SHIPROCK — John Li has a ticket to take him back home dated for June 14.

That gives the junior at Shiprock High School enough time to finish his year abroad and perhaps help his adoptive basketball team make a run in the state tournament.

Li is a foreign exchange student from Beijing, China, studying at Shiprock. He arrived on the reservation in August, knowing little about his surroundings.

He knew there would be wide open spaces. He knew there would be American Indians. He knew how to shoot hoops.

He didn't know the language, but two points in China is two points in America.

The 6-foot, 3-inch Li plays center for the Chieftains. As Shiprock prepares for state, the team is also preparing to say good-bye to the man in the middle.

"My first thought was "How did you find Shiprock?'," said Shiprock Coach Ben Tensay. "What he tells me is the view they have of the west is almost like the old west. They gave him options and he chose Shiprock. And I'm just glad he's here."

The only thing holding Li back at first was the language barrier. Learning formal English in the classroom and learning how to communicate with teammates in the midst of the fast-pace style of game play Shiprock is known for are two different styles of speech. Li is getting a crash course in both.

"At first when I joined the team I couldn't understand the way they talked or what the coach wanted me to do," Li said. "When I can't understand I raise my hand and coach makes sure I understand all his coach stuff."


During the season the team learned one crucial part to Li's game that has increased his success on the court. Li flat-out knows how to play one-on-one basketball. If the team can get him the ball at the high post, they don't need to be able to understand him.

"We figured out on our offense that if John gets it, we clear out, because he does a great job one-on-one," Tensay said. "He will either get you in foul trouble or he makes his shot."

Li's best game of the year was against Tohatchi on Feb. 19 when he dropped 13 points and snagged seven rebounds. If he's not in the game, he's still contributing, said Deion Benally, Shiprock's leading scorer and point guard.

"When he's on the bench he's encouraging, he never shows bad attitude," Benally said. "He's always positive."

After Shiprock beat Wingate to become regular season district champs, the team rallied around Li, Tensay said. The high school's student body, teachers and faculty followed suit. At halftime of the Shiprock's final home game, Li and the team's four seniors were honored by the community and given gifts.

"He comes from a place where there's not much freedom, and look at this kid, he giving all he's got," Tensay said. After the Wingate game "they hugged John and just loved on him and I said "That is what it takes.'"

Shiprock will make a 10-hour bus trip to the opposite corner of the state to take on Lovington Saturday in the first round of the Class 3 State Tournament.

Will rallying around a foreigner who chose to visit America by way of an American Indian reservation be enough to hold together the youngest, shortest and most overlooked team left playing in the state?

Shiprock's seniors said it might be.

"No matter what we go through we're a team and we're there for each other," said senior forward Theodore Lee. Li "is a good person to talk to and be friends with. He never gives up."




10 Questions with John Li

1. What did you know about Shiprock before you came here?

I knew there was lots of (American) Indians living here. That's it.


2. What are your favorite sports other than basketball?

Swimming and ping-pong.


3. What was the biggest adjustment you had to make?

In Beijing people always rush to everything. In the morning there is too much traffic. Here there isn't too much people, it's kind of quiet.


4. What's your favorite place to eat?

In Farmington, I like to eat Mexican food.


5. What do you miss most about Beijing?

All my friends. At my old school we also had a basketball team and I always played basketball with my friends.


6. What is your favorite thing about Shiprock High School?

I've made lots of friends and they help me a lot.


7.What will you miss about Shiprock? My friends and my teammates.


8. Are you going see other parts of America while you're here?

Maybe I will have a trip in April. My program would let me go on a trip in April to New York.


9. What did you know about America before you came here?

There's freedom and it's a wide open country. I know that population is not too much and there is much national pride because I always watch TV. And I knew New York was big.


10. How will the year you spent here change you?

My English is better than before and now I know American culture as well as Navajo culture. It's been an experience.