By Chris Stearns -- Today correspondent
PHOENIX - In one of the biggest developments in the American Indian sports world, the NCAA has finally agreed to drop its opposition to allowing collegiate basketball scouts to attend the Native American Basketball Invitational. What that means for the average Indian ''hoopster'' is this: For the first time, Division I and Division II collegiate scouts will head to Phoenix this summer to watch Native high school basketball players, men and women, compete in the 80-team invitational. And those coaches - some from major basketball powerhouses - will have the opportunity to meet and recruit up and coming Indian basketball stars.
''NCAA certification turns NABI into a national showcase for Indian high school basketball talent who are going to have a week to showcase their talent in front of coaches and scouts from major Division I and Division II programs,'' said Tex Hall, NABI chairman, adding: ''We know our kids have the talent and the passion; it's just that they haven't had the opportunity that other kids from urban areas have had to get scouted. This year's invitational is going to change all of that.''
NABI is the nation's largest American Indian high school basketball tournament, featuring teams from Arizona, California, Oklahoma, North and South Dakota, Alaska, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Iowa, Florida and Canada. This year, NABI will run from July 8 - 14. The boys' and girls' finals will be held at America West Arena, home of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury, and will be broadcast live on AZTV channel 27/Cox Cable channel 13.
One of the biggest obstacles to collegiate recruitment comes from the fact that Division I and II coaches are reluctant to travel hundreds or even thousands of miles out of their way to scout out a potential scholarship athlete on an Indian reservation, especially when they are competing against other elite basketball programs in a compressed recruiting season, and when they can scout as many as 30 - 40 players in a single city.
But without NCAA certification, a basketball tournament such as the NABI remains off-limits to collegiate scouts. This year, with the help of the lawyers from the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, Nike and other major tournament sponsors, NABI finally received official tournament status and certification from the NCAA, which in turn opened the door to the scouts. NCAA certification also means that every Division I and Division II program will get a letter from the NCAA listing officially sanctioned tournaments, which now will include the NABI.
Sam McCracken, manager of Nike's Native American Program, also said that Nike will send out its own listing of NCAA-certified tournaments, such as NABI, to those collegiate programs that have contracts with Nike.
''This NCAA rule change and new sanction is arguably one of the most significant developments to ever occur in Native and college basketball,'' GinaMarie Scarpa-Mabry, NABI's co-founder and tournament director, said in a release. ''In addition to March already being renowned for great college basketball, future NCAA tournaments will feature standout Native alums from NABI tournaments who compete at the college level and also receive a quality education,'' Mark West, NABI's co-founder and vice president of player programs for the Phoenix Suns, said in a release.
Former Louisiana State University basketball coaching legend Dale Brown called the NABI's tournament certification as a ''monumental step toward propelling the dreams of Native athletes forward.''
For more information on NABI, visit www.nabihoops.com.