On Native American Appreciation Night at KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, 22, 163 people watched Shoni Schimmel’s last home game of the regular season.
Fans from 40 states came as far as Alaska and North Dakota (many of them Native American) to hold up signs supporting the Shoni Schimmel and her sister Jude, and identifying their heritage: Choctaw from Mississippi, Lac Courte Oreilles from Wisconsin, Winnebago from Nebraska, Oglala Lakota from South Dakota, Chippewa from Minnesota, Blackfeet from Montana and many more.
"I know a lot of people were traveling, and a lot of people were coming here," Schimmel told ESPN. "And so, you know, it's great for them to travel across the country to watch a game that's on TV. It's very special to me because they are Native American, and they're coming out to just watch us. For them to do that, it's pretty cool."
It wasn’t the best night for the 21 year-old basketball standout. Schimmel finished the game with nine points, and the Cardinals lost to UCONN, 68-48.
But really, how many came just to watch the game? As ESPN pointed out, Schimmel’s greatest social impact is in representing Native Americans too rarely seen on such sporting stages.
"She has created a relationship between this team and this fan base that I have not seen," Kentucky Lieutenant Governor Jerry Abramson told ESPN. "I've never seen anything like it…. People see her on campus, at the shopping center, at the restaurant with the other girls. Everybody knows her."
Schimmel’s teammate, and U of L Guard Tia Gibbs agreed. "We're witnessing something that hasn't been done in women's basketball," Gibbs said. "We go anywhere in the country, and we've got more fans in red than the other team has on their home floor. I think it goes to show Shoni and Jude's character. They're special people, and what they're doing for the whole Native American culture is very special. And they're kind of showing them what can be done, just if you jump out on a leap of faith. That’s what Shoni and Jude did.”
University of Louisville/Mike DeZarn
Fans hold up signs during Native Appreciation Night at KFC Yum! Center on Monday night.
"Every place we go, there's a big following for them," Cardinals’ coach Jeff Walz said. "What we're doing now, it's not just the basketball part of it."