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NABI Offers Young Ballers a Chance to Play—and Learn

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There aren’t many teenage Indian basketball players who don’t recognize the initials “NABI,” even though the Native American Basketball Invitational didn’t begin until 2003, and at that time was primarily for players in the Phoenix area. It’s grown tremendously in the intervening years and continues to do so, with new direction, new programs and a new ambassador. But the goal remains the same: to work with Native youth.

Chief Executive Officer GinaMarie Scarpa was one of NABI’s co-founders, along with Mark West, a vice president for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, and Scott Podleski, who has since passed away. Surprisingly, none of them are Native American. They were talking one day and Scott brought up the plight of Indian athletes on reservations who had the ability to play college basketball but lived in desolate locations and went unnoticed by college recruiters. “It was an incredible story,” Scarpa says, “and he invited me and Mark to come down to one of the Arizona Interscholastic Association state championship games. We went and were just in awe of how talented the players were. We just couldn’t wrap our minds around why we didn’t see more Native Americans in college or pro sports. It was like a Pandora’s box was opened. There were all these questions.”

The three of them decided to put together a small tournament for local tribes and try to get some exposure for the kids. Scarpa says the premise was: “Invite some colleges, and we’ll become a NCAA summer tournament. It was like a day of ideas. Let’s do this. Let’s do that.… ” And that’s how NABI was born.

The current list of officers and board members is impressive: Tex G. Hall, former president of the National Congress of American Indians, is president, and Ernie Stevens Jr., current chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, is vice president. West remains on the board of directors, but the dynamo behind the daily operations, the “ideas girl,” is Scarpa. “I shoot rockets to the moon,” she says. “No one can tell me I can’t do anything—not anymore.”

She attributes her passion for this organization to being raised in a housing project back east. “I got involved with NABI because I could relate to the pressures some youth face, the lack of hope when the world is giving them the ‘You can’t’ message. The mission of NABI captured my heart, so I dove in, knowing the difference NABI can make in the lives of our youth.”

That initial little tournament expanded quickly. The rumor got out that it was in partnership with the Phoenix Suns and spread nationally. Soon, teams from out of state called, wanting to get involved. “We had no idea what we were starting—none,” Scarpa says. “This thing just grew and grew.”

It wouldn’t have happened without support. “The Ak-Chin Indian Community south of Phoenix gave us start-up money to get the foundation going in 2010,” Scarpa says. “They have been right beside us the whole time. Then we have the professional sporting agencies: the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury [WNBA], US Airways Center, Arizona Diamondbacks [MLB] and more recently the Phoenix Coyotes [NHL].” Nike jumped on board early and remains a major sponsor. “They now have their own N7 line, a Native American line of sports apparel,” Scarpa says. “Profits from the N7 line go to fund programs on Native lands.”

NABI received NCAA certification in 2007 after successfully challenging its rule that teams in tournaments had to be made up of players from the same state—reservations often overlap state boundaries. The highest number of teams to enter the five-day tournament is 86. That was good, but not many DI scouts and coaches came, although junior college coaches and others did come to recruit.

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This summer’s tournament will drop its NCAA certification, which will allow more teams to participate. “All we were really

doing [by being certified] was closing off the tournament to teams and we weren’t serving as many youths as we could,” says Scarpa, who’s hoping to get 100 teams this summer. “I made a promise to our teams that once we became a nonprofit we would lower the entry fees, because we would be able to apply for grants to offset the enormous cost of putting on a national tournament. This year we did just that.”

Each team will pay $500 for this summer’s tournament, scheduled for July 5 to 9. They will receive full Nike uniforms for up to 13 players plus two coaches’ jerseys and all the bells and whistles for which NABI is known, such as a tournament kickoff pool party, college and career fair, educational seminars and the championship games played at the US Airways Center, home of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury.

Scarpa is working on another idea that most likely will become a reality in 2012. “We are hoping to work with Nike to sponsor a traveling team—the best of NABI—and they’ll travel to the big NCAA tournaments, like in L.A. and Las Vegas.” Those tournaments draw many college coaches looking for athletes to recruit. “We also do a big baseball-softball tournament in partnership with the Diamondbacks that is getting as big as NABI basketball.”

NABI’s biggest news is signing Kenny Dobbs, called by some the number-one dunker in the world, as its newest ambassador. Dobbs is an enrolled Choctaw, although he was born and raised in Phoenix. “Kenny has an incredible story,” Scarpa says. “He came from [a neighborhood stricken by] gang-related activity, drug abuse and attempted suicide. His story is inspirational. Kenny is able to relate to the pressures our youth face, and they respond to him. He gives NABI a chance to go national with a powerful message. Many communities participate in our tournaments, but this gives NABI a chance to go to their communities and bring programs to them.”

The Dobbs news is big but not the only recent change. NABI is now a nonprofit organization, which Scarpa hopes will open up funding for many of its other initiatives, including a mentoring program. “We’ve found there is a high dropout rate of Native Americans in college because of the stress of leaving the reservation,” she says. “Our goal is for them to leave college with a diploma in their hands. If a school has some of our NABI players and wants to provide a mentor program for them, we would fund up to $5,000 for that.

“I have all these big dreams now that we’re nonprofit. I would love to refurbish basketball courts on Native lands and really grow our on-reservation programs.

“NABI has been like a Cinderella story. It has grown from a little tournament to help kids locally, and look where it is now. We launched a local physical fitness program for 8- to 14-year-olds, focusing on using fitness to combat childhood obesity and diabetes.

“The biggest thing we want to start promoting is that NABI is more than just basketball. We now have programs to bring to Indian country. We want them to grow and change lives. We have dedicated staff and board members, but it’s the people who believe in NABI who make it happen. To quote Dobbs, ‘You have to believe it to achieve it!’?”