Basketball: A Ticket Off the Reservation?

Tournament Steers Native American Players Toward College

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Kyle Phillips

Kyle Phillips, star player for Monument Valley High School in Kayenta, a tiny Navajo reservation town in northeastern Arizona. Phillips left the NABI tournament with a scholarship offer from Si Tanka University in Huron, S.D. Tom Goldman, NPR News hide caption

itoggle caption Tom Goldman, NPR News
Bobby Manheimer

Former Monument Valley High School star player Bobby Manheimer with his two children. Shortly after playing in the NCAA Tournament in the spring of 2000, Manheimer left Lamar University in Texas to return to Kayenta. Tom Goldman, NPR News hide caption

itoggle caption Tom Goldman, NPR News
Monument Valley High School Mustangs

The Monument Valley High School Mustangs during a time-out at the NABI tournament. Tom Goldman, NPR News hide caption

itoggle caption Tom Goldman, NPR News

There are places in this country where basketball is not just a sport but an all-consuming passion — in rural towns, inner cities and for decades, on Native American reservations. Rez ball, as it's called, has long been a thread throughout Indian country. In a 1991 Sports Illustrated article, writer Gary Smith described basketball as a game the lean, quick men on reservations could instinctively play — a game that restored a sense of pride in often beleaguered communities.

But despite all of the reservation heroes the game has produced, very few Native American players have made it into men's major college basketball. A reluctance to leave reservation life has often kept good native players from going away to play college basketball. Many who do leave suffer from culture shock and end up dropping out and moving back home. So many Native American players have quit school before graduation that college coaches have become reluctant to recruit even the best reservation high school stars. And there's never been a Native American player in the NBA.

Now, some are trying to change that and confront the obstacles that have historically prevented young Native Americans from moving on in the sport. As NPR's Tom Goldman reports, last month Nike and the NBA's Phoenix Suns sponsored the very first Native American Basketball Invitational (NABI). Held at the America West Arena in Phoenix, the event gave 26 girls' and boys' native teams from across the United States the chance to play in the spotlight of an NBA court and make valuable connections. Representatives from Nike, the Suns and some colleges were on hand to give players their business cards and offer their support.

"The big picture at NABI was building successful people," Goldman says. "The immediate goal was helping high school basketball players get to college."

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