The story plays out the same across the country, on every tribal reservation from the Panhandle of Florida to the plains in Wyoming. Native Americans hold an undeniable reverence for the game of basketball. With a powerful communal appeal, Rezball, as it’s called by Native Americans, is religion on reservations across the country.
Native American poet and novelist Sherman Alexie offered this description it: “… basketball, in the United States at least, plays the same function that soccer does everywhere else in the world. It’s the sport of poverty. It’s the sport born of poverty.”
Young Native Americans view basketball as a way off the reservation—a ticket to a college education and a better life (since unemployment on some reservations is as high as 80 percent) — yet few actually ever succeed in converting those court skills to a college diploma.
Enter GinaMarie Scarpa, the co-founder and CEO of the Native American Basketball Invitational (NABI), which was launched in 2003. Scarpa, who is of Italian-American and Mexican descent, never played hoops, yet she became interested in the plight of Native Americans while working for the A.C. Green Youth Foundation (named after the former NBA player).
“At that time, I learned so much about the culture and the needs of the Native kids,” Scarpa says. “Drugs and alcohol rates are higher on reservations. High school dropout rates were skyrocketing and suicide was 150 percent higher than the national average. Our youth are suffering. Being from an inner city, with not much opportunity as a kid myself and dealing with a lot of the same issues, I felt a kindred spirit with them and wanted to help.”
Native Americans hoopsters may be superstars in their communities, but play in relative obscurity away from the reservation. Before NABI was launched, they were seldom seen by college recruiters, who easily found Division I talent in the big cities.
So Scarpa, Scott Podleski of the Arizona Rattlers, and former Phoenix Sun player (and coach) Mark West approached the Suns, Phoenix Mercury and Nike organizations to help stage a tournament that could showcase the skills of Native Americans to college recruiters and possibly open up scholarship offers for the most promising players.
NABI became the first NCAA-certified Native American basketball tournament in the country, which allowed college coaches and recruiters to attend.
It originally began as a 24-team tournament for Arizona tribes, but has evolved into a weeklong basketball fiesta featuring 152 tribal teams (80 boys and 72 girls) coming from reservations all over the United States, Canada and New Zealand.
This year’s tournament takes place June 30 through July 4. Games are played at 12 gyms throughout the Valley, including Phoenix College, Scottsdale Community College and Mesa Community College, and the championship rounds will be held at US Airways Center. Festivities also include a college and career fair and educational seminars. For Scarpa, her hard work is starting to pay dividends.
“After 13 years, we are accomplishing what we set out to do,” she says. “We have had hundreds of our youth receive full ride college athletic scholarships and also sparked hundreds more to pursue higher education. One of our NABI alum even made it to the WNBA (Angel Goodrich of the Tulsa Shock).
“Our main goal is to use sports as a tool, so Native kids finish high school and we create college scholarship opportunities for our Native athletes so they get that degree,” Scarpa continues.
Scarpa’s vision is starting to take hold. For example, Native Americans Jude and Shoni Schimmel made headlines in 2013 as scholarshiped players for the University of Louisville during the Cardinals run to the Final Four in the Women’s NCAA Tournament.
Scarpa is hoping there are more to follow in basketball. Other sports are well represented by emerging Native American athletes: New York Yankees star outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, quarterback (and former Heisman Trophy winner) Sam Bradford of the Philadelphia Eagles and Jordan Nolan of the Los Angeles Kings, to name a few.
Nike, the brand most associated with hoops, even designed a basketball shoe specifically for Native American players called Air Native N7s and created the N7 fund to support tribal youth sports programs across the United States.
Despite the advances Scarpa has made, she understands NABI is a labor of love … that requires quite a bit of love to keep it operating.
“Funding this program is our biggest challenge,” she says. “It is tough to keep this tournament going, but I know it is truly making a difference in the lives of the kids we serve, hence why I don’t give up.”
In an ironic twist to her story, Scarpa recently underwent a DNA test, which revealed she is actually 20 percent Native American.
“So much for thinking my whole life I was half Italian and half Mexican,” she says with a laugh.
Suddenly, Rezball takes on a whole new meaning.
The Native American Basketball Invitational Foundation’s 13th Annual Basketball Tournament, Multiple locations throughout the Valley, Thursday, June 30 through Saturday, July 4, nabifoundation.org, times vary, prices vary