Changed the Game: Ryneldi Becenti paved way for Native American women basketball players

Johanna Huybers
·4-min read

"Changed the Game" is a Yahoo Sports series dedicated to the women who are often overlooked, under-appreciated or simply deserve more flowers for their contributions to women's sports history.

Before the Netflix documentary series "Basketball or Nothing" introduced rez ball to a wide audience, Ryneldi Becenti was paving the way for generations of Native American basketball players.

Becenti — a member of the Navajo Nation or as they prefer to be known, Diné, meaning "The People" — grew up playing basketball with her brothers on dirt courts marked with flour. She dreamed of winning a state championship and making it to the professional ranks buoyed by her family and community's support of the sport. The path to achieving her dreams wasn't easy to see, though.

There were no Native American women playing at the sport's highest levels. Instead, she focused on Cheryl Miller, a Black woman who was pushing women's basketball into the mainstream while leading USC in the 1980s and winning Olympic gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

"Back in our time, we were inspired by watching TV. I saw Cheryl Miller at a young age," Becenti told azcentral in 2018. "Basketball was our ticket off the reservation. For our youth to actually see these strong elite collegiate women could inspire a lot of people."

Becenti turned that inspiration into a decorated career and several firsts.

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Collegiate achievement leads to WNBA

She earned All-Pac-10 first-team honors in each of her two seasons at Arizona State in 1992-93 after transferring from Scottsdale Community College where she was a two-time NJCAA All-American. She also earned high school All-American honors at Window Rock High School in Fort Defiance, Arizona.

Becenti's visibility at this level provided the inspiration for other Native American women that Miller's presence had given her.

From a 1993 Sports Illustrated profile:

Already the ripples were spreading. Ten Diné women, far more than ever before, played junior college basketball this year, and another, sophomore Gwynn Hobbs, started at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Four of the five Diné seniors on the girls' team at Sis's alma mater, Window Rock High, had committed to entering college next season, and all four Diné seniors on the reservation's Monument Valley High girls' team, which twice had traveled six hours to watch Ryneldi play, planned to go to college too.

At ASU, she dished out 396 career assists in only two seasons — a mark that was second all-time for the Sun Devils at the time. Her 7.1 career apg was the conference's best until Sabrina Ionescu averaged 7.7 in four seasons for Oregon.

She participated in the 1993 World University Games, earning the bronze medal.

Her ASU career led to professional basketball opportunities overseas in 1994, which was still two years away from the WNBA's formation. Before the fledgling women's professional basketball league could even start, Becenti was inducted into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame, becoming the first woman honored.

In 1997, she finally got the opportunity she had dreamed of as a young girl. Becenti became the first Native American woman to play in the WNBA, signing with the Phoenix Mercury as a free agent in their first season.

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Her achievements were recognized with inductions into the Arizona State University Hall of Fame (the first woman to have her jersey retired by the university), Arizona High School Sports Hall of Fame and the Scottsdale Community College Hall of Fame. ASU also named an award in her honor to recognize annually an athlete who demonstrates athletic, academic and leadership achievements among involvement in the Native American community.

After her professional career ended, she never gave up the game. She returned to the reservation to coach youth teams, give motivational speeches and spread the love of the game.

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