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NBA players reach out to reservations

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PHOENIX - When former Phoenix Suns center Mark West was a young, emerging basketball star in Virginia, he never gave much thought to the plight of American Indians in this country.

After all, being raised as an African American in the South during the 1960s and 1970s came with its own set of issues. There wasn't time for pity for other minority groups when your own survival was at stake.

But now, West, the Suns' assistant general manager, finds himself as the main conduit for the Suns to the large Native community in Arizona. He's one of the driving forces behind the first Native American Basketball International (NABI), which will be held July 11 - 13 at America West Arena in downtown Phoenix.

West said his eyes first opened to the plight of Indians shortly after his 1988 trade with guard Kevin Johnson from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Suns, a trade which propelled the Suns to years of success in the NBA's Western Division.

One of West's first acts as a Sun was setting up a basketball camp for disadvantaged youth at a Salvation Army facility in South Phoenix. West said he opened 10 spots at the camp for reservation kids in the area, primarily for children from the nearby Gila River Indian Community.

"That was my first glimpse at how good the talent was on the reservations," West said.

Then, West and Johnson started a program at the team's preseason camp in Flagstaff, Ariz., where they would give motivational speeches to upwards of 500 Navajo and Hopi young people and give them tickets to a public scrimmage at Northern Arizona University's Skydome when the team broke camp.

The Suns started making inroads into Native American communities in 1986 when they played an exhibition game against the Dallas Mavericks on the Hopi reservation. After West and Johnson started the Native American program in Flagstaff, other players like former Sun Cliff Robinson and current Suns Coach Frank Johnson continued it through the years. The Suns also have conducted regular basketball clinics on the Gila River reservation over the years.

Another link between the NBA and Arizona's tribes formed when former Lakers great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar devoted a school year in the late 1990s to coaching basketball at Alchesay High School in Whiteriver on the Fort Apache Indian reservation.

Rob Harris, a Suns spokesman, said that he accompanied former Suns player Tom Chambers to a game on the San Carlos Apache reservation so Chambers could be an honorary coach for the San Carlos team against Abdul-Jabbar's Alchesay team.

"The gym was overflowing and even the cafeteria was packed, where you couldn't even see or hear the game," Harris said. "There was such a buzz about having the No. 1 scorer in NBA history there along with Tom, who was the No. 24 scorer all time."

West's interest in American Indians was piqued even more after he attended an Arizona state high school basketball tournament and saw the arena filled by Natives and an extremely high level of play on the court.

That was followed by trips by West to the Apaches' Alchesay High School and to Monument Valley High School on the Navajo Nation to see the state of Native basketball up close.

"That got me wondering about why there are all these great athletes yet it translated into so few scholarship opportunities on the college level," West said. "We're hoping that NABI will be able to do something about that in the long run."

West, who was one of the NBA's top defensive big men during his 19-year stay in the league, will be among those conducting seminars about basketball and more importantly, life, for the 24 teams from throughout the country entered in the tournament.

"I grew up as a minority, too, in a very tough situation and I have a lot to say about persistence and perseverance and all the trials and tribulations of life," West said. "There's a big-life message which comes from basketball and I want to convey that to all the players who come to the tournament. And, we also want the kids to have a fantastic time."