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Natalia Chavez is a freshman at UNM and a guard for the women's basketball team. Photo courtesy of Degree.

UNM basketball player represents Native community on a national scale

University of New Mexico freshman and guard for the Lobo women’s basketball team Natalia Chavez has signed a deal with Degree Deodorant’s “Breaking Limits Team” in just the second year of the program's existence. The team seeks to provide underrepresented athletes a platform while sharing inspiring stories. Chavez won a contest held on Degree’s Instagram and was chosen out of hundreds of athletes, according to a press release from Degree.

The deal not only includes monetary payments, but also access to a mentorship program to help athletes achieve their goals and help advance their future career. The deal also gives athletes a platform to share their stories and gives them a community program to support local projects such as visiting youth organizations, according to the press release.

Chavez called the deal a “great opportunity” and sees it as a reward for all the passion and commitment her and other athletes put into their sport. Chavez also emphasized the importance of representation and the precedent her deal could set.

“For me coming in as a freshman, being able to have these opportunities, it’s very good for me because I can get myself out there and my team out there … It shows that people from reservations can make it big time with even small (name, image and likeness) deals,” Chavez said. 

Chavez is a business major at UNM, but she is very committed to basketball, as the sport was a very big part of her life from an early age. She grew up playing in Cochiti Pueblo and played in high school at Volcano Vista, where her team won the state championship in 2021 and 2022.

Growing up on a reservation, she learned and played a style of basketball called “rezball” which is a fast, aggressive and high scoring affair. It serves dually as a mentality towards the game as much as a play style.

“It’s basically just like reservation life … Going all out with a lot of passion and not giving up on yourself, and it’s really different because it’s not like we have a gym we can just go to, to play … It is playing outside on the dirt, going out there to play,” Chavez said.

The defining moment of her high school career was a half-court buzzer beater in The Pit to win the New Mexico State Championship in 2021, which got her nominated for an ESPY award. Chavez said that at the end of each practice her team would shoot from half court, but she did not expect to implement it into a game, especially the state championship. She said it was a “great feeling” both when the shot went in and when it was picked up by ESPN.

“It was good to win it that year because I know it was a difficult year. We had to wait such a long time to play and we had so many seniors on our team … When it was on ESPN that was a great feeling because you don’t really see Native American kids get that much exposure off of just one play,” Chavez said.

After some practices with the Lobo basketball team this summer getting ready for the upcoming season, she said initially there was a learning curve playing at a higher level: getting used to the opponents and getting better, faster and stronger. She worked with the team to help the transition to the college game.

“So far, from being there this summer, my game has changed a lot. My coach has made me grown a lot … It was kind of a hard change but he helped me though the way…  and just the offense is not too hard to learn. They play a fast-paced game that I’m used to,” Chavez said.

Head coach Mike Woodbury said Chavez was making improvements and added that she has a “bright future.” With practice just starting up, Woodbury said that he doesn’t have anyone in set roles just yet.

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Chavez is named after Kobe Bryant’s oldest daughter Natalia. Bryant’s attitude toward the game and life has been a big inspiration for her, and it is something she has adopted in her life. Kevin Durant also serves as a big inspiration, specifically his play style on the court, crediting his size and shooting ability as something she is really impressed by.

Chavez is very excited for her basketball career at UNM but said the ultimate goal is to play professionally either in the Women’s National Basketball Association or overseas. She also added that as long as she is doing something she is passionate about, she will be happy:  basketball or not.

“I’ve always wanted to play here. Growing up, when I first started playing basketball, that was my dream school. That’s where I wanted to go to school: UNM … I’m excited to start the season and to play with my teammates,” Chavez said.

Women’s basketball starts their season in The Pit in an exhibition game against West Texas A&M University on Oct. 29.

Thomas Bulger is the sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at sports@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @thomasbulger10

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