Once an Inspiration to People at Home, a Former Star Now Faces Trial
Shoni Schimmel was the pride of Native Americans when she played for Louisville and then starred briefly in the W.N.B.A. Now she is accused of violence against her romantic partner.
CONFEDERATED TRIBES OF THE UMATILLA INDIAN RESERVATION, Ore. — There she was, Shoni Schimmel, the first breakout star among female Native American basketball players, racing downcourt during the 2013 N.C.A.A. tournament, dribbling behind her back, fearlessly challenging the great shot blocker Brittney Griner, turning away from the basket and flicking a blind shot off the backboard, then screaming at Griner in audacious release.
A week later, Schimmel’s team, the University of Louisville, reached the national championship game against Connecticut. A 5-foot-9 guard, she played as if she were juggling while riding a Tilt-a-Whirl, leading the Cardinals in scoring, assists and turnovers in a structured version of the style known as rez ball, which she described as “run and gun, shoot whenever you’re open, trust in your heart.”
Shoni’s younger sister, Jude, was Louisville’s top reserve, bookish and reliable. The sisters, members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla in eastern Oregon, became inspirational figures who sought to uplift Native communities by showing it was possible to succeed in an outside world often met by them with wariness and suspicion.
Along the way, they fulfilled their mother’s dream that they would defy lingering impacts of colonization and systemic oppression that have often resulted in poverty, addiction and insufficient access to health care and education.
Eventually, Shoni’s life and legend grew more complicated. But not before the Schimmel sisters took advantage of a college opportunity 2,000 miles from home, received scholarships, reached the peak of their sport, earned their degrees. Jude was recognized for having the highest grade-point average among all players at the 2013 women’s Final Four.
In 2014, Shoni and Jude helped draw 2,163 fans from 46 states to a Native American appreciation night at Louisville. Shoni became an all-American, a 2014 first-round draft pick in the W.N.B.A. and a two-time All-Star. For a time, her No. 23 jersey was the top-selling one in the league. Jude pursued a master’s degree, moderated a Native affairs panel at the Obama White House, became a Nike ambassador and wrote a memoir.
“Her and her sister, I think, have made all of Indian Country so proud, so we really appreciate it,” Barack Obama, then the commander and basketball player in chief, said at the 2015 panel discussion.
When the 2013 Louisville team held its 10-year reunion this season, though, Shoni Schimmel, now 30, did not attend. In June, she is scheduled to go on trial in federal court in Portland, Ore., on charges of assault. She is accused of strangling her romantic partner, a Native woman, in June 2021, and committing further assault that caused “substantial bodily injury.”
Schimmel’s partner has not been identified, and the U.S. attorney prosecuting the case declined to comment. Almost no details have been made public. The Umatilla tribal police and the federal authorities declined to release the police report.
Schimmel has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, she faces a maximum prison sentence of 15 years and a $250,000 fine. Schimmel and her family declined to be interviewed while her case is pending. Her lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.
Her basketball career was unprecedented for Native women, if not fully realized on the professional level. Questions arose in the W.N.B.A. about her fitness and commitment. In truth, Schimmel sought to find a balance between being a professional athlete, being with her family and upholding traditional responsibilities of returning home and giving back to her community. Some supporters questioned whether she got a fair chance to succeed in the league because so few Native Americans had.
She also faced enormous expectations in trying to represent herself, fulfill her mother’s dream and, by extension, realize the broad hopes of Native people. Now Indian Country is left to contemplate the jarring contrast of a hero who brought wide respect and rare achievement to her community and yet is accused of domestic violence, epidemic among Native American women.
More than 80 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced some form of violence and more than half have experienced physical violence by intimate partners (with the majority of attacks committed by non-Native Americans), according to the National Institute of Justice.
“I don’t condone any type of abuse,” said Lindsey Watchman, 50, the chairman of the general council of the Umatilla. “I respect the right to privacy, but I also highly respect taking accountability for your actions. I don’t know how this will all turn out, but any member of my tribe who makes a mistake, you apologize. We’re all human. Things happen. Emotions. But you take responsibility, however that looks, and you move on.”
There appears to be much sympathy for Schimmel among the Umatilla. Many people here described the accusations as out of character for her. While the criminal charge will be a “black mark,” the Umatilla will continue to support Schimmel “for what she did for us,” said Randy Minthorn, 65, who has held numerous tribal positions over three decades including teacher and social worker and whose family has long been involved in Umatilla leadership.
“We have to,” Minthorn said. “She’s our role model.”
‘Everybody’s Watching Her’
By age 4, Shoni Schimmel was set on her career path: basketball, a sport her sister Jude once described as “medicine” that “helps and heals” Native Americans. By 10 or 12, Shoni sometimes shot hoops outside until 3 in the morning, her parents knowing she was safe “because they could hear me dribbling,” she said in a 2013 interview with The New York Times.
When Shoni was a junior in high school and Jude was a sophomore in 2008-9, the family moved three hours west to Portland. Their mother, Ceci Moses, became their coach at Franklin High School. Their father, Rick Schimmel, became an assistant. Partly this was a deferred dream for Moses, who had her first child at age 15 and did not get a chance to display her own basketball skills beyond community college because, she said, her coach seemed reluctant to promote Native Americans to university recruiters. She wanted what she called a “fair opportunity” for her eldest daughters, which she felt they could get only by leaving home and moving to the city.
“I love the reservation,” Moses told The Times in 2013. But, she added, “I wanted to show the kids that if you really want your dream, sometimes you have to go out of your comfort zone and go get it.”
In doing what they felt best for their eight children, Moses and Rick Schimmel endured racism and huge personal and financial costs. Rick Schimmel, who is white, went to Stanford on scholarship to play baseball, but returned to nearby Pendleton, Ore., after his freshman year when Ceci became pregnant. Some people ignored him because he was involved in a relationship with a Native American woman. His own father “disowned him” and the family did not reconcile for years, Jude Schimmel wrote in her memoir, “Dreamcatcher.”
One day a note was delivered to their home in Portland, Jude Schimmel wrote. It said, “Go back to the reservation,” using a vulgarity for cruel emphasis. Their parents taught them to “ignore the negativity,” she wrote, but, she acknowledged, life was a struggle. With 12 to 15 members of the extended family living in the home, the Schimmels fell behind on mortgage payments and faced foreclosure, which she called a “really frightening time” until the issue was resolved.
Pressures came from within the Native American community as well as from without. Some friends and relatives did not want the family to leave the reservation. Later, when the sisters arrived at Louisville, they told Coach Jeff Walz that they were sometimes called “apples,” a racial slur suggesting they were red on the outside, white on the inside.
“Some of their friends told them there’s no way you’re going to make it there,” Walz said.
Shoni’s two high school years in Portland were captured in a documentary called “Off the Rez” by the filmmaker Jonathan Hock. Only about two dozen Native American women were playing Division I basketball at the time. And it was clear that Shoni would be playing for something far beyond her own determination.
Minthorn, the tribal official, told Hock, “We are conditioned to fail.” Shoni, though, had a chance, he said. “The whole history of athletes not making it is riding on Shoni’s shoulders,” Minthorn said. “Everybody’s watching her.”
A Promise Kept
By the 2013 N.C.A.A. tournament, her junior season, Shoni and Louisville were ready to challenge Baylor, the defending national champion, and Griner, its 6-foot-8 star who was shortlisted for greatest female N.C.A.A. player ever. What resulted was one of the biggest upsets in the history of the women’s tournament.
While driving 26 hours with the family’s six other siblings from Oregon to Oklahoma City for the regional, Rick Schimmel forecast a victory, noting to Moses that the game would be played on Easter Sunday, a “day of miracles.” The couple had been together for more than 25 years. OK, Moses said, “if they win, I’ll marry you.”
Louisville won, 82-81, and Jude Schimmel pointed to her ring finger from the court. A promise was a promise. Two days later, her parents got married at an Oklahoma City chapel. That night, Louisville defeated Tennessee, an eight-time national champion, to advance to the Final Four, ultimately losing to Connecticut in the final.
Shoni was named most valuable player of the regional and was cheered on by fans who carried signs saying, “Rez Girls Rock” and “Native Pride” and “Never Give Up.”
“It’s a blessing to show other people you can make it; coming off a reservation, you can do whatever you want,” Shoni told The Times as she and Jude signed autographs outside the team bus.
Everything seemed possible when Shoni was drafted by the Atlanta Dream with the eighth pick in the W.N.B.A. draft. “Showtime Schimmel,” Michael Cooper, the Dream coach, called her, summoning his glittery days with the Los Angeles Lakers. She appeared to be only the fourth Native American to be signed or drafted by the league, only the second who would get significant playing time.
Schimmel averaged 8.3 points and 3.6 assists as a rookie in a reserve role, but with the write-in support of Native American fans, she was voted as a starter in the All-Star Game. Upon delivering eight assists and scoring 29 points with a hail of 3-pointers and pirouetting spontaneity near the basket, she was named the game’s most valuable player.
“Living the dream” became Schimmel’s go-to line with reporters.
A Rebuke and a Trade
She was named an All-Star again in 2015, but when Schimmel reported to Atlanta’s training camp for the 2016 season, she faced a public rebuke from Cooper for her conditioning. The coach told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he was “very, very disappointed in her.” He added, “Our owners are very, very disappointed in her.”
Schimmel was the only Atlanta player not to play in an overseas league in the off-season, where salaries can be greatly enhanced and conditioning can be maintained year-round, critical to maintaining a career in the W.N.B.A., which has only 144 roster spots among 12 teams. Schimmel told The Journal-Constitution that spending time with her extended family after the W.N.B.A. season was more important than earning money playing basketball overseas. Tribal traditions also held that those who left would gain skills and return to teach what they had learned.
“You want to go home at Christmas and host a youth hoop clinic rather than go to Paris to celebrate New Year’s,” said Watchman, the Umatilla chairman, who played basketball in the Air Force and in Germany.
A week after Cooper expressed his disappointment with Schimmel, she was traded to the Liberty. Her professional career had begun to slip away. She sat out the 2017 season, citing “personal issues,” which involved, in part, recovering from the lingering effects of a concussion and the declining health of her maternal grandmother, Lillian Moses, who had named her and all of her siblings and was a pillar of the family. She died in November 2017.
By all accounts, Schimmel appeared fit and renewed ahead of the 2018 season, but she was waived in training camp by the Liberty and released after two games with the Las Vegas Aces. Bill Laimbeer, who coached Schimmel in New York and Las Vegas, declined to comment.
Hock, the filmmaker, said he believed that a bias toward Native American athletes, conscious or unconscious, helped to shorten Schimmel’s W.N.B.A. career. “I have no doubt that if owners and coaches were conditioned to believe in Native athletes, rather than expect them to fail, Shoni would still be a star in the league,” Hock said.
Some of Schimmel’s friends and Walz, her coach at Louisville, said she needed no explanations.
“There was a lot of pressure, no doubt about it, but I look at it as, Shoni did it,” Walz said. “Whether she played two years in the W.N.B.A. or 20 years, she did it. She was M.V.P. of the All-Star Game. No one can ever take that away from her.”
‘Floored’ by Schimmel’s Arrest
After leaving the W.N.B.A., Schimmel coached a girls’ high school team during the 2018-19 season on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. She had settled into a much less visible basketball life until June 14, 2021, when she was arrested by the Umatilla tribal police on charges of felony assault and criminal mischief and misdemeanor counts including domestic abuse, menacing, reckless endangerment and harassment.
In a tribal court, officials said, the maximum sentence for a domestic violence conviction is a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. But the U.S. attorney’s office in Portland is handling the case because the Major Crimes Act, enacted in 1885, gives the federal government primary jurisdiction over more serious felonies when the accused and the victim are Native Americans and the incident happens on tribal lands.
The federal government’s role in the case is a concern among tribal leaders. The government has been frequently criticized for inadequate resolve in investigating crimes against Native American women, especially involving rape, murder and disappearances. When federal authorities do prosecute a high-profile case, Watchman said, disparities become apparent in the way similar cases involving non-Native Americans are resolved — often more quietly, in a lower court, perhaps with less vulnerability to lengthy sentences and huge fines.
“That is definitely an inequality in the way Native Americans are treated in the court system,” Watchman said. Referring to Schimmel’s case, he added, “It wouldn’t have gotten nearly so sensationalized if the word ‘felony’ hadn’t been attached to it.”
Shoni and Jude, now 29, are living among the Umatilla, working with their parents on tribal construction projects, still playing basketball, officials said. Recently, Watchman said, Shoni’s team won a regional tournament for players 30 and older.
“It’s not like she’s moping around in the dark caves thinking the whole world hates her,” he said.
Even so, he said, scrutiny can be distressing.
“When something happens and you get spotlighted,” Watchman said, “it feels like the whole world knows and you feel uncomfortable walking around people that love you and care about you.”
Walz said he was “caught off guard” by Schimmel’s legal predicament. She had never been in trouble in college, he said. A check of Oregon court records found only a speeding violation, from December 2022. No conditions were placed on testing for alcohol or drugs upon Schimmel’s release from federal custody last year.
Geno Auriemma, the UConn coach and former women’s national team coach whose Huskies defeated Schimmel and Louisville in the 2013 N.C.A.A. title game, said he was “floored” by her arrest. “It came out of nowhere,” Auriemma said. “I never heard that she was a bad character, a bad teammate.”
“It’s sad, disheartening,” Auriemma said. “She had to fight her way out of what wasn’t an easy situation to get where she was.”
Minthorn, the Umatilla tribal official, described Schimmel as “kind and generous,” humble, a person who “holds her head high.” However her case is resolved, he said, she might have another important lesson to impart to the Umatilla community.
“A lot of professional athletes turn their lives around and use it to teach younger people, hey, that’s not the way to go,” Minthorn said. “That’s what we want from her at this point. I hope she can turn it around and say, hey, we’re only human; don’t make the mistake I made.”
Kirsten Noyes contributed research.