parade, held in late January in conjunction with the Nation's Rodeo. The players would march in the parade, spend all day at the rodeo grounds west of Sells and then head over to Topawa for their game that night.

There were rumblings among administrators that not enough local players were on the team. Several of Vargas' players were African-Americans from out-of-state. Vargas said that he did his best to recruit local kids, especially Natives. One kid, Ruben Silvas, a Pascua Yaqui, played two years at TOCC and then got a scholarship to Alaska-Fairbanks.

Cracks began to appear in the relationship between Vargas and the administration before one of the cracks became a crevasse. The administration didn't offer Vargas a contract for the upcoming year and, just like that, he was gone. (He now is the coach at Grays Harbor JC in Washington state. That school's most-unfortunately named teams are The Chokers! A choker—or choker setter—is a logger who attaches a metal ring, also known as a choker, to a felled log so that it can be dragged to a skidder.)

Vargas' sudden departure left the men's program in disarray just as the women's program was starting to find its footing. Two years ago, the men's team finished dead last in the conference while the women's team went into the final week of the regular season needing to win just one of two games to make the playoffs for the first time ever. They lost them both, one in excruciating fashion.

Meanwhile, the men's program appeared to have righted itself. Coach Michael Steward, who was Vargas' top assistant and is now the school's athletic director, went through a tough couple of years but came out strong on the other side. "When Vargas left suddenly, several players bailed on us. It takes a while to build things back up. I sincerely believe that 2020-21 was going to be our year. We had several starters back and some great recruits."

But then came the word. TOCC President Dr. Paul Robertson unilaterally decided to kill the basketball programs and replace them with cross country and wellness programs. In a press release, Robertson said the decision was "aimed at benefiting the health and wellness of all our students. The new wellness initiative will focus on O'odham games, strength training, personal fitness, running, group exercises, aerobics, dance and intramurals."

The decision was met with outrage throughout the Nation. If Robertson (who is not Native and so is obviously not O'odham) were in a three-person popularity contest, he'd finish seventh. But, as (his) luck would have it, the announcement came just as the COVID-19 pandemic began raging in April. Much of the Nation, already separated by remoteness, was in lockdown and dealing with a life-or-death situation. The decision to kill basketball was put on the back burner.

(Despite repeated efforts to contact him for comment, Robertson did not respond as of deadline.)

Kimberly Ortega followed a path similar

to that of Roland Ramon. She graduated from Desert View High School in 2004, where she had starred in basketball and softball. Like most high-school athletes, she had fantasized about playing college ball but, realistically, didn't see it in her future.

After high school, she enrolled at Pima College but didn't really know what she wanted to study or do with her life. She got a job as a busser at the casino and eventually worked her way up to server. She'd go to school, off and on, but it never really stuck. "I was just drifting," she recalls.

She became a foster mother to a young girl and for two years her time not spent at work was taken up by caring for the child. But after a couple years, a court ordered the child to be returned to her birth mother and there was a hole in Kim's life. She partially filled the void by working out and playing some ball at the Rec. When the women's team was formed at TOCC, Kim was signed to a scholarship and would forever be the first Native O'odham in the Jegos women's program's history.

She immediately found a sense of purpose. She attacked her studies with a fervor that surprised even her. On the court, she pushed herself and eventually ended up pushing too hard. She developed back spasms which were originally diagnosed as severe muscle strains. She was told to take it easy, but was having so much fun, she pushed herself even harder. Then, after colliding with another player in a game, the pain intensified and she went back to the doctor. They did an X-ray and an MRI and found that she had been playing with a broken back. She took some time off and then completed her career.

"Being a part of that team completely changed my life," she says. "I made friends that I'll have for life. I discovered my purpose in life and I saw parts of the country I never would have seen otherwise," (Her team played in tournaments in Montana, Minnesota and Washington, among other places.)

After graduating from TOCC, she went on to the University of Arizona and got a dual degree in communications and Native American studies. She's now the events coordinator for the Desert Diamond Casino.

Ortega says that she understands the need for a wellness program on the reservation, but doesn't understand why it had to come at the expense of the basketball programs. She thinks that not only could they have coexisted, they could have been symbiotic. "Just think," she offers, "you could have folded the wellness program in with the basketball. You could have had wellness seminars before and after the games. Have contests for the kids at halftime. You could have the players go out to the schools and talk to young people about the importance of fitness and wellness."

(When she was told that that was a really good idea, she replied, "Well, I am an event coordinator.")

Michael Steward just

recently returned from the NJCAA National Cross Country Championships in freezing Fort Dodge, Iowa. The temperature at race time was in the high 30s and, to the surprise of absolutely no one, the host school won the national championship. TOCC had its first-ever cross country team this year (four men and one woman) and like just about everything else in America in 2020, COVID-19 wreaked havoc. The team had one "meet" during the regular season before heading off to Nationals.

Steward says that they'll recruit more kids for next year. He's busy trying to institute new wellness programs for the TOCC students and the Nation at large. But he also misses the hell out of basketball.

"I've been coaching for so long, you can't help but miss it," he says. "This time of year, you feel it in your bones when you wake up and it stays with you all day until you go to sleep."

He understands that he has to follow the lead of his higher-ups in the administration, but he also hopes that basketball will return to Tohono O'odham Community College someday.

"Basketball is just going to keep getting more and more popular on Indian reservations," he says. "And we had something special here. We had something that the Apaches and the Hopis and the Navajos don't have. We had college basketball teams at a school named for and serving the Nation. That's a pretty big deal."

About The Author

Comments (5)

Add a comment

Add a Comment