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Small crowds won't damper spirits

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PHOENIX, Ariz. - Despite taking a heavy hit to the pocketbook because of tiny crowds, organizers of the initial Native American Basketball Invitational tournament said they plan on playing host to the national high school basketball tournament again next year.

"We're going to figure out some way to carry on with it. Our goal is to have it again in Phoenix next year," said Scott Podleski, managing partner of NABI.

Podleski and other organizers of the event had predicted that they would draw 10,000 fans daily for the three-day event, which was won by the Concho boys team from the Cheyenne-Arapaho tribe of Oklahoma and the Monument Valley, Ariz., girls team from the Navajo Nation. Concho's Anthony Brown and Monument Valley's Samantha Harrison were the most valuable players of the boys' and girls' brackets, respectively.

But the July 11 games drew only 250 fans to the 19,000-seat America West Arena, the home of the Phoenix Suns of the NBA, and the crowds were only slightly larger than that for the tournament's final two days.

"We were expecting a lot more people but we did what we could in promoting it. People were very cautious wondering whether this was real given it was the first time," Podleski said.

Podleski refused to discuss how much money he and other investors in the tournament lost. Suns Chief Executive Officer Jerry Colangelo allowed the arena to be used free of charge for the tournament. But tournament organizers paid for all 24 teams in the tournament to stay at the downtown Hyatt Regency, one of Phoenix's most expensive hotels and had a host of other expenses.

Tournament officials had hoped to tap into the overwhelming support that Indian high school basketball teams receive during the Arizona state high school basketball tournament in March, when Native American fans routinely pack the arena.

But that's played during a time of the year when the daily temperature doesn't skyrocket past 110. The state basketball tournament is also the only game in town at that point. NABI went head up against a three-game series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Francisco Giants at Bank One Ballpark, a block away, which drew more than 130,000 fans.

There also were other factors, said Lee Zhonnie, a longtime Navajo high school basketball official in New Mexico.

"To get a good gate, they really needed to get the top Navajo teams out of New Mexico like Gallup, Kirtland, Navajo Prep and Shiprock," Zhonnie said, adding that he also thought that the $10 cost for an individual day pass was too expensive for most Native American families to pay.

"They also need to move the tournament closer to the reservation and to a cooler place like the Skydome in Flagstaff (Ariz.)," Zhonnie said.

But Kevin Sandy, coach of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy team of Canada, said organizers just need to be patient.

"The tournament should remain in Phoenix for one more year, then have a process to allow other communities a chance to host an event of this magnitude," Sandy said. "POD Productions (the NABI tournament host) could serve as the tournament selection committee, like the NCAA selection committee."

Podleski said he would be pondering a number of ways to make the tournament more palatable to fans. But he said nothing could take away from the happiness that the 310 players experienced by having their game elevated to an NBA stage.

"The kids were treated like they were important and that's the most important thing," Podleski said. "There were a number of other highlights, too. Like four of the kids getting full-ride scholarships to Huron University. And, the fact that Bo Jackson flew across the country, on his own dime, to make a 30-minute inspirational speech to the players."

Podleski said several other NBA teams had called him seeking information about how to stage a similar event with Native American youth.

"Everyone says that this is a great idea. I genuinely believe that this can work. We're not here to do one tournament and then walk away," Podleski said.