Yesterday, when John Cohen spoke at the Choctaw Tribal Schools System convocation, he was presented with his own handcrafted kabocca.
“Hey Ethan, what on earth is a kabocca?”
Oh, hey, good question there. Well, kabocca, or stickball sticks, are a key part of one of the oldest (if not the oldest) and most revered sports to be played in Mississippi. It’s steep and rich in tradition. It’s a Choctaw sport. One that served as a replacement for war in dispute times. It’s a pretty big deal.
It’s a sport called stickball.
And John Cohen received his own handmade sticks, ornately wrapped and decorated in bead work.
When I saw the above tweet, I reached out to Nelle Cohen, expert tweeter, to get the story behind these sticks and why they were presented to John. It’s a pretty big deal to get kabocca. I’ve seen firsthand instances where individuals gift their own stickball sticks to new friends. The emotions attached in these instances are beautiful.
It’s a pretty big deal to get kabocca.
Mrs. Cohen responded, explaining that the sticks were a gift for John as a thank you for him speaking at the Convocation. She went on to say “we were told that the sticks were hand beaded just for John. Really loved that - and we were both extremely honored by the gift.”
For the uninitiated, stickball, for all intents and purposes, is an intense sport. A very, very intense sport. I think William D’urso described it best when he wrote about it back in 2015 for SBNation:
To those who are not Choctaw, the sport at first appears chaotic, a silent film whose plot has yet to be revealed. Dozens of players wielding two long sticks called kabocca race across a the field, apparently smashing each other to the ground at random, a 12-foot-tall wooden post standing upright in front of each of the two football goalposts.
The game goes back hundreds of years, with the earliest mention of it being recorded in 1729 by a Jesuit priest, according to the Choctaw Indian Fair website. From the website:
The earliest historical reference to Choctaw stickball was a Jesuit priest's account of a stickball game around 1729. During that period, the Choctaws lived in towns and villages scattered across the area that is now southern Mississippi. When disputes arose between these communities, stickball provided a peaceful way to settle the issue. These games were hard-fought contests that could involve as few as twenty or as many as 300 players.
If you don’t believe me, or Mr. D’urso’s longform piece, check out some highlight videos.
Stickball is an art. A beautifully chaotic game from the outside looking in, it’s a deeply celebrated and integral cultural centerpiece for those that play it. Sure, there are rules that make it appear similar in some fashion to other games and sports, such as the four 15-minute quarters, the utilization of a football field for a playing surface, and the relatively recent adoption of gym shorts and t-shirts as a uniform.
But, this sport, one that is hundreds of years old, is something truly unique and something that surely cannot be appreciated as much by those of us on the outside. The invitation in that John and Nelle Cohen received with the gift of the handmade kabocca, ornately covered in beautiful beadwork, is one to be cherished. And it’s an honor that they really love.