PHOENIX – A photo of Camelback Mountain would have been the easiest route. Or perhaps the glow of a panoramic sunset illuminating the West Valley. Arizona has no shortage of beautiful sights, but this task for the Phoenix Suns should go much deeper.
That is the power of sport. They create moving stories and images that spark community change, shed light on a societal issue, or allow people to understand a message through another’s eyes.
But can all this be captured on a shirt?
Nike City Edition Uniforms, a campaign that saw all 30 NBA teams create a new jersey design for the current season, challenged teams to find a unique idea that would highlight their community or culture through basketball.
The Suns unveiled their City Edition uniforms and the message behind them in an announcement last week. Through the colors and designs on the jersey, the Suns honored all 22 Arizona Indian tribes located in Arizona, something that has been in the works for the past two years.
“We’ve put a lot of focus into making sure everything we put into the uniform has a purpose and a story behind it that actually adds value to the history of the aboriginal communities,” said Graham Wincott, Phoenix Suns senior marketing director. “It helped to tell their story instead of us interpreting their story.”
Basketball lives and breathes in Native American communities. Reservations basketball is a big social event as passionate people fill the gyms from Navajo country to the Tonto Apache and every reservation corner in between.
Shawn Martinez understands basketball’s impact on Native American reservations better than most. The Suns executive director of live presentations was born and raised on the Navajo Reservation, where his love of the game took root and grew. As a child, he played Rez Ball and later at Window Rock High School in Fort Defiance.
So it was only natural that Martinez was the driving force behind the creation of the Suns.
“Because I grew up on the reservation, basketball is everything,” said Martinez, who at times trained with a shoebox for a basket and a sock for a ball. “Having this community support from Rez-Ball and basketball was just amazing growing up and helped me fulfill some of my dreams of doing the NBA in some way.”
Martinez has been in the NBA for 20 years. Before joining the Suns, he spent time in Denver with the Nuggets and in Detroit with the Pistons. While Martinez was with the Pistons, Wincott reached out to him for ideas about the program. Martinez offered his thoughts on shirt designs, ideas for the program and the people who could help.
When a position like the one in Detroit opened up in his home state with the Suns, Martinez applied. He had already applied for the position twice, and on the third attempt he was offered an offer and became a full-time member of the project.
This opened the door for a creative partnership to use these jerseys to educate people about Arizona’s Native American communities. Together they have created a new ORGINATIVE program that includes Native American-inspired jerseys and in-game performances to help fans learn about Native American culture.
“We really want to use our platform as an NBA team to educate our fan base and NBA fans across the country about the program, what it means, the 22 Arizona tribes and their history,” said Wincott.
Martinez brought in people from Native American reservations to work on the program. This included tribal leaders and key members of the community who could work together and help the Suns make the jerseys effective while staying away from cultural appropriation.
Specific details throughout the jersey bring Aboriginal history to life. The color of the jersey is turquoise to represent the protective stone, which holds special value in Native American communities. Turquoise as the main color of the jersey is a symbol that the players have an extra layer of protection on the pitch.
At the side of the jersey and at the waistline are two similar patterns, each illustrating traditional stair step patterns of some Southwestern tribes.
Another design featured on the jersey includes the Suns logo surrounded by 22 feathers. This represents the 22 tribes of Arizona and corresponds to the Native American Medicine Wheel, representing the four cardinal points and four life cycles. This will also be the design on Center Court. Each Suns player received a medallion with this logo. Martinez wears one around his neck wherever he goes as his armor when directing the team’s live presentations.
“I wanted a tribesman from one of the tribes here in the state to do the beadwork,” Martinez said. “There are no two alike, there is only one. Every player has his own and has to represent him.”
According to the designers, the most important part of the jersey is on the side panel. It contains each tribe’s 22 translations for the word “sun,” something that would not have been possible without the extensive help of the Native American tribes.
“Many of these languages were never written languages,” Wincott said. “It represents the resilience of these tribes that have passed these languages down from generation to generation. The ability to put those words in writing on our jerseys is an honor in itself.”
The program also includes education during the games. The Suns will wear these jerseys for 10 home games for the remainder of the season. During each game, the Suns will honor a Native American basketball hero to educate fans about the sport’s deep connection to the reservations. There will also be a traditional dance or song performance at halftime.
On Wednesday night, the debut of the program included singing the national anthem in Dehe, Martinez’s native language. There was also a song blessing from members of the Gila River Indian Community. At halftime, the 22 tribal members were honored and thanked for their influence on Arizona and their help with the program.
“We just want to make sure we can educate people and amplify the voice of each of the tribes when they’re performing so they can understand what they’re about because we’re still here,” Martinez said. “There has never been anything like this. We did our research and wanted to do it the right way, using the right people in the city and our Indian community to tell the story the right way.”
The Suns have no plans to limit this message to Arizona. Throughout the season, the Suns will wear these jerseys on the streets of cities with large Native American populations to raise awareness for 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. “It will fulfill the dreams and hopes of 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 a higher level. The grant will subsidize the necessary equipment and tools to help them achieve their dreams.
“Our greatest hope here is to inspire the next generation of Native American basketball players and youth in general,” said Wincott. “The fact that we can make such a big impact through something like a unified release only speaks to the power of sport and what it means to these communities.”
For Arizona Native Americans, the introduction of the City Edition uniforms will help raise awareness for the next generation hoping for greater representation at the professional level.
“I was just a Rez kid from Fort Defiance, growing up in Rio Puerco, with my shoe box and a sock, dreaming that I would make it to the NBA, and I did it in a different way,” Martinez said. “Basketball has taken me all over the world, but it has also brought me home to bring this big project to life.”