TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — TAHLEQUAH, Okla — On the coldest nights of the winter, a tribal leader named Chad Smith would seek refuge in the Sequoyah High School field house, searching for a seat above the baseline.
By RUSTIN DODD
The Kansas City Star
Smith was the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, but the baseline seat was always the thing that mattered most. It’s where he watched a young high school senior named Angel Goodrich on the fast break, her 5-foot-4 frame flying down the floor. He could imagine what Goodrich was seeing: a crease on the right, an open teammate slashing on the left.
“It was like a slow-motion dream coming true,” Smith says.
For so many years, this small Indian school in the foothills of Northeastern Oklahoma had been a decaying legacy of the Cherokee Nation. They called Sequoyah — a private school operated by the tribe — “the school of last resort,” a place no Native American parents wanted to send their children. All that was pessimistic about life in this place — poverty, substance abuse and poor college graduation rates — seemed to manifest itself in the reputation of Sequoyah.
Now here he was, sitting in a pristine gymnasium, watching Goodrich and her teammates inspire an entire tribe to reach for something greater. In some ways, the change had been small. More fans at the games. More enthusiasm in the community. In other ways, it couldn’t be ignored. A million-dollar gym had been built, in part, because of these young basketball players, led by a point guard named Angel.
Down on the floor, he could see a simple inscription.
It said Sequoyah … in Cherokee.
“The sense of pride,” Smith says. “The sense of achievement.
“Angel was just a born leader.”
More than 250 miles away from Tahlequah, Angel Goodrich is walking on the KU campus, heading toward Allen Fieldhouse. She is a senior leader on the 23rd-ranked Kansas women’s basketball team, a program coming off its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 in 14 years.
In some ways, the stakes are lower now. Angel has spent the past four years helping transform a program that needed a spark, not a tribe or its people. Back in Tahlequah, they may talk about miracles and magic. Angel would rather talk about back-door cuts or the Big 12 race.
“We just played,” Angel says.
After Saturday’s 70-63 loss to Texas Tech, Goodrich is averaging 13.4 points and 6.5 assists per game as the Jayhawks play their most important Big 12 Conference season in more than a decade. But these are just numbers. And as she has learned — in the hills of the Cherokee Nation and while overcoming two major knee injuries — you shouldn’t always believe the statistics.
The numbers say that just 21 Native Americans played Division I basketball last season. They say that only 3 percent of Native American students entering college will graduate. The numbers say that Angel Goodrich should have never made it out of Sequoyah or a tiny little brick house where it all began.
“I’ve heard it all my life,” Angel says.
The little black car whips around a tight curve, the headlights illuminating the hills of Northeastern Oklahoma, where the heart of Lake Tenkiller snakes toward the horizon.
Fayth Lewis grips the steering wheel as the car keeps moving, past a little church where townspeople still meet to study the Good Book, past a plot of land where her family built an old brick house, past gravel roads and nearby woods where her children would shoot hoops and hunt for crawdads.
This is Stilwell, a town of around 4,000 people where Angel Goodrich grew up.
“Maybe you can understand why she’s so quiet,” says Fayth, Angel’s mother.
Years earlier, Fayth had grown up in these same hills, playing six-on-six half-court basketball at the local school. She dreamed of going to college, of playing basketball at a higher level. But this was nearly three decades ago, and options were limited. Fayth, though, had also seen what could happen to the kids that stuck around Stilwell and spent their nights drinking and partying. If Fayth couldn’t play basketball, she still needed discipline. So she joined the Air Force, nearly crying when she realized what she’d done.
But Fayth would find a home as the only woman on the squadron basketball team at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, Ariz. She was a shooter and wouldn’t back down from anybody. Except one day, for reasons she can’t explain, she did. She took a seat on the bench, and a man named Jonathan Lewis replaced her in the lineup.
“I never got my spot back,” Fayth says now, smiling. “But at least I met my husband.”
A few years later, after she had spent 10 years in the Air Force and three kids had joined the family, Jonathan and Fayth returned to Stilwell and crafted a plan. Jonathan would work long hours at a food plant in Stilwell, and Fayth would work for the Cherokee Nation Entertainment company. Someday, they could rest. But not before all three of their kids had college degrees.
The plan, of course, included basketball. Fayth and Jonathan had played, and their three kids — Angel, Zak and Nikki — would play, too. (Because Jonathan and Fayth had yet to marry when Zak and Angel were born, they took their mother’s last name.)
Before the family moved back to Oklahoma, Angel used to bounce the ball on the sideline of those Air Force games. When the family returned to Oklahoma, the first game started in the hallway of the brick house, with Angel battling her older brother in games of one-on-one. Zak was one year older, but on many occasions, Angel would play on his teams in tournaments, testing herself against older boys.
“I don’t think she was ever scared,” says Zak Goodrich, now a graduate assistant for the Tabor College women’s basketball team in Hillsboro, Kan., where his sister Nikki plays.
Angel was always smaller than the other kids. Her grandmother had given her the Cherokee name “Little Fawn.” But she had her father’s quickness, her mother’s shooting touch, and the preternatural gift of vision to see things before they became real.
“I really wasn’t taught it,” Angel says. “I just kind of see it.”
Angel was always the most stoic of her three kids, Fayth says, but as her basketball skills improved, Angel preferred to escape the limelight, going silent when the conversation turned to her success.
“My mom’s always just told me to let my playing do the talking,” Angel says. “I’ve always just carried that around with me.”
By the time she was in the eighth grade, Angel was one of the most promising prospects in the state. One weekend, at a tournament in Memphis, Tenn., Kansas coach Bonnie Henrickson found herself watching the diminutive point guard from Stilwell.
“In two minutes,” Henrickson says, “I was like, ‘Holy Smokes.’ ”
Angel had yet to suit up for Sequoyah , but the foundation was already in place. Surrounded by a talented group of teammates, Angel would lead the school to three Class AAA state titles in four years and a spot in the national rankings. By her junior season, the school had built the new gymnasium. By her senior season, the Sequoyah girls had become a local phenomenon, with Cherokee fans coming from as far as Oregon.
“I can still see Angel’s biggest smile,” says Cassie Moore, a former teammate at Sequoyah. “Just looking at her smiling through her mouthpiece as we played.”
When Angel signed with Kansas, she posed for a picture with her family. She was the first girl from Sequoyah to sign a Division I scholarship, but the plan was only half accomplished.
“I have a lot of ‘What if, what if, what if?’ ” Fayth says. “And I don’t want her to wake up one day and say ‘What if I’d done that?’”
On a January afternoon in 2010, Angel Goodrich retreated to an empty room in Allen Fieldhouse, a dull pain in her right knee, sadness roiling in her stomach. They had rested her on a training table, stabilized her balky right knee and turned on a nearby television. Then they left her alone.
There was achy silence, the kind that leads to too much thinking. It was all too much. With her basketball uniform still on, she lay on that table and began to cry.
The cartilage in her knee joint had given out again. One year earlier, on the second day of her freshman season, Angel had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. Henrickson had heard her scream from across the court.
The next 12 months would be a long slog of lonely nights and exhaustive rehab. If her first year on a college campus had brought culture shock, it was even tougher without basketball. On some nights, Angel would call her mom and tell her that she felt all alone.
“You’re not alone,” Fayth would say.
Now, it was happening again. After just 15 games of her redshirt freshman season, Goodrich had torn the ACL in her right knee. Fayth, who was sitting in the stands that day, went back to meet her daughter in the training room.
“I can’t go through this again,” Angel told her mother.
Fayth looked at her daughter, searching for the right words. This was not the plan.
In the coming weeks, while recovering from her second injury, Angel returned home to Tahlequah.
“A lot of people thought I was gonna go home, and not come back,” Angel says.
“You don’t see a lot of natives stay in school. There’s a low statistic that natives leave school early and go home. They’re homesick and stuff like that.”
For Angel, it provided even more motivation.
“A lot of people, they just believe the statistics too much,” Angel says. “They don’t see past that. I have a lot of (people back home) that say, ‘Oh, we believe in you,’ and this and that, and that’s what really motivates me.”
After another year of rehab, Goodrich returned to start 27 games and average 6.3 assists per game as a sophomore. Last season, she led Kansas to the Sweet 16 while setting the KU and Big 12 record with a nation-leading 7.4 assists per game. She also earned enough credits to graduate, earning first-team Big 12 academic honors.
And in the biggest game of her life, a second-round matchup with No. 3 seed Delaware and All-American Elena Delle Donne, Goodrich had 27 points and six assists. In the locker room after the game, her teammates noticed that “Angel Goodrich” was a trending topic on Twitter.
“What’s that mean?” Angel asked.
“The look,” Henrickson says, “the look on her face. For her to be able to persevere … just pure joy. It’s what she loves to do.”
On a Monday afternoon, three young girls move through the December chill, cutting a path across the open campus of Sequoyah High School.
The girls carry backpacks on their shoulders, and basketball shoes in their hands. It’s the final period of the school day, and the Sequoyah girls basketball team is gathering for practice. Inside the gym, there’s the repetitive thud of bouncing balls, echoing toward the high ceilings. They say this is the nicest basketball gym in northeast Oklahoma. And it’s hard to disagree.
It’s all here. Thousands of maroon chair-back seats. A four-side scoreboard hanging from the ceiling. A running track atop the lower bowl. Smith, the former tribal leader, says this place might not be here if not for Angel Goodrich and her teammates.
These days, it’s not just the gym. Formerly the school of last resort, they now call this place “the school of choice” — a place where students use the latest Apple products and Native American kids are prepared to go to college. More than a decade ago, the school was more than 100 students below capacity. After Goodrich left, there was a waiting list. Goodrich and basketball were just a part of the turnaround, says Smith. But the victories gave the community something it didn’t have before.
“When you have that sense of pride in an Indian institution, people want to come,” says Smith, who served three terms as principal chief before leaving office in 2011.
Smith thinks Goodrich’s impact is just beginning. A pro career — maybe in the WNBA, maybe in Europe — is certainly a possibility.
“Every kid that’s out there should know about the Angel Goodrich story,” he says.
Back inside the Sequoyah field house, Moore, Goodrich’s former teammate, stands alongside the baseline and tells a story. She’s an assistant coach at Sequoyah now, and on days like this, when there’s a break in practice, or a question to be answered, the Sequoyah girls will often asked Cassie about Goodrich.
What did she do before games? How did she practice? Was she really that modest and shy?
One of those current players, a talented guard named Lauren Young, stands at the free-throw line. She grew up going to Sequoyah games, watching Goodrich run the team, watching the community come together. She was a guard from an Oklahoma small town, a kid with basketball dreams and Cherokee blood.
When she looks at Angel Goodrich, she sees herself.
“You don’t have to be from some big place to go somewhere,” Young says. “You can come from somewhere like here … and do big things.”