Ryneldi Becenti (Navaj0)
Ryneldi Becenti was born August 11, 1971 in Fort Defiance, a small community on the Navajo Reservation in northeastern Arizona to parents Ray and Eleanor. From her earliest days she always had a basketball with her and received instruction and inspiration from her father who challenged her to work at her game saying, “If you want to be good, you can’t be lying in bed.” A self-proclaimed gym rat she grew up watching her parents play in local Indian tournaments and embraced their passion and desire for the game as she grew. The basketball became an extension of her and the court an extension of her home and she felt most comfortable with them nearby. So she dribbled and shot, often blind-folded on the dirt and washboard road near her house on the reservation as she followed her father’s advice. She would play long into the nights as well, until the stars and moon became her arena lights. Just as she followed the flight of the basketball to the rim in anticipation of a rebound, she followed it to nearly every successful point in her life.
It led to her first AZ high school state championship in 1988. Then, it led to a college scholarship at Scottsdale Community College where she was the country’s top junior college point guard in 1990-91. After that, onto Arizona State University where she received All-Pac 10 honors in 1991-93. She was also an All-America honorable mention in 1992-93. It then led her to a bronze medal at the World University Games in 1993 as part of the USA team. In 1996 it led to her becoming the first and only woman inducted into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame in Lawrence, KS, the same hall that includes great Indian athletes Jim Thorpe and Billy Mills. In 2009 it led her to being inducted into the Arizona High School Sports Hall of Fame. In the 90s it led her to play in Europe and eventually into the WNBA where she was the first Native American woman to ever sign and play in the professional league. And then it led to successful completion of a college degree in Sociology in 1997.
Without telling her father, she went out for Window Rock’s varsity team as a freshman. She made the team but she was also chosen as the starting point guard by legendary coach Jimmy Skeet. However, her father intervened and told Skeet to put her on the freshman team so she could improve her skills. Her first year as a freshman player at Window Rock the varsity team captured their first girl’s AZ state basketball championship in the 1985-86 season. She told her father, “I could have had that.” He laughed and said, “You’ve got three years to do that. That’s your challenge.” Two years later, as a junior, she met that challenge and finally got her state title. As Window Rock sought to repeat as champions her senior year their only loss came in the first round of the state tournament. Ryneldi remembers, “That was a heart-breaker. I thought that was our most talented team.”
But she did not stop working. Motivated by a desire to live for her mother who had passed away when Ryneldi was in 8th grade, her desire to get better and play at the college level kept her focused to continue working hard at her game. Her father’s wisdom and advice kept her grounded and strengthened against the negativity that often manifests itself from others when reservation kids are successful. “He told me about peer pressure and that people would be jealous. I was given that push from him. Once I became a good player, I knew I had to push 10 times harder to get where I wanted to go.”
Arriving at Scottsdale Community College in 1989, Ryneldi did not really know what to expect. Although familiar with the campus from early tournaments her dad had played there when she was a child she always felt a twinge of nostalgia whenever she entered Scottsdale’s gym and considered it an honor to have been recruited by Coach Bike Medder. She did have other offers to play, even some Division 1 offers, but she signed to play for the Lady Artichokes at the bequest of her dad. Just as he had intervened with her as a freshman who had varsity potential, he suggested SCC because a former Window Rock standout, Kim Ashley, had played there and her father had confidence in Coach Medder’s abilities. Her father was aware of the transition needed from high school to college basketball and wanted her to continue learning, starting slow and improving her fundamental knowledge of the game. So she came willingly and humbly, and left as a two-time NJCAA All-American. This piqued the interest of Arizona State University and she was signed by then ASU coach Maura McHugh.
At ASU Becenti was a two-time honorable mention All-America honoree and became one of just three Sun Devils (at the time) to earn back-to-back All-PAC 10 first team honors in a career. Her role as the starting point guard at ASU helped the Sun Devils to a NCAA Tournament appearance in 1992, the Devils’ first invite since 1983. By the conclusion of her two years at ASU she had accumulated 396 assists, representing the second-highest career total in program history at the time. She averaged a record high 7.1 assists per game, a record that still stands, and she tops the list for most assists in a single game with 17 against Marquette in 1992. During a game against Oregon State in Jan. 1992 she became the first player in school history to record a triple-double with 15 points, 10 rebounds, and 12 assists. She was also the only player in the NCAA that year (men or women) to record that stat.
Becenti has earned the distinction of becoming the first American Indian to play in the WNBA as a member of the Phoenix Mercury. She gained valuable professional experience prior to that, playing for Sweden in 1994. She then signed as a free agent in 1997 and was part of the first Mercury squad ever assembled which went on to win the Western Conference, but ended up losing in the WNBA Semi-finals to the Houston Comets, who went on to become WNBA champions. Reflecting on her time as a player, Becenti said, “I know I really had to work at it.” About her WNBA experience she recalls, “It was one of the biggest accomplishments in my life. I had always dreamt of getting into the WNBA and I think that the ultimate accomplishment was that I got there as an American Indian. That, and making my community and Native Americans proud, was a big deal for me.”
After her mother, one of her role models growing up was Cheryl Miller. As there were not any American Indian players in the college or pro ranks at the time, she saw Miller playing on the Olympic team and she began following her accomplishments. Ironically, when she signed with the first Mercury team in 1997, Cheryl Miller was the inaugural coach of the team, making the experience even more meaningful to Becenti. “When I look back, I feel so blessed and grateful that I did play with such great players and having Cheryl Miller as my coach. Sometimes I just don’t have words to explain it, but it is so memorable and I’m so grateful I had the opportunity.” Today Becenti is passing on all her experience and passion for the game as a high school teacher and coach and on December 21, 2013 her #21 Sun Devil jersey will be retired high in the rafters of Wells Fargo Arena.
- Arizona High School All-State (Window Rock High School) 1986-89
- Arizona High School Player of the Year 1987-88
- High School All-American 1988-89
- National Junior College All-American (Scottsdale CC) 1990-91
- All-Pac 10 First Team (Arizona State University) 1991-93
- All-America Honorable Mention (ASU) 1992-93
- Bronze Medal – World University Games (Team USA) 1993
- American Indian Hall of Fame 1996
- Arizona High School Sports Hall of Fame 2009
- SCC Athletic Hall of Fame 2011
- Arizona State Sun Devil Athletic Hall of Fame 2013
For a 1993 Sports Illustrated article about Ryneldi Becenti, written by award winning journalist Gary Smith, visit this website: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1137503/5/index.htm
Bio compiled from the following references: