Sitting just inside the boundaries of the Navajo Indian Reservation and drawing its 200 students from as far away as 20-plus miles, Whitehorse High is not lacking in storylines.
Its 350-mile distance from Salt Lake City makes it the second-most remote high school in Utah, but Whitehorse has been competitive in several different sports. And eligibility concerns - both attendance and academic woes - resulted in a pre-practice study hall instituted by basketball coach Kenneth Joe, who has taken his teams to state four times in the past eight years.But the really big story at Whitehorse and around Montezuma Creek is 6-foot-4, 195-pound senior Jimmie Clah. The Navajo is posting some really big numbers on the court as perhaps the state's most prolific scorer this season - breaking the 40-point barrier in 7 games and averaging 36 points through 14 games this year.
However, few people in the state have even heard of Clah, let alone know of his feats. In fact, the 18-year-old is likely to be mentioned more often by out-of-state newspapers, like the New Mexico newspapers in Albuquerque and Farmington or its Colorado counterpart in Durango.
Sure, some of Clah's successes come from his unusual size - his 6-4 stature believed to be taller than any other student in the 12-year history of Whitehorse High. Part of his 60-percent field-goal average can be attributed to a number of short jumpers and inside work close to the basket.
Other strengths include a quick move to the hoop and a sharp shooting touch. "Anytime he has the ball around the basket, you're pretty sure he's going to go for the basket," says Joe, admitting that Clah could improve on defense and in his jumping abilities. "He handles the ball well and he's a good 3-point shooter - I really feel he's better off playing guard if he's going to make it in college."
More than a sizeable Navajo novelty, Clah can be considered typical - for both his culture and his age. He performs at pow-wows in singing groups and drumming ensembles, but he's also comfortable playing Nintendo and hanging out at the mall - just a two-hour drive away in Farmington, N.M.
And the two worlds can fit nicely side by side, as evidenced by his home atop a mesa above the nearby Navajo community of Aneth. Off to one side of the house rests a ceremonial hogan; off to the opposite side, a makeshift, single- basket outdoor court as well as the first rim that Clah shot at as a youngster. That makeshift hoop was created from a small bicycle rim being nailed to a couple of 2-by-10s and secured to the top of a shed, with the rim some eight feet off the clay dirt and scattered weeds and brush.
Playing basketball started at home; the scoring started in Clah's first game in "agency ball" - leagues sponsored by the Bureau of Indian Affairs schools - on Navajo Nation Pee-Wee championship teams during the fourth, fifth and sixth grades. "I scored 25 points in my first game in the fourth grade, but there were about 14 double-dribble calls against me," recalled Clah.
His junior-high teams during the seventh and eighth grades suffered only one defeat - a five-OT loss to Monticello. And by the time Clah was a freshman, he was holding his brothers - several years older but now a couple of inches shorter - to single-digit scoring in family games of 21.
As a freshman at Whitehorse High - named after his step-father's grandfather, Old Man Whitehorse - he was playing for both the varsity and junior varsity teams. As a sophomore, he helped the Raiders to a sixth-place finish at the 1A state tournament and started his penchant for tallying big- point performances that has carried through his junior and senior seasons.
Spending the past two summers with a brother living in near Kansas City, Clah has participated in the University of Kansas summer camps. Those clinics - plus the Whitehorse practices and off-season camps - have helped negate some bad habits Clah picks up as a sought-after player in the local basketball tournaments, with as many as five or six such fundraising events scheduled each weekend.
"Down here, basketball is a year-round sport," said Joe. "Basketball and rodeo - you play basketball and then ride the next day or vice versa, every weekend."
Rodeo poses little distraction for Clah, but others around him say his athletic ability could have carried over into football, baseball or track.
And "potential" seems to be the key word for his classroom efforts, too - Principal Ronald Barlow says Clah's academic achievements are adequate for maintaining basketball eligibility but still trail his capabilities.
It is Jan. 22, a Tuesday night and time for Whitehorse's most recent home game against Arizona's Red Mesa - the Raiders' closest rival at 20 miles away. Whitehorse is looking to sweep its interstate foe for the third time this season, having beaten Red Mesa in the championship of the Redskins' preseason tournament and a subsequent rematch at the Arizona school.
Joe sees the non-counting, non-league game against Red Mesa as a chance to have the Raiders rest up before facing second-ranked and defending league champion Green River three days later. Forwards Hutch Johnson and Alan Barlow, are ailing with shin splints and shoulder tendinitis, respectively, and aren't expected to see any action, although the 6-2 Johnson and 6-1 Barlow make brief cameo appearances in the fourth quarter. That means the Raider roster is essentially comprised of the 6-4 Clah and a half-dozen sub-6-foot teammates.
Whitehorse shows its explosive capabilities early during the first eight- minute period. The player who wears No. 11 and elicits the nickname "Fry- bread Jordan" from teammates connects on 4-of-5 attempts from the floor and 2-of-3 from the line while pulling down five rebounds. Besides Clah's 10-point production, the backcourt duo of Kenneth Joe Jr. and Leland Begay contribute nine points apiece as the Raiders go up 29-12.
From there, Whitehorse shifts into a coast mode, becoming a happy-go-lucky host. Clah finds himself drawn away from the basket on defense, and he shows a tendency to stay along the perimeter and look for steals and fast breaks rather than rebounds. He finishes with a dozen rebounds, two steals, two assists and 23 points - substandard scoring at least by his own average. Begay's 18 points include 8-of-11 shooting from the line and Joe's 17 points were the partial result of a trio of treys.
However, Clah's contribution can be measured in more than merely scoring, as evidenced when the too-tall senior sits out the final minutes of both the first and second halves. During those combined absences, the Redskins outscore the Raiders 15-3, including an 8-0 run just before intermission and a 6-0 spurt just before the final gun and the 73-60 final score.
Clah admits to daydreaming about playing guard for a metropolitan prep team in front of a packed gym. "Sometimes down here, it's very hard - when we play, there are hardly any fans and no other people know about you."
Still, not everybody is oblivious to Clah. Some of western Colorado's small colleges - such as Durango's Fort Lewis College and Grand Junction's Mesa College - have expressed interest in the 18-year-old, as have some Utah junior colleges like the College of Eastern Utah and Salt Lake Community College.
But if Clah were granted one wish, he'dattend Utah State University, despite the Logan campus being on the opposite end of the state from the Navajo reservation. USU is a draw for several reasons - Clah has listened to his coach's recollections of attending there, it has strong physical education and recreation programs, and it has served as the site of several tournaments in which Clah has played, including last year's 1A state playoffs.
Whatever the option, Clah is hoping to use his Whitehorse High experiences as a springboard to a higher level - both on the court and as an individual.
"There are a lot of students who come out of the high school with big talents and somehow just don't make it," he said. "But for me, as I see it, basketball is my ticket off the reservation, to go to school. I think basketball - that's what is going to do it for me. That will make me achieve something, make me something.
Jimmie Clah's stats
Team W/LScore 2s 3s FTs Pts
Navajo Academy, N.M. W 84-71 15 1 9-10 42
Monument Valley W 73-57 16 2 7-8 45
Red Mesa, Ariz. W 93-68 13 1 11-12 40
Dove Creek, Colo. W 72-68 14 3 0-1 37
San Juan * W 78-75 17 1 10-11 47
Red Mesa, Ariz. W 76-63 8 1 2-5 21
Newcombe, N.M., L 72-66 10 1 6-8 29
Newcombe, N.M., W 76-69 9 1 10-12 30
Grand County W 74-69 12 4 10-10 46
San Juan * W 86-79 18 3 8-8 53
Dove Creek, Colo. W 77-74 14 0 3-3 31
Monticello L 82-79 15 3 11-13 50
Red Mesa, Ariz. W 73-60 8 0 7-10 23
Green River L *** 5 0 3-5 13
Totals ** 17421 97-116507
Game averages ** 12 1.5 7-8 36.2
- Overtime game.
* - San Juan's team was a combined varisty-jayvee squad.
** - stats from Jan. 31 game vs. Monument Valley not available.
*** - score not available.~