March Madness Grips Indian Country


Spring will not officially arrive until March 20th, but for avid sports fans who have taken football’s oval-shaped pigskin and re-shaped it into a roundball --- Spring Fever and March Madness have already arrived hand-in-hand.

Couch potatoes with HDTVs the size of stadium jumbotrons have arranged for a non-stop supply of nachos (and beverages to wash them down) to get through 2012 NCAA Tournament action that began in Dayton, Ohio on March 13th and wraps up in the Final Four host city of New Orleans nearly three weeks later.

Not only does March increase the levels of tension and testosterone at the collegiate championship level, it also signals the start of a plethora of basketball action involving American Indian athletes across the country (see “Indians Already Have a Whole Bunch of ‘Sacred’ Things: We’ll Just Call Basketball ‘Really Important’”, Indian Country Today Media Network, March 4).

How popular is this sport in Indian Country? The Native American Basketball Tournaments web site ( nearly burned out the printer in an 87-page download of scheduled reservation ball and urban tournament listings this spring.

That printout showed that while the NCAA would grab top headlines in second- and third-round elimination action at The Pit in Albuquerque and US Airways Center in Phoenix, they weren’t the only game in town.

(However, truth-be-told, Indian-owned casinos near both NCAA sites look forward to college cagers action that makes cash registers ring at three of New Mexico’s gaming outlets in the Albuquerque area code while seven of Arizona’s 26 Indian casinos are scattered throughout the Phoenix valley).

At the same time that somebody-will-play-somebody-else in those NCAA games, there are many other scheduled youth and adult events like the Rio Grande Showdown in Las Cruces, the Spring Break Shootout (and a Six Foot and Under competition) in Mescalero as well as a March Madness Tournament of its own, hosted by Miyamura High School in Gallup.

In Arizona during regional eliminations, youth of both genders would compete for rebounds and dunks in March Madness events of their own in Window Rock and at an On The Rez Tournament to be played in Whiteriver.

Not everyone can be a Native American star like Jim Thorpe (Wa-Tho-Huk or Bright Path, Sac, Fox), but many indigenous athletes look up to the Olympic gold medal winner, an Oklahoma native who played on several All-American Indian teams throughout his career, barnstorming as a pro hoops star with a team composed entirely of American Indians. Considered one of the most versatile athletes of modern sports, Thorpe played all kinds of ball-related activities --- from pro baseball and pro basketball to football (collegiate and professional).

The numbers of American Indian standout student stars are small, but growing, as more Indian youth strive to go beyond bump-and-bang pick-up game competition and take their talent to the next level. There’s plenty of room to grow according to 2010-2011 NCAA 1 ethnic breakdown figures for Division 1 athletes. Of the 10,019 young male and female basketball players listed, just 9 men and 21 women checked their ancestry as American Indian or Alaskan Native.

From time to time, rising stars get recognized for their above-the-crown achievements like 5’ 10” high school point guard Shoni Schimmel profiled in Indian Country Today Media Network as well as other outlets, such as The Oregonian newspaper. Affiliated with the Confederated tribes of the Umatilla Reservation in rural Oregon, the “Umatilla Thriller” picked up her first basketball at age 2 and never set it down. She’s now a star guard at the University of Louisville in the Big East Conference and according to roundball gurus may just be the one of the best American Indian basketball players ever.

“Native American history is plagued with stories of kids who had talent and couldn’t make it,” wrote reporter Lindsay Schnell who quoted his young subject, Schimmel, as saying: “There’s so many Native Americans that coulda-shoulda-woulda, but didn’t, so I play hard for me and everybody else. I gotta keep doing good and let other Indians know you can make it.”

Much further down in the put-the-rock-in-the-hole player ranks are the less-than-two-dozen members of the first-ever men’s community college basketball team on the Tohono O’odham Reservation in Sells, Arizona. Tribal member Roland Ramon realizes that sports stardom may have passed him by as part of the Jegos squad (an O’odham word for powerful dust storms that accompany monsoon rains), but, at age 36, “I’m grateful because I’ve waited my entire life to get to this point.”

Which, albeit circuitously, leads back to springtime and the advent of another season of pass, shoot, and rebound on everything from dirt courts with homemade hoops to polished hardwood arenas and TV cameras focusing on championship contenders with high-priced footwear and swooshes on their uniforms.

One sports-related organization involved with Native American youth recognizes the olio of emotions that basketball and March Madness bring and is trying to put that passion into play. The Native American Basketball Foundation, funded by Arizona’s Ak-Chin Indian Community, has served over 10,000 youth to date and is working on registering over 100 teams to celebrate its 10th anniversary with an invitational basketball tournament scheduled for July 11-15.

Says GinaMarie Scarpa, co-founder of the NABI Foundation: “It’s not just about showcasing talented Native American athletes, it’s about encouraging and supporting youth and making a difference in the communities where Native American youngsters live, play, and dream.”