Suns honor Arizona Native American tribes with New City Jersey
PHOENIX – A photo of Camelback Mountain would have been the easiest route to take. Or perhaps the glow of a panoramic sunset lighting up the West Valley. Arizona has no shortage of beautiful sites to choose from, but this task for the Phoenix Suns had to go much further.
This is the power of sport. They create moving stories and images that cause change in the community, highlight a societal issue, or allow people to understand a message through someone else’s eyes.
But can all of this be captured on a jersey?
Nike City Edition uniforms, a campaign where all 30 NBA teams created a new jersey design for the current season, challenged teams to come up with a unique idea that showcases their community or culture through basketball.
The Suns unveiled their City Edition uniforms in an announcement last week along with the message behind them. Through the colors and designs of the jersey, the Suns paid tribute to Arizona’s 22 Native American tribes located in Arizona, which has been in the works for two years.
“We worked to ensure that everything we put on the uniform had a purpose and a story behind it that really uplifted the history of Indigenous communities,” said Graham Wincott, senior marketing manager for the Phoenix Suns. “It helped tell their story rather than us interpreting their story.”
Basketball lives and breathes in Native American communities. Reservation basketball is a great social event, as passionate crowds fill gymnasiums from Navajo land to Tonto Apache and every reservation corner in between.
Shawn Martinez understands the impact of basketball on Native American reservations better than anyone. The Suns’ senior live-presenting director was born and raised on the Navajo reservation, where his love for the game took root and grew. He played ground ball as a child and later for Window Rock High School in Fort Defiance.
So it was only natural that Martinez would be the driving force behind the creation of the Suns.
“Growing up on the reserves, basketball was everything,” said Martinez, who sometimes practiced with a shoebox as a basket and a sock as a ball. “Having that community support through rez ball and basketball was just amazing growing up and just helped me fulfill some of the dreams I had of making the NBA one way or another. other.”
Martinez has worked in the NBA for 20 years. Prior to joining the Suns, he spent time in Denver with the Nuggets and in Detroit with the Pistons. While Martinez was with the Pistons, Wincott contacted him about ideas for the program. Martinez shared his thoughts on jersey designs, ideas for the program and people who could help.
When a position like the one he held in Detroit opened up in his home state with the Suns, Martinez applied. He had already applied twice for the position, and on the third attempt he received an offer and became a full-time member of the project.
This opened the door for a creative partnership in an effort to use these jerseys as a way to educate people about Native American communities in Arizona. Together, they created a new ORGINATIV program that includes the Native-inspired jerseys as well as in-game demonstrations to help teach fans about Native American culture.
“We really want to use our platform as an NBA team to educate our fans and NBA fans across the country about the program, what it means, the 22 tribes of Arizona and their history. “Wincott said.
Martinez attracted people from Native American reservations to work on the program. This included tribal leaders and key community members who could collaborate and help the Suns make the jerseys impactful while avoiding cultural appropriation.
Specific details in the jersey bring the history of the indigenous people to life. The color of the jersey is turquoise, to represent the stone of protection which has additional value in Native American communities. Turquoise, the main color of the shirt, symbolizes that the players have an extra layer of protection on the pitch.
There are two similar patterns on the side of the jersey and on the waistline, each depicting the traditional step patterns of certain southwestern tribes.
Another design on the jersey features the Suns logo surrounded by 22 feathers. This represents the 22 tribes of Arizona and corresponds to the Native American medicine wheel, which represents the four cardinal directions and the four cycles of life. This will also be the design on center court. Every Suns player received a medallion with this logo. Martinez wears one around his neck wherever he goes as armor when leading the team’s live presentations.
“I wanted a tribesman from one of the tribes here in the state to do the bead work,” Martinez said. “No two are the same, there is only one. Each player has his own and he must represent.
The most important part of the jersey, according to the designers, is on the side panel. It contains all 22 translations from each tribe for the word “sun”, something that would not have been possible without the full help of Native American tribes.
“A lot of these languages were never written languages,” Wincott said. “It represents the resilience of these tribes who have passed these languages down from generation to generation. Having the ability to put these words in written form on our jerseys is an honor in itself.
The program also includes in-game education. The Suns will wear these jerseys for 10 home games throughout the season. During each game, the Suns will honor a Native American basketball hero to further educate fans about the sport’s deep ties to the reserves. There will also be a half-time traditional dance or song performance.
On Wednesday night, the program debut included a singing of the national anthem in Dehe, Martinez’s native language. There was also a blessing sung by members of the Gila River Indian community. During halftime, the 22 tribal members were honored and thanked for their impact on Arizona and their help with the program.
“We just want to make sure we can teach people and amplify the voices of each of the tribes when they perform so they can understand what they’re talking about because we’re always here,” Martinez said. “It was never done like this. We did our research and we wanted to do it the right way by using the right people in town and in our Indian community to tell the story in the right way.
The Suns don’t plan to keep that message confined to Arizona. During the season, the Suns will wear these jerseys on the road in cities with large Native American populations to promote the tribes across the country. The impact of these jerseys and the stories behind them should resonate.
“What this means for Indian Country and for us right now is bigger than basketball,” Martinez said. “This is going to provide dreams and hopes to all nations, not just the 22 tribal nations here, but across the country.”
The Suns also plan to expand their relationship with the Arizona tribes. This includes a grant to improve basketball and other sports programs on reservations to help kids, like Martinez, who want to play basketball at higher levels. The grant will fund the equipment and tools needed to help them achieve their dreams.
“Our main hope here is to inspire the next generation of Native American basketball players and young people in general,” Wincott said. “The fact that we’re able to have such a big impact through something like uniform release is just a testament to the power of sport and what it means to these communities.”
For Native Americans in Arizona, the launch of City Edition uniforms will help educate the next generation who hope to see more representation at the professional level.
“I was just a Fort Defiance kid growing up in Rio Puerco, with my shoebox and a sock dreaming I was going to make the NBA, and I did it another way,” Martinez said. “Basketball has taken me all over the world, but it’s also brought me home to this big project and to bring it to life.”