Tournament Showcases Indigneous Basketball Teams From Around The World

July 07, 2014

(Photo by Carrie Jung - KJZZ)
The girls of the Lapwai and Rockhawks tribal basketball teams compete for the title at the Native American Basketball Invitational.
(Photo by Carrie Jung - KJZZ)
Rockhawks coach Barry Bighorn shows off his team's champtonship trophy after Saturday's game.

For many Native American communities, the passion for basketball goes back generations. Playing for a college team is a goal for some Native athletes. Many even have professional aspirations.

But to advance past the high school arenas, kids need competition and exposure to scouts, something that can be hard to find for those in isolated communities. The organizers of a Phoenix-based tournament are working to bridge that gap.

For the girls of the Rockhawks and Lapwai tribal basketball teams, victory was so close, they could almost taste it. Since arriving in Phoenix last Tuesday, these teams have won seven straight games, landing them in Saturday’s championship bracket of the Native American Basketball Invitational.

After being introduced over the loudspeaker, the girls enter the court at the US Airways Center, waving to their supporters as they pass.

Rockhawks coach, Barry Bighorn, stands confidently. He's anticipating a victory.

"I think they should be more worried about us than we are of them, because our girls are really talented," boasted Bighorn. 

That confidence is also shared by Lapwai team coach, Solo Greene.

"I think we’ll be fine," Greene said. "We have a really good mix. We have some big girls, we have some ball handlers and we have some shooters."

But for young ballplayers like Lapwai team member, Erin Ramsey this tournament is about more than just the game. She says the exposure is invaluable.

"And being able to see what other teams are like from different places and how other people compare to the way we play basketball," Ramsey said.

For these girls, just getting to this point took a lot of effort, because in addition to winning their previous games both teams had to endure at least 15 hours in the car. The Rockhawks began their journey in northeastern Montana early last week. The Lapwai team is from northwestern Idaho.

Complicated travel itineraries were actually pretty common among the 120 teams competing in last weekend’s tournament. Take the Alaska Coastal boys team, for example.

"From Scammon Bay Alaska, to Bethel Alaska that’s about an hour by small nine-seater plane, then from Bethel to Anchorage that’s another hour by jet," explained their coach Harley Sundown. "From Anchorage to Seattle that’s another three hours by jet and then from Seattle to here that’s another two hours," he continued.

But Sundown said that trek is well worth the effort, because the only way his boys see tough competition is through this event.

"It’s just amazing what our teams go through to get here," said GinaMarie Scarpa, NABI's cofounder. 

She said the tournament provides the players with some much needed exposure to scouts and college recruiters.

"We  heard about this plight of the Native American athletes who just don’t get the same showcasing opportunities and platforms," Scarpa said. "We have scouts that come here to scout the kids."

Scarpa says the foundation’s main goal is to use a sport that’s already embraced by many in Indian Country as an avenue to get to college.

"We're just hoping that they see the world," she said. "There’s a big world out there and they can be a part of it and they can learn from it and they can bring information back to help advance their own communities."

Back at the US Airways Center, the Rockhawks have gained a 10 point lead over the Lapwai team.

The Rockhawks maintain their lead to win the championship, and team member Ronnie Harris says she couldn’t be happier.

"It’s pretty exciting to win something this big," said Harris. "Especially in a Native American tournament. Especially from Montana. No on from Montana has been this big up."

Her coach Barry Bighorn adds that while he wasn’t sure yet if any of his girls caught the attention of recruiters, the boost in confidence the competition provides makes the 1,100-mile trip to Phoenix more than worth it.