Basketball has become a thriving sport on Native American reservations spawning a national tournament and two of the largest high school gyms in the U.S.
“Rez ball” as it is called on the reservations, is a focal point not just in Arizona, but across the country as well. An HBO documentary titled “Rez Ball” spotlights the Schimmel sisters from the Umatilla reservation in Oregon and shows the impact of basketball in their lives. Tahnee Robinson was drafted 31st by the Phoenix Mercury, a WNBA team, and is the first full-blooded Native American to play in the WNBA.
For the Tohono O’odham Nation and other Native nations across the United States, basketball offers more than just the opportunity to play. A national tournament in Phoenix called the Native American Basketball Invitational
requires Native youth to attend programs about getting a college education before they ever hit the court.
This year’s NABI took place in July with 168 all-Native teams participating, 64 boys’ teams and 64 girls’ teams including teams from New Zealand and across the U.S. Chief Operating Officer of NABI Elana Payton said that 168 teams is the maximum amount NABI would allow to enhance the pool play part of the tournament.
She also added that NABI started in 2002 when the assistant coach of the Phoenix Suns, Mark West, along with partners GinaMarie Scarfa and Scott Pobleski came together with a vision to support the athleticism of Native youth as well as providing access to education.
This past year at NABI, the Tohono O’odham sent six teams to participate in NABI, the most teams they have ever sent. The Tohono O’odham started competing in NABI in 2009 with a girls team, T.O. Storm Basketball Coach Patrick Andrews said. As education director for the Tohono O’odham Nation, Andrews said he directed his recreation director to construct a boys team for him to take to NABI and to help the girls team as much as he could.
“From that, we had a lot of good, strong positive feedback and we saw that our kids were anxious to compete at that level. So we can see the impact that it’s making on the youth from the reservation, that they do want to be a part of something that huge,” he said. The following year, Andrews said he put together the first Storm basketball team and his first girls team competed in the 2014 NABI.
He added that the Tohono O’odham basketball teams are funded by sponsors and donations with the coaches working voluntarily without salary. One of the sponsors is Desert Diamond Casino. He added that with the donations from the casino, they have been able to dress the team in a full uniform. But for Andrews, the impact is much more significant.
“I have to say it is definitely humbling,” he said. “It’s amazing to see a student that you’ve known for so long, when they come back to you and say thank you for taking us. One of the biggest impacts for is taking these students home to the reservation after a tournament because when you drop them off, their younger siblings will be out there waiting for them and they’ll come running out there and you can hear the excitement in the siblings’ voices.”
Andrews is the coach of the T.O. Storm and his goal is to keep the kids active by promoting health, education and extracurricular activities. In the Tohono O’odham Nation, diabetes has been a major issue in the community and suicide has been a major issue across the Native American community. Andrews noticed this trend in the Tohono O’odham Nation and brought this issue to other council members.
“Over the last 14 years there have been 83 completed suicides and roughly 10 percent of those suicides were under the age of 17 and under. It’s really important for us to stay active, watch their diets and encouraging students to get involved at school. We’re always posting about watching their grades to stay eligible,” Andrews said.
The impact of basketball isn’t just limited to the Tohono O’odham. In Northern Arizona, the Navajo Nation thrives on basketball. Chinle High School and Window Rock High School, both on the reservation, recently constructed gymnasiums that rival some colleges. The “Wildcat Den” for Chinle High School has a capacity of 7,200 and Window Rock’s has a capacity of 8,000.
Chinle Unified School District Athletic Director Shaun Martin says the construction of the new gym has brought in more players to tryouts and was something that was eventually going to happen.
“I firmly believe the school district by embracing Navajo culture makes this place absolutely unique and extraordinary,” Martin said. “The conception of this reiterates and enforces the idea of the district which is fully supporting our youth and the community.
“Lifelong lessons in the classroom and reinforcing the education from the classroom to the court. So everything they are learning in the classroom, our athletic programs are reinforcing through enrichment activities.”
Martin added that the Chinle Unified School District constructed an aquatics center adjacent to the “Wildcat Den.” Similar to the impact of basketball on the Tohono O’odham reservation, basketball is equally impactful for the youth living in the Navajo reservation.
“Our young people look for activities to do at home and with a lack infrastructure with the internet and all of the distractions of daily life, our kids have the opportunity to spend more time outside,” he said. “That involves playing games and playing sports; basketball is just one of those things that you can walk outside your door and start bouncing the ball and throw some baskets in the air.”
One of the ways Andrews promotes these ideas is by social media. He has a Facebook page for his T.O. Storm Basketball team where he posts positive messages and important dates for his players such as the date for the statewide AIMS test. He also promotes his players to practice or to go outside and shoot around.
Similar to the Tohono O’odham Nation’s youth basketball programs, NABI is financially funded from sponsors and donations that cause some issues with the tournament.
“We do face challenges when it comes to our programs because we are a nonprofit organization and all of our programs are funded through sponsorships and donations,” Payton said. “GinaMarie [CEO] works diligently at seeking support for our programs through sponsorships, grants and other opportunities and organizations that are interested in what we are doing in Indian country.”
Not only is the NABI Foundation involved the basketball tournament, they also have youth programs in golf, baseball, softball and a physical education program. Other issues that NABI faces is a shortage of staff members as many of the people that help during the basketball tournament, that involves about 2,000 players, are volunteers.
As far as the future for both NABI and the Tohono O’odham youth, the future looks bright.
“If you’re inspiring that next generation to come up and have it inside them, ‘hey my brother is doing it, I can do it too,’” Andrews said.