Photo by Gail Kamenish
She and sister Shoni have just wrapped up four hard hours of basketball practice as U of L coach Jeff Walz, whistle in mouth, demanded more, more, more. “I’m telling you to bust ass, to go hard!” he hollered as the team sprinted.
On the other sofa section, Shoni perches as though she’s about to spring up and begin racing, or at least pacing, the hallways. The 21-year-old is all eye contact and assurance, punctuating her sentences with a vocabulary of eloquent shrugs.
“Our family is so unique. We love being around each other.” Shrug.
“Basketball brought us together with more friends and whatnot.” Shrug. Shrug.
“My grandmother played basketball back when they only had two dribbles.” Shrug. Shrug. Shrug.
During last year’s NCAA tournament, University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, who has led the Huskies to eight national championships, called the Schimmel sisters, both guards, “the most exciting players in the country.” That was after the fifth-seeded Louisville women’s team defeated No. 1 seed Baylor in the Sweet Sixteen. (Vegas oddsmakers made the Cards a 75-1 longshot against Baylor, a team that had won 74 of its previous 75 games.) That was after Shoni’s over-the-shoulder, I’m-not-lookin’ reverse layup sailed above Baylor’s towering Brittney Griner and into the basket. The 6-foot-8 Griner was the national Player of the Year, having averaged 24 points a game during the season and 33 points in the first two tournament games. The Cards swarmed Griner like gnats, holding her to 14 points. Auriemma’s declaration came just before the sisters demonstrated their psychic connection during the semifinal game against No. 2 seed California: Shoni, suddenly surrounded by Cal defenders, bounced a no-look, behind-the-back pass just as Jude sprinted in, scooped up the ball and made the layup.
The U of L run marked the first time a No. 5 team had ever made the finals. It was the second time a five-seed ever made it to the Final Four. Walz and his players were calling themselves the party crashers, relishing the role of the underdog who steals the turkey before the stunned family can react.
And then Auriemma’s Huskies whomped the dog. They crushed the Cards in the final, 93-60, the biggest margin of victory in a women’s championship game. Ever. Only one winner ever racked up more than 93 points in the women’s final.
Shoni and Jude say UConn, voted No. 1 to start this season (U of L was No. 5), has no weak points. Still, they expect to beat them this year.
How will they do it?
“Score more points,” Shoni says.
The sisters started playing basketball as toddlers on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in eastern Oregon. Both were dribbling basketballs by age four. When Shoni was in fifth grade and Jude was in third, they played against sixth-graders on an AAU team coached by their parents.
Like thousands of Native Americans, they were baptized in the religion of “rez ball,” a term that refers as much to a flashy style of play as to the game itself. Basketball is huge across the Indian nation. In Arizona towns in Navajo country, hundreds line up hours early to get into arenas with as many as 8,000 seats for what become standing-room-only games. New Town, N.D., a reservation of about 1,400 located some 70 miles from the nearest movie theater, built a 3,000-seat gym and basketball court in its Boys & Girls Club. That’s more than two seats for everyone in New Town. There are Native American basketball tournaments in at least 11 states and throughout Canada. Any Google search of rez ball brings up all these things, and always, near the top of the first page, Shoni and Jude Schimmel. The Indian Country Today media network tracks the Schimmels like the Hubble telescope bird-dogs supernovae. Since the start of 2011, there have been 80 Schimmel sightings on the Indian Country Today website.
In the world of supernovae, Shoni has been the more explosive. An ESPN writer might have been the first to compare her to ball-handling legend “Pistol” Pete Maravich, but he certainly wasn’t the last. And the ESPN guy was writing about Shoni when she was a sophomore in high school.
“Just watch her come cold off the Hermiston High School bench, spin off the dribble and cause a pair of defenders to tumble like bowling pins. Then, with the defenders sprawling, watch Schimmel raise up, five feet beyond the 3 point line, and bury a jumper,” Glenn Nelson wrote. “She conjures visions of Pistol Pete. . . . Pistol with a ponytail.”
Jude’s play is not as flashy, but deadly effective. Last season she was second on the team in assists (behind her sister), second in three-point percentage at 35.6 percent (behind Antonita Slaughter’s 35.8 percent). She averaged 5.7 points per game and ranked second in steals (behind Bria Smith’s 78), with 74. When Jude does go flashy, the U of L Pep Band swings into “Hey Jude.” She barely cracks a smile when it happens, but she loves it. The song was one of the reasons her grandmother named her Jude. Shoni doesn’t have a theme song, but last season she scored in double figures in 30 games and ranked first in scoring for the Cardinals at 14.2 points and was 13th in the Big East.
“Shoni’s play is high-risk, high-reward,” says Stephanie Norman, an assistant coach for the Cards. “Jude . . . is ‘crafty.’ Jude is a cerebral player. She’s a thinker of the game.”
“It’s kind of related to our outside-basketball personalities,” Jude says. “She’s more like the outgoing one, and she’s more the one who’s not afraid to try new things. That’s another thing. I think twice about everything I do.”
“And I don’t,” Shoni says.
She showed that during the Baylor game several times, including the shot over Griner. “I got the ball from Jude, I think it was, and I just start dribbling down to half-court, and I see Brittney Griner at about the three-point line, so I’m like, all right, I will dribble this, and make a couple moves, and get to the basket before she gets there.” Then Shoni’s pitch rises uncharacteristically: “Well, my five steps was her two steps, and she ended up getting there right with me, and I’m like, oh, so I need to move . . . and it just went in.
“But I remember doing that as a little kid,” she adds, “outside my house, just shooting around, just messing around, just doing trick shots.”
“You even do that now,” Jude says.
Shoni’s impulsiveness showed in a few on-court flare-ups, too. Although she says she didn’t say a word to Baylor guard Odyssey Sims when both were charged with technical fouls, it sure looked like she did. After the behind-the-back shot over Griner, Shoni appeared to taunt her. But it wasn’t like that, Shoni says. “I just asked her how the weather was up there. I’m just kidding. I don’t really remember if I said something, it was so long ago.”
The Freshman Funk
The sisters are among 12 players to return, with only freshman forward Emmonnie Henderson and sophomore guard Starr Breedlove new this year. But it may seem like a brand-new team with fifth-year forward Asia Taylor; guard Tia Gibbs, in her sixth year as a Cardinal; and forward Shawnta’ Dyer all back from injuries, and redshirt sophomore guard Monny Niamke of Rouen, France, taking the court after transferring from Lindsey Wilson College.
This will be Shoni’s last year with U of L; she graduates in June and is thinking about the WNBA or playing overseas. Jude, who turned 20 in November, skipped eighth grade; since high school she’s been just a grade behind Shoni. She’s about to catch up again, set to graduate at the end of this year, but says she’ll stay another year and complete a master’s degree.
While Shoni has been on the honor roll a couple of times, she’s also had some less-stellar academic moments, including failing an introduction-to-philosophy class. “I didn’t know what I was getting into,” she says. Jude’s grade-point average, on the other hand, is somewhere beyond the asteroid belt, at 3.737. The NCAA recognized her as the student athlete with the highest GPA participating in the finals. In fact, she turned down an Ivy League scholarship for sports and academics from Columbia to play with her sister at Louisville. “That was probably the toughest decision I ever made,” Jude says. “If I had an Ivy League degree, I could pretty much do anything I wanted to. I’m hoping to go back, if I have the opportunity.”
Assistant coach Samantha Williams says Jude got off to a rough start, but she completely turned it around. The first year Jude played for Louisville, it looked as though a high school kid had stumbled onto the court; she was skinny, her play hesitant and self-conscious. She had little court time, a jarring change from her high school years. Even though she was always in Shoni’s shadow in Oregon, Shoni’s was the only one casting shade in Kentucky. When Shoni broke her foot in her junior year of high school and sat out for seven weeks, Jude ended the season as the Portland Interscholastic League’s Player of the Year. But like a lot of freshman college athletes, Jude found Division I competition humbling. “I had to just basically accept the fact that I wasn’t the most dominant player on the floor,” she says. It did a number on her confidence, and it honed the edge on her homesickness.
“I missed my little siblings like crazy,” she says. She and Shoni have an older brother and five younger siblings, including one sister. Given her trouble on the court, this whole Louisville thing hardly seemed worth it to Jude as she prepared to enter her sophomore year. Maybe she would be better off somewhere else. “If I wasn’t getting playing time here, I could go home and get playing time and be with my family,” Jude says. “That was my thought process.”
Walz has seen this before with freshmen.
“A big adjustment for all high school players is how physical the college game is,” Walz says. “Jude’s extremely quick; she does some great things with the basketball. But all of a sudden, you get to college, and now you’re playing against players who are just as quick — and strong.” The fact that she was a year younger than most freshmen and on the small side — 5-6 to Shoni’s 5-9 — didn’t help. Jude worked on her strength and on her game over the summer, but emotionally, her commitment wobbled. It took a come-to-Jesus with Walz to turn her around. “He told me, if I just give him all my effort, just be all here and not worry about being home, things will get better,” Jude says. “He told me, basically, to just reach out to my teammates and get closer to them. You don’t think about missing home as much when you’re out having fun or hanging out with your friends.”
The advice worked. Her teammates sensed the change. Junior forward Sara Hammond and Jude started at U of L the same year. Hammond, the first Kentucky McDonald’s All-American and the first to play for U of L, was working through her own acclimation. She had never before failed. As a seventh-grader in Rockcastle County, the high school coach recruited her to play on the varsity team. That year she played basketball for the seventh-grade team, the eighth-grade team, the freshman team, the junior varsity team and the varsity team. Now she was having trouble getting minutes. After riding the bench for an entire game against Georgetown, she crumbled — which proved to be her turning point. Hammond knew Jude was having troubles of her own. “I think it was harder for her than it was for Shoni,” Hammond says. “(Jude) was kind of quiet. She kept to herself a lot. . . . We really didn’t hang out that much because she was getting used to everything here. Her comfort zone was around Shoni.”
Shawnta’ (pronounced shawn-TAY) Dyer, who came to U of L from Marion, Ohio, the same year as Shoni, may be Jude’s best friend. “The first time I met Jude, she was very quiet, laid-back, chill. You couldn’t get many words out of her because she was always with her sister. That’s what she was used to back at home, hanging out with her sister, so that’s just what she clung to,” Dyer says. “When I got to know her, she seemed like me!”
Shoni’s transition to college basketball was almost seamless by comparison. She started as a freshman, scored an average of 15.1 points per game — ranking second on the team — and led the conference in three-point field goals. She was unanimously selected to the Big East All-Freshman team. Junior guard Bria Smith says she had to get used to “the whole spark that she had. If you weren’t ready for what she was going to do, you’d be like, ‘Oh snap! She passed to me!’”
Before Dyer met Shoni, she worried Shoni might be cocky or standoffish. After all, she had already received a great deal of attention, including a movie about her life, Off the Rez. Until Shoni’s junior year in high school, the family lived on the reservation in Pendleton, Ore. They moved to Portland when their mother, Cecilee, took a job as the Franklin High School basketball coach. Rick Schimmel initially stayed behind in Pendleton for his job. The movie follows Shoni’s rise as a Native American basketball star. But Shoni seems unmoved by the whole thing, and she melded easily with the five other freshmen. The six of them called themselves the Super Sixes. “We had a close bond,” Dyer says, “and we did everything together; we struggled together.”
Last year, when Shoni started the season about 20 pounds overweight, teammates didn’t hesitate to remind her that she had a job to do. “Shoni’s our leader,” Hammond says. “Shoni’s the person everybody on the court looks to. When she came in out of shape and didn’t do her part over the summer . . . I think everyone was like, ‘All right, Shoni, we need you to do your part. We done our part.’” If teammates saw her with a Dr. Pepper, her favorite beverage, they didn’t let it pass. “We’d say, ‘We’ll get you water,’” says Hammond.
She says Shoni never got mad.
The Reluctant Recruit
The first time that Cardinals assistant coach Norman saw Shoni play was on a YouTube video. Friends from Oregon, where Norman grew up, told her about this flashy high-schooler. The video impressed her. “You don’t see kids that can pass like she can,” Norman remembers thinking. “She’ll bring a whole new dimension to the game.” Shoni’s ability to shoot long-range also caught the coach’s attention.
But Louisville was one of more than 100 colleges recruiting Shoni — and she wanted nothing to do with any of them. “My dad would have to bribe me to talk to them: ‘Talk to them for 20 bucks,’” Shoni says. “But I don’t care to talk to them. I’m just trying to play basketball.”
Walz stuck with it, talking regularly to Rick Schimmel. “I think Shoni called me twice through the entire process,” Walz says. “Some kids call once a week, once every two weeks. Some kids, you talk to them 60, 70 times.” Walz says Shoni was easy to recruit. He simply told her she could make a difference at Louisville. So why did Shoni choose the Cards? “Jeff stayed with me,” Shoni says. He didn’t give up.
Some 40 schools recruited Jude, including Columbia, but they couldn’t compete with what Louisville had — Shoni. The Schimmel sisters used to talk about playing on different teams, but Jude knew they belonged together. Taking the court together remains a big deal. Watch the end of the Cardinals’ game against Baylor and you’ll see Shoni and Jude celebrate together. It’s what they always do.
“At the end of the game, we always have each other to run to,” Jude says.
“That was our favorite thing,” Shoni says. “It’s like, we won! And it’s like, the first person I see is Jude. And I’m running to Jude.”
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