A trail blazer her entire career, Ryneldi Becenti has entered into another unchartered territory.
The first Native American to play in the WNBA became the first women’s basketball player to have her jersey retired by Arizona State, during halftime of the Sun Devils’ 75-73 win over Miami Saturday.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling, it’s overwhelming,” she said. “I never thought it would be me, being Native American and coming here, given this honor, it never crossed my mind. I never would have done it without great teachers, coaches and teammates pushing me, and great parents giving me the love and determination. They gave that to me, and all I had to do was keep that passion and keep playing. It’s a historic day.”
After two seasons at Scottsdale Community College, Becenti averaged 7.1 assists per game at ASU from 1991-93, which remain a Pacific-12 Conference record. When she scored 15, grabbed 10 and dished 12 against Oregon State in 1992, she became the first player in school history to record a double double and was the only player on either the men’s or women’s side to register one that entire season. Now, no one will ever wear her No. 21 again.
She would go on to lace up for the Phoenix Mercury of the newly-formed WNBA.
“For Cheryl Miller to be the coach, it was awesome, I looked up to her when she was a player,” Becenti said.
Becenti said she addressed the current players on achieving their goals.
“When I was growing up, I had goals I wanted to do: get an education, be a teacher, if I had a chance to play professional, and put the Navajo nation on the map,” she said.
Becenti also was a member of the U.S. National team that won a bronze medal at the World University Games at Buffalo in 1993.
“I look back on it, and I played with the best players, Dawn Staley, Jennifer Azzi, Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, it’s an honor, having me along, it pushed me harder because I was on the same stage as them,” Becenti added. “ I’m always representing the Navajo nation. My dad always said, ‘Once you get your foot in the door, there’s no turning back.’”
Growing up with her father and four brothers, she also played football and baseball as a child in Fort Defiance, Ariz., but much of the fire burning inside Becenti comes from her late mother who passed away when Rynedli was 12.
“I realized my mom fought 100 percent to try to live, so I owed it to live my life 100 percent. She did every thing she could for me.”
Saturday was instituted as Native American Day at the game, and an emotional Becenti was applauded by thousands of tribal members in attendance.
“I’m so grateful that we won because we wanted to honor the day,” current ASU coach Charli Turner Thorne said. “It’s special to finally have a women’s basketball jersey hanging up at Wells Fargo Arena, and we plan on having many more. Today was special to honor Ryneldi and all of the other Native American players who played here. Steve Rodriguez and Doug Tammaro were instrumental in making this happen.
“Ryneldi is in a different universe with the things she can do, her court vision, and just her story, what she overcame to be here, coming through junior college and getting to play in her home state. I’m honored to be a part of it.”