Tourney hopes to put spotlight on Native American hoops

PHOENIX, Arizona (AP) 7-07

Like many high school basketball players, Clint Not Afraid dreams of playing in Division I.

The question is whether he'll get a fair shot.

As a member of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, Not Afraid plays most of his games far from the recruiting path. This week, though, Not Afraid and the Blackfeet Playerz are among the 80 boys and girls teams competing in the 5th annual Native American Basketball Invitational, or NABI.

For the first time the tournament has been accredited by the NCAA, which means college coaches are allowed to attend and scout prospects.

"Instead of a crack in the door, now the door is wide open," said Not Afraid, a 17-year-old guard who stands about 6 feet and will be a senior this fall. "This is the chance a lot of us have always been looking for."

Only a handful of coaches attended this year's event, organizers said, but they expect the number to grow next year, when the tourney will be pushed back a week to avoid conflict with more established national events.

Born in 2003 with 24 boys and girls teams from Arizona, NABI has blossomed into an 80-team event with the championship games scheduled for Saturday at US Airways Center. The familiar symbol of a shoe company logo on official merchandise is evidence that "rez ball," as players and coaches call it, has hit the big time.

Next year, NABI will also sponsor a baseball tournament, with longtime baseball executive Roland Hemond serving as a consultant.

"It gives the kids just that extra degree of exposure," said former Phoenix center Mark West, now a Suns vice president. "It's just a part of the puzzle. But this shows how they respond under pressure."

Increased exposure to recruiters is critical. The sport's popularity on the reservations has not translated into more basketball scholarships for Native Americans, although there has been incremental growth.

Only 28 Native American men and 23 women played Division I basketball in 2004-05, according to the most current NCAA race and ethnicity report. In 1999-2000, 10 Native American men and 20 women played at the highest level, according to the report.

Part of the problem is that many play on remote reservations. But tourney director GinaMarie Mabry said Native Americans also fight stereotypes.

"We get e-mails saying, 'Native Americans should stay on the reservation,' " Mabry said. "These kids face some of the same barriers that African-American athletes faced 40 and 50 years ago."

Along with providing an athletics showcase, NABI focuses on education - and helping Native Americans adjust when they get to campus. NABI is contributing $25,000 to a foundation that assists college athletes.

"It's not only striving on the court but striving off the court," West said. "The kids need to hear that message as well."

Former LSU coach Dale Brown stressed that point in a keynote address to about 400 players and coaches at Scottsdale Community College.

"Does the trail of tears ever end for American Indians?" he said, bringing a roar from the audience. "You must change the system. How can you change the system? The first way is education."

Phoenix Mercury star Diana Taurasi, the tourney's honorary commissioner, also spoke, and came away impressed by the players' passion for the game.

"They work so hard, and sometimes they don't get the attention," she said in an interview. "But now, with the college coaches getting there and the teams getting better - there were some kids in there who just looked like they could play basketball."

Native Americans who end up in Division I programs often have to adjust to a different style of play. "Rez ball" is a free-flowing style with few set plays. But it also emphasizes teamwork, and West said some star players are unselfish to a fault.

"Run and gun: you try to outscore the other team," said Mike Day Chief, coach of Montana's Blackfeet Lady Warriors. "Not much defense. It's not too structured."

Day Chief and another coach made the two-day drive from Montana with the Lady Warriors.

"When these kids get back home, they're going to tell their friends how much fun they had - and that's going to motivate them," Day Chief said.