Playing
With Pride

Angel Goodrich just wanted to play basketball and with the help of her family and coaches, she’s made it all the way to the WNBA.

 

Hundreds of people wait outside Sequoyah High School’s gym Tahlequah, Okla.

Waiting, just waiting, to get inside to watch a basketball game. A girls basketball game, of all things. The Lady Indians may win the 2008 state championship and take the title home for the fourth time in a row. Don’t try to talk your way in. Even that NCAA Division I recruiter who drove four and a half hours to get here from Lawrence, Kan., probably won’t get inside.

Pride lives here. Pride in a nation, a school, a team. Pride in a 5-foot-4 point guard named Angel, daughter of Fayth and Jonathan. They live in Stilwell, about 30 minutes from here. Maybe you know them. Maybe you’ve heard of her.

Or maybe you’ve heard of Angel Goodrich as the point guard who shattered assist records at KU. Who tore her ACL, twice. Who came back to play, twice. Who became the highest drafted Native player in WNBA history.

But back to Sequoyah, where the Cherokee men, women and children are waiting outside to see her. All that waiting and all that pride are on the shoulders of Angel. Those hundreds waiting outside have come to see her.

As for Angel? She won’t say much. She just wants to play.

Fayth and Jonathan Lewis met on the basketball court at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, Ariz. She was an offensive player, he was a defensive player. Fayth is Cherokee, Jonathon is black. She’s “huggy,” like their oldest son and youngest daughter, Zach and Nikki. If Fayth wants a hug from Jonathan or Angel, she has to ask for it.

They had their first two kids, Zach and Angel, while they lived on the base. At base courts, the two would toddle on the sidelines bouncing a basketball up and down.

 

Wanting to be closer to Fayth’s relatives, the family moved to Stilwell, Okla., located at the Ozark Mountains’ foothills. Seven days a week, whenever they weren’t at school, the three siblings – Zach, Angel and Nikki – played basketball on the gravel driveway.  Fayth coached Zach’s team when he was in the fifth grade. There was no team for Angel, who is a year younger than Zach, but during one of the tournaments organizers held a free throw contest during halftime. Fayth made Angel participate, even though the thought of shooting in front of a crowd made tears run down the girl’s cheeks. She won.

In fifth grade, Angel joined a team that played only five games, and one team they played twice. Sometimes her coach took her out because he worried she would just run up the score, he told Fayth.

Fayth pointed out that when Angel was on the sidelines, the team couldn’t get the ball past the half court line. Besides, Angel would never run up the score. She just wanted to play.

“I think most of the time the ball started in my hand, and I kind of danced it, then got it to someone else,” Angel said. “I thought it was more fun like that. I saw players who wanted to do it all, score, pass, get all the points, but for me it was getting everyone involved, worrying about who didn’t touch the ball.”

When Zach was in the eighth grade, Fayth decided she would send her children to Sequoyah High School in Tahlequah. Founded as the Cherokee Orphan Asylum in 1871, then operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs until 1875, the school is 100 percent Native American students. Fayth had attended graduations there for nieces and nephews and saw that kids were getting academic scholarships to college. Her children were going to go to college – she’d made up her mind on that, too – and they were going to get there by getting an academic scholarship, Fayth told herself. An athletic scholarship was never on her mind.

You could tell they weren’t there to watch the girls. That stood out in my head. Once people started coming to watch us, that was amazing. Angel Goodrich

 

By the time Angel was in eighth grade, she knew she would be going to Sequoyah, where the girls knew how to make it past half court.

Angel’s team played in national tournaments, and Bonnie Henrickson, the University of Kansas women’s basketball coach, was at the same tournament in Memphis as Angel’s team. Henrickson heard from coaches about a special little point guard from Oklahoma. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t reached high school yet, Henrickson said.

“In this business you start taking notes at birth, almost,” she said.

Angel joined the Lady Indians basketball team as a freshman. During her first game, she almost recorded a quadruple double.

Members of the Cherokee Nation started noticing the little point guard. They noticed she was a main reason the team was winning. Hundreds of fans showed up before games, where play-by-play of the games was broadcast in Cherokee.

“The first game I went to, the gym was getting packed, but only because they were coming to the boys’ game,” Angel said. “You could tell they weren’t there to watch the girls. That stood out in my head. Once people started coming to watch us, that was amazing.”

That year, her team won the state championship. The team won again her sophomore year. And again when she was a junior, where she averaged 17.9 points, 7.5 assists and 6.4 rebounds per game.

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The Cherokee Nation started coming to games, joining Angel’s family, who has always been involved in her playing. If the kids wanted to do something, Fayth would make it happen, she said, even if that meant taking a second job with a paper route to pay for their education.

“If you know Angel’s family, they were at games, they were always there,” said Chad Smith, the former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1999 to 2011. He would rearrange his schedule to come to Sequoyah basketball games to watch Angel, the “little young Michael Jordan,” he said.

Fayth also told her kids that if they ever wanted to stop playing, they could. The summer before her senior year of high school, Angel attended a friend’s birthday party at a lake and told her mother she had never just hung out like that, sitting in the sun. Summers had been spent inside gymnasiums. Angel liked hanging out in the sun.

But at the start of senior year, she was back on the court. She couldn’t stay away. She just wanted to play.

Halfway through Angel’s senior year, before the state championship where three points separated her team from taking its fourth title in a row, she caught the attention of a New York Times reporter who wrote about the “shy sliver of a guard.” About how the KU commitment was the face of the Lady Indians and the main force behind Sequoyah becoming the first all-Indian school to receive an invitation to the Nike Tournament of Champions. About how she had energized a tribe and how the team forged a “trail of cheers” – an unfortunate Trail of Tears pun – wherever they went.

Two-thirds a way through the story, the author mentions the statistics stacked against Angel. How Indians make up less than 1 percent of all female athletes and how coaches expressed concern that Angel couldn’t stay for four years.

“There’s still that stigma that Native Americans are not going to stick with it,” Sequoyah coach Bill Nobles said in the story. “They’re these belief structures that are slow to break down, that they’re going to get homesick, get pregnant, get involved with alcohol or drugs. That’s one of the things I talk to Angel about.”

During her career at KU, those statistics became the least of her worries.

 

At her second practice with the KU basketball team, Angel tried to jump-stop going left. Her knee gave out.

From across the court, Henrickson heard a scream. No cursing, though. Her teammates have never heard her say anything more severe than “shoot” or “dang it.”

Her anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee tore, ending her freshman season.

“She’d tell me stories, how tough it was and how like just not having, feeling like you didn’t have anybody cause you’re here for basketball and then that gets taken away,” senior forward Carolyn Davis said.

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The mental aspect of her injury was just as difficult as her physical injury, Angel said. She didn’t so much as dribble a basketball for five months, the longest she had ever gone without playing. She felt the pressure: Maybe she was too short. She was injured. She is Native, and the statistics were stacked against her.

The next year, after rehab and moments where she considered going home, Angel was back on the court. With her range of motion back, she had 100 assists in 13 games, shattering the prior record at KU.

Fifteen games into the season, she planted her right leg to let an Oklahoma State defender go by when she crumpled to the Allen Fieldhouse floor. This time, it was her other knee’s ACL that had torn. Once again, she traded practices for rehab sessions and a chance at a NCAA ranking for knee surgery.

“The first time, I kind of thought to myself, ‘I don’t know what I would do if this happened to me again,’“ Angel said. “The second time, I was in shock.”

This time, the only thing that could get her through was family, so she went home to Oklahoma to recover. Fayth told her if she could get through the first injury, she could get through the second.

“I think there was a nanosecond in there, thinking ‘maybe I can’t do this again,’ and it didn’t last very long, honestly minutes,” Henrickson said. “She’ll tell you it made her a better player.”

Within two years, she’d be the assist leader in the nation.

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The No. 12 seed Jayhawks are not supposed to beat the No. 4 seed South Carolina in the second round of the 2013 NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

Angel’s family found a Buffalo Wild Wings to watch the game, after a snowstorm forced the family to turn back around when they reached the Kansas-Colorado state line earlier that week.

The announcers are having trouble keeping up with No. 3 at the Coors Event Center in Boulder, Colo. The two men don’t seem to possess the same gift of seeing things before they happen that Angel does.

“Is she going to pass it to Bunny? No, she passes it to Monica Engelman. Shot!”

Stories after the game, with headlines like “Kansas Upsets South Carolina 75-69,” emphasize Engelman’s career-best 27 points but gloss over Angel’s eight assists that made it possible.

“Whatever the point guard is doing, if she’s pushing tempo or she’s being aggressive, that’s going to trickle down and affect all other players,” Engelman said. “By her doing that she made me play harder.”

On Twitter, fans took notice throughout her senior season. During a game against Delaware, “Angel Goodrich” had been a nationwide trending topic. When someone mentioned it to her, she asked “what’s that mean?”

During the NCAA tournament game, fans were live-tweeting the game:

(Angel is) making her presence felt through giving.

Cherokee player Angel is carrying her team.

Angel Goodrich is so little!

“She’s impacted a lot of people, probably more than she could ever imagine,” Henrickson said.

She didn’t mean to impact anybody, she said. She just wants to play.

 

Angel knew she wanted to play in the WNBA.

Technically, she had always wanted to play in the NBA because she didn’t know there was a pro league for women. Her favorite player was Allen Iverson, who, despite being only 6-feet-tall, was an NBA superstar.

“I just wanted to continue to play, no matter what,” Angel said.

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Some projections for the WNBA 2013 draft, where teams decide which college seniors they want to play for them, put Angel in the first round.

Angel wasn’t invited to watch the draft in person in New York, which meant she didn’t have a guaranteed spot in the first round. She watched the other athletes’ fates be decided on ESPN as she sat at her trainer’s house in Lawrence with Davis, who was also a projected draft pick.

First round: not there. Second round: nothing. The third round wasn’t broadcast on TV, but was being streamed on wnba.com. By the time the third round started, Angel started playing games on her phone.

Then she heard a shout from another room, telling her to come look at the computer screen.

Tulsa Shock (9-25), Angel Goodrich.

Shock coach Gary Kloppenburg had watched Angel before when he drove from Tulsa to watch KU play Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla. He liked the small guards who could penetrate. He could see her being able to “come off the bench, energizing the team and maybe getting a couple easy threes.”

“We had an advantage seeing her right here in Indian Country so we knew what she could do and being from down the road we knew her history,” said Kloppenburg, who left the team in October 2013.

He’s not entirely sure why Angel fell so far down in the draft. Maybe other teams didn’t do their homework on her, he said. Or maybe they worried about her size. But none of that mattered anymore after her name was announced.

The 29th pick overall, Angel became the highest-drafted Native player in WNBA or NBA history. And though Navajo-Oglala Lakota guard Warlance Foster came close when he tried out for the Denver Nuggets in 2003, historians say no Native hoopster has been drafted or played in the NBA.

 

For the first time, Angel had to survive tryouts, where both new players and veterans were competing for a spot, Kloppenburg said. In the summer of 2013, Angel made the team as a backup to Skylar Diggins, a Notre Dame point guard who was drafted in the first round.

The Cherokee woman wore the Tulsa Shock’s gold jersey, the one with “Osage” – the team is in a partnership with Osage Casino – printed on the front.

Like the transition from high school to college, Angel had to adjust to living in a new city and playing a more intense game. She was playing against the top players in the country. And she was one of them.

Her family went to every home game, and though she had a furnished apartment in Tulsa, she went home to Stilwell every weekend.

“She wanted to enjoy her home-cooked meals any chance she got,” Fayth said.

She sat on the sidelines of a game early in the season because her knee was hurting. She suffered a slight concussion when she was hit going for a layup against Chicago and hit her head on the court floor, and sat out for a week. She didn’t like sitting out, she said.

Angel started 16 of her 31 games, and at the end of the season, she ranked No. 10 in the WNBA in assists per 40 minutes. Her mother said a lot of people in Tahlequah didn’t know she was on the team because the players who didn’t score didn’t get a lot of coverage.

That’s fine with Angel – she was playing on her home on the basketball court, in her home state.

“Attention is not really something that is a big deal for me,” Angel said. “If I get it I still don’t think it’s a big deal, it’s not something that is in my mind. As far as scoring, I’ll do it if I need to.”

Goodrich 1 Goodrich 3

 

Angel’s agent called at the end of the summer season with another chance to play professionally in Europe. During the WNBA offseason, players often start on professional teams abroad to make extra money and be able to play year-round. WNBA players earned between $37,950 to $107,000 in the 2013 season. Abroad, they can make as much as six times that amount.

The best offer, he said, was to play for Russian basketball club Vologda-Chevakata, based in Vologda, a city of about 300,000 about 290 miles from Moscow in the northeast part of the country, about 290 miles from Moscow and 5,380 miles from  Tahlequah.

Again, she faces a new city, new type of playing, but this time she doesn’t know the language or anyone around her. It’s not safe for her to go anywhere by herself, so she’s rarely alone.

It’s tough, she said. She doesn’t understand much of what the referees are saying, but she likes her team. She tries to send text messages to her family every day, and she and Fayth spoke on Skype once, but since then Fayth hasn’t been able to figure out the video chat system.

“I told her to ‘take a basketball home and practice on your drills,’ but she said she would probably tear up the floor, because it’s an old wooden floor,” Fayth said.

She’ll be in Europe until the end of April 2014. They want her to win, but the family has set its sights on when Angel’s team gets knocked out of the playoffs.

That’s when she’ll get to come home.

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