Diné girl plays a key role on Artesia (N.M.) team

By Sunnie Clahchischiligi
Special to the Times

AZTEC, N.M., Ariz., January 10, 2013

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(Courtesy photo – Curtis Ray Benally)

After playing on the junior varsity team during the summer, Navajo basketball player Mariah Begay earns playing time for the Artesia Lady Bulldogs.

S ome basketball players play because they were born to, while others play because they simply can.

But Mariah Chee, the only Navajo member of the Artesia (N.M.) varsity girl's basketball team, plays because her brother can't.

"I have a disabled brother and he can't play so I go out and play for him," Chee said during last weekend's Rumble in Jungle tournament in Aztec.

With her smooth skill set and knack for the game, one would never have guessed that the 15-year-old sophomore might not be playing if it weren't for her brother.

And just because she doesn't play the game for herself entirely, it doesn't mean she doesn't enjoy it.

"I can feel it when I'm on the court," she said. "I want to play."

Chee moved to Artesia last summer with her father Orlen Chee, stepmother Richelle Montoya and her siblings.

She was born and raised in Nevada with her father and mother Mary Honihan. At age four the family moved to Kirtland, where Chee later picked up basketball. Her parents divorced but she remained with her mother in Kirtland.

Her father Orlen Chee said Mariah was cut from the middle school team at Kirtland and eventually transferred to Piedra Vista but didn't get much playing time there.

Chee added that his daughter didn't play a whole lot of basketball growing up so to see her play for a school like Artesia amazes him.

"For her to come in to a school, a 4A school, any 4A school and even make the team…" he said. "I'm so proud of her, she's trying so hard and pushing herself."

While she played at Piedra Vista she lived with her mother. But after years of separation Mariah and her father missed each other and Mariah decided to move with him and the family to Artesia last summer when he was promoted.

It was a tough decision for both families, but mostly Mariah.

Richelle Montoya, Mariah's stepmother, said it was tough mostly because Mariah and her siblings were looking to fit in any way they could and Mariah decided basketball was her way of doing so.

"We all struggled with it from the beginning because there are not that many Navajo people down there much less Native American. Our other daughter, she's the only other Navajo that's at Artesia High School with them," Montoya said. "She (Mariah) was just, she was like 'I don't know what to do.' We tried to push her in volleyball, tried to do other sports for her, but she wanted to concentrate on basketball."

Mariah started the school's basketball program last summer. She attended training and camps.

All her hard work finally paid off when the varsity coach told her he was putting her on varsity.

Mariah said she didn't know what to expect but tried to work hard every day leading up to the season.

"(My first thought was) 'Am I going to make the team?' and it was just really different when I first got there," she said. "Seeing the different styles, how they play, just the different atmosphere they bring, it was just really different, the cultures and everything."

Artesia head coach Jeff Houghtaling said he knew nothing about Mariah, but after she played on the junior varsity team all summer he decided it was time to move her up.

"Her fundamentals are very good. She has really good hands and feet. She understands the angles of the game for a post player. It was pretty easy to move her into varsity once we got into basketball season," he said. "She's done very well, she chips in…does very well on defensive end and she's really disciplined. Doesn't take a bad shot. We're excited to have them in Artesia, hopefully they stick around."

In the Aztec Rumble in the Jungle girl's basketball tournament held Jan. 4-5, Chee scored six points in the first two games and contributed off the bench in the last game.

Houghtaling said her ability to learn quickly makes her a true asset to the team.

"If I had to pinpoint one thing that Mariah does the best is she takes coaching one time and she's able to take it from the bench to the floor or from the practice film tape to the floor," he said. "She has great basketball IQ."

Chee she likes to think of herself as someone who does what she can for the team. She's not sure what kind of player she'd like to become but she's happy doing what is best for her team.

"I'll admit, I get lost sometimes," she said. "I'll listen and I'll try and do what he'll tell me to do. I feel like I'm a fast learner but then I feel like I'm still trying to get there.

"I just kind of rely on my teammates. I know they count on me as much as I count on them."

Orlen Chee is from Naschitti and Honihan is from Coyote Canyon. Mariah is the middle child of both families combined, with two older brothers and three younger siblings.

Mariah said she knows that her situation, being the only Native American on the varsity team, is a unique one, but it didn't really hit her until the team's first home game.

But Orlen Chee tries to make sure Mariah doesn't forget that no matter where she comes from, hard work can pay off.

He said his daughter has been given a rare opportunity and he hopes to remind her that more can come if she works hard.

"What I want is I keep telling her, if you want something you have to work for it, work, work, work. It's what we were raised to do: Get up early pray for it, work for it get up do it, and hard work will eventually pay off," he said.

Chee said she hopes she can walk away with a college scholarship at the end of her high school career even if it is uncommon.

Montoya said she has seen the results of her stepdaughter's hard work and knows she can do whatever she desires.

"She's a hard worker, not only on the court, she is very determined to be a 4.0 student…She works very hard and she was determined right from the beginning," she said. "When she started with Artesia she said 'I'm going to be a good ball player, I'm going to be a good student,' and we are so proud of her that she's come this far."

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