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NABI prepares for tip-off in Phoenix

PHOENIX - Scott Podleski says he'll never forget that March day five years ago when he walked into America West Arena during the Arizona Interscholastic Association state basketball tournament and saw 19,000 Native Americans packing the massive arena.

Teams from the Navajo Nation and White Mountain Apache reservation were there for the Class 3A semifinals. But what left an indelible impression on Podleski was that wildly enthusiastic fans from as far away as 300 miles from Arizona's capitol had made the trip to see "rez ball" in the big city at the home of the Phoenix Suns.

Podleski thought long and hard afterward. What would it be like inside the arena if it were a national Native American basketball tournament rather than just a state gathering?

He's about to find out.

The first Native American Basketball Invitational will be held at American West Arena on July 11 - 13 involving 24 high school boys and girls teams from Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Ontario.

Podleski, managing partner of POD Productions, which is putting on the tournament, said that more than 10,000 spectators a day are expected for the event, which will showcase the talents of some of the best American Indian players in North America. Organizers also are trying to find as many Native American referees as possible to officiate the games.

The event is not sanctioned by the NCAA, but Podleski said that NAIA scouts are expected to be abundant at the tournament.

But the gathering is about much more than just basketball.

Earl Mekeshe Rivard, a member of California's Wampanaog tribe and co-director of the tournament, said that Native leaders from around the country would conduct daily clinics and give motivational speeches to the athletes between games.

Among those confirmed to attend are actor Roger Willie, activist Dennis Banks, race car driver Cory Witherall, Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., Fort McDowell Mohave-Apache leader Clinton Pattea and Phoenix television news personality Mary Kim Titla.

Rivard said that NABI also has received a commitment from former Heisman Trophy winner and former professional football and baseball star Bo Jackson, former Phoenix Suns center Mark West, former Notre Dame all-American and current WNBA Phoenix Mercury Coach John Shumate and Mercury player Lisa Harrison to speak at the festivities.

In addition, entertainers will be in abundance at the tournament, including Navajo rap and hip-hop artist Lil' Dre, country and western singer Nate Begay, Hopi Tewa dancers and Apache Crown dancers. Opening ceremonies will be held July 10 during halftime of the Phoenix Mercury game against the Cleveland Rockers and a special tribute will be paid to Army Spc. Lori Piestewa, a member of the Hopi Tribe and first American Indian woman killed in combat on foreign soil.

As the tournament approaches, questions abound for both Podleski and Rivard as final preparations are made.

Will tribal members travel to Phoenix in the heat of summer like they so passionately follow their teams at the end of the interscholastic season during the spring? How much to charge at the gate? Where will they find good, centrally located lodging arrangements for the teams?

But Podleski has a knack for dealing with such things. His dad, Ted, was the original promotions director for the Phoenix Suns, beginning in the late 1960s, before becoming general manager of the NBA's San Diego Clippers.

Scott Podleski also has had a host of promotions jobs in professional sports including basketball, hockey and arena football. But now, Native American basketball is his passion.

"I kept thinking when I was at the high school state tournament, 'does anyone else see what I see?'" Podleski said. "The support for the schools was amazing and the quality of play was extraordinary."

Podleski said he didn't have to do anything approaching a hard sell to bring Rivard on board.

"I had been working in marketing in the Native American casino business, delivering services to casinos around the country," Rivard said. "When I heard about NABI, I knew this was for me. When these kids come to town, we'll treat them like gold."

Robert Nash, girls' basketball coach at Monument Valley, Ariz., High School, said he feels the organizers of the tournament shouldn't feel discouraged if the crowds aren't as large as projected.

"We can't give up if we don't get a big crowd the first time. I think it takes time to start something up like this but we all need to be patient. I think we can get a big crowd once word gets around," Nash said.

Nash also said he's eager to see college coaches in attendance. "We have to convince our own local colleges that we have athletes who can compete at the next level," Nash said. "I think Indian athletes still have to put up with the stereotyping going on and they have to prove again and again that they are capable of playing college sports."

The first two rounds of the double-elimination tournament will be held on July 9 at Phoenix's North High School and at Monument Valley High School in Kayenta on the Navajo Nation before the action shifts to downtown Phoenix.

The boys' games at Phoenix North High School are Concho, Okla., vs. Red Lake, Minn., with the winner to take on Alchesay High School of Whiteriver, Ariz., and Riverside, Okla., vs. San Carlos, Ariz., with the winner to meet Six Nations, Canada.

The girls' games at North High School are Fort Thomas, Ariz., vs. Riverside, Okla., with the winner to play Concho, Okla., and Yakama, Wash., vs. Alchesay with the winner to play Mescalero, N.M.

At Kayenta in boys' action will be Window Rock, Ariz., vs. Ganado, Ariz., with the winner to meet Reno-Sparks, Nev., and Chinle, Ariz., vs. Winslow, Ariz., with the winner to play Monument Valley High School of Kayenta.

The girls' games in Kayenta are Monument Valley vs. Ignacio, Colo., with the winner to meet Tuba City, Ariz., and Winslow vs. Reno-Sparks, Nev., with the winner to play Ganado, Ariz.