A love affair with basketball – Navajo announcer L.A. Williams

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun.

Headline: When L.A. Williams talks . . . the Navajo Nation listens
March 4, 2005

By Ed Odeven

Sitting courtside at the Skydome, L.A. Williams is in a familiar pose, taking in the recent action between the Winslow and Snowflake girls basketball teams and telling listeners near and far what’s happening.

This scene is repeated dozens of times a year throughout the Four Corners Region.

When there’s a big game involving Navajo Nation basketball squads or a team from near the rez, chances are you’ll find Williams, the sports director/play-by-play announcer for KTNN (660 AM), at the game.

This time of year, when February Frenzy blossoms into March Madness, Williams is as busy as can be. She announced 25 games during a recent two-week stretch, including the Class 3A boys and girls state tournaments at the Skydome (five games on one hectic day when hot tea with lemon helped soothe her sore throat) and at Glendale Arena. She called 4A state tourney games before a packed house in Page and the 4A girls final — Sand Devils vs. Thunderbird Monday — in the Valley.

For the next two weeks, Williams will be in Albuquerque to cover the New Mexico boys and girls state tourneys. And across the Navajo Nation, diehard basketball fans, some of the most loyal supporters found anywhere in the United States, will tune in to hear how New Mexico’s Navajo schools are doing.

Conversing with Williams, one realizes she feels privileged to be a widely recognized sports voice of the Navajo Nation.

“I’m just glad that I can be,” she says, modestly. “I don’t know how to explain that.

“(In the past), grandparents never had a chance to listen to the radio station. By me being across the country on the other side of the reservation, they can stay home and they can picture you already and say, ‘I heard you on the radio.’ They don’t know you, but on the radio they do, and they are very thankful.”

To begin to understand Williams’ gratitude for her job, it helps to know this:

“I grew up on the reservation without electricity, without running water, just horseback,” she says.

Nowadays, Williams fondly talks about her decade of announcing for KTNN, mentioning doing play-by-play for Super Bowl XXX in Tempe (“That was huge,” she says. “We were recognized as a foreign country radio station.”), covering the Phoenix Mercury during the WNBA team’s first four years of existence, the Phoenix Suns, the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, numerous American Indian rodeos and fairs, and the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics.

Those sporting events have all been memorable for Williams, but her favorite times as a broadcaster have been, she says, at junior high and high school basketball games in places like Tuba City and Leupp, Shiprock and Gallup in New Mexico, and Mexican Hat and Montezuma Creek in Utah.

“We touch out to our grandparents who love to support their kids,” Williams says of the magic of radio, “and they get to hear it on the radio when they can’t travel (to games).”

While on the air, Williams strives to set a good example for today’s youth, too.

Her message is this: “Telling student-athletes that school is important, that this will get them somewhere in life, being a student first and then coming out on the basketball court, being successful and being a team player. … It’s important to give them the information they need to know, because they listen to the game … and they are our future leaders.”

Indeed, Williams remains true to her roots, an admirable trait in a profession that’s too often caught up in mimicking the we-think-we’re-witty-and-hip personas that are prevalent on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”

Williams credits longtime Suns announcer Al McCoy with helping her develop her announcing style.

“He’s a very good friend,” she says, “and just talking with him and just listening to his broadcasts (has been helpful). “I got a lot of tips from him … and also a lot of practice was put into the broadcasting.”

So what’s her style?

Most of a basketball game’s action is described in English. Between quarters, at the half and after a game, she gives a short summary of the key sequences and players in Navajo.

And Williams has no trouble maintaining a fast pace, a trademark of hoops announcers, during a game.

“The Navajo language also fits right in to our broadcasting,” she says. “Navajo is a lot faster than talking English.”

Whether there’s fast talk or slow tunes on the air, KTNN, the Window Rock-based station that began broadcasting in 1986 and has a 50,000 watt signal, can be heard in 13 states after dark.

Which is why Native Americans across the country tune in to KTNN to catch up on the latest news from Indian Country.

“There was a gentleman coming back from Saskatchewan and he picked us up in the Great Plains,” Williams recalls. “He was saying that he came over the hill and he just parked (his vehicle) because we were doing a basketball game the Ganado Hornets were playing, and stayed there until the game was over.”

Another KTNN listener told Williams she picked up a clear signal in San Francisco while driving across the Golden Gate Bridge and listening to a game.

Once a week during the regular season, Williams covers junior high basketball. This keeps her in contact with today’s young standouts, tomorrow’s high schools stars.

Or as Williams explains: “At Winslow High School, all their players except Stephanie Garnett all went to school in Dilkon … (which won) a state championship this year, and have been winning state championships for years.

“Next year, there are three or four (Dilkon) players that’ll go on to Winslow, and they (the Bulldogs) are going to be state champs again,” she predicts.

Even if Winslow doesn’t win its third straight 3A title next year, expect to hear Williams’ enthusiastic, informative account of the game and many more.

“It (working for KTNN) just fell into place,” she says now, “and I ran with it. And I’m still running with it.”

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