NABI athletes getting attention they hoped for

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PHOENIX – It’s every basketball player’s dream – to play professionally in front of thousands of fans in an arena like the US Airways Center, home to the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury. For the past seven years, it’s also been home to the final four playoffs of the NCAA-affiliated Native American Basketball Invitational.

This year in the boys’ bracket two Arizona teams with mostly Navajo players fought for the top honors outlasting 36 other teams from around the country. In the girls’ 26-team bracket, a team from Arizona and one from Oklahoma played for the championship.

GinaMarie Scarpa and former NBA player Mark West created the tournament in 2002 to help young Native Americans continue their education through basketball.

Team Alaska won the third place trophy in the Native American Basketball Invitational. Tim Fields, No. 1, hopes to play for Haskell Indian Nations University this year.

As a few thousand fans cheered and the Phoenix Mercury dance team performed, at least two college recruiters were in the audience watching the final games of the largest Indian high school basketball tournament in the country. They were Phil Homeratha and Ted Juneau, both from Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas. Homeratha is the women’s basketball coach; Juneau the athletic director and men’s basketball coach. While it didn’t appear there were any more college recruiters in the audience, Juneau said he ran into one from a junior college in Washington state.

“The first three years (of NABI) there were a lot of big schools (looking at these athletes). I don’t see many now,” Homeratha said.

Ernie Stevens Jr., NABI’s honorary vice chairman, said the organization is proud of alumni like Angel Goodrich now playing at Kansas University, a Division I school. Goodrich sat out her freshmen year last year after tearing her left ACL during practice. Two of Steven’s daughters signed letters of intent in the past at NABI to play at Haskell. “This tournament is what motivated them to go to college.”

“This is a good place for us (to recruit). We have nine kids that have played here,” Juneau said. “We’re looking at four (male) players.” One of those players is Tim Field, 18, Eskimo, who helped take team Alaska to the final four securing third place honors.

Getting noticed is “part of the reason I came here,” said Field, who at 5’11” averaged 23 points a game at Noorvik High School. He’s disappointed he wasn’t approached by more college recruiters, but is excited about the prospect of playing for Haskell.

Also hoping to get some attention was Levi Antonio, an all star player from San Carlos, Ariz. who played against Field for third place. Antonio, a senior at San Carlos High School, is a leading scorer with a career high 43 points in one game. He was named to the 1A-3A All-State Team as a junior. His dream is to play for the University of Arizona. “It would be exciting,” said Antonio. But at 5’11” his height may put him at a disadvantage.

“If you assess the talent (here), they’re small. There are a lot of guards here. That’s probably the thing right there,” said Homeratha as to why bigger colleges aren’t at NABI. But, according to him, there’s nothing wrong with playing at smaller colleges. In fact, he encourages aspiring college athletes to consider playing at a junior college where they’ll get playing time as a freshman. Many of his players are returning as seniors so any freshmen that join the team won’t see much playing time.

The exception may be T.J. Manson, a Page High School (Arizona) stand out, who at 6’2” could see a lot of minutes as a freshmen if she signs with Haskell. Manson helped her team Unknown win the championship game at NABI against a tough Oklahoma Indians II team.

Homeratha, who was honored with a Leadership Award at NABI for more than three decades of coaching, also encourages athletes to keep up their grades in school. “If you want to play Division I ball you have to have a 22 ACT score. At Haskell you have to have an 18 ACT score. A lot of kids don’t make it.”

Stevens is encouraged to see more young Native American athletes playing beyond high school. “When I went to school, nobody was playing college ball.” That was in 1981. He also wants athletes to succeed off the court.

Stevens, who played for Haskell, said life lessons could be learned from basketball. “(It’s about) teaching a code of conduct, how to work through life, how to interact.”