Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

PHOENIX — Before heading off to Kansas to play college basketball in the fall, Kailee Fineday has a more immediate goal this week and it involves the NBA Finals.

Fineday, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, and her Lady Thunder teammates are in Phoenix for the Native American Basketball Invitational. The popular summer tournament is back after taking a break in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and this year’s tournament winners get more than a medal and bragging rights. The winner of the girls’ and boys’ tournaments get to attend Saturday's NBA Finals game at Phoenix Suns Arena.

“Well, it makes it more exciting, I’ll tell you that,” Fineday said. “It makes you wanna win more.”

It sure does, and she’s far from the only one with hoop dreams of watching the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks in game 5 of the championship series.

Some 120 boys and girls basketball teams are in Phoenix Valley to play in more than 430 games in five days. Sheesh, that’s a lot of basketball. Teams have come from all over the country, some as far away as New York and Alaska signed up.

Now, in its 18th year, NABI is also back in Phoenix full time. For the past few years, almost all games were held a short drive south of the Valley, mostly in the Ak-Chin Indian Community. This year, games take place across eight Phoenix high-school gyms.

That’s not all that has changed.

The new NABI jersey for the 2021 tournament. (Photo by Dalton Walker/Indian Country Today)

Traditionally, championship games were played at the Phoenix Suns Arena on its NBA court, but because of the playoff NBA game, NABI shifted plans to play the title games at a local high school earlier that day. This is where NABI Foundation donor Robert Shippy comes in. He’s pledged Finals tickets for NABI winners.

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Video: NABI pool play action on July 12

Another change this year, yet more of a norm across the country, is face masks. Masks are required for all who attend with the exception being players competing in a game having the option.

Teammates Treann Classay and Raine Tate, both White Mountain Apache Tribe, are happy NABI is back. They play for Angie’s Squad, a team based out of Arizona.

Treann Classay, White Mountain Apache Tribe, in Phoenix for the 2021 Native American Basketball Invitational, NABI. (Photo by Dalton Walker/Indian Country Today)

NABI “gets a lot of Native Americans, especially the younger kids, more exposure to play against other Native teams,” Classay said. “This gives them a chance to compete.”

Tate said it felt nice to be back on the NABI court and on a basketball court without a mask. This is her third NABI and finished in the Final Four in her ninth grade year.

“We’re aiming to get to the top,” she said.

NABI isn’t only for players. It’s also for college basketball recruiters.

Pete Conway has attended NABI for the last 10 years to recruit and to build relationships with players and coaches. He’s the head coach for the United Tribes Technical College men’s basketball team in Bismarck, North Dakota.

“NABI gives you a chance to see everyone in Indian Country,” he said. “It’s not just about recruiting for this upcoming season, but for the future season and younger kids.”

Pete Conway, head coach for the United Tribes Technical College men’s basketball team in Bismarck, North Dakota. He was in Phoenix July 12 for NABI. (Photo by Dalton Walker/Indian Country Today)

Conway said NABI is “the best of the best,” when it comes to talent.

One of his big recruits is playing his last NABI as a prep. Delwyn Holthusen III, Red Lake Nation, committed to Conway’s program in April.

“I’m excited to go out there and show them what I can do, and hopefully help the program as much as I can,” Holthusen said.

But first, NABI. Holthusen joined a team out of North Dakota called Northern Thunder.

“I hope to get as far as we can,” he said. “I came down to Ariona to play because it’s an experience. I get to travel, meet new people, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Fineday is in a similar situation as Holthusen.

Kailee Fineday, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, in Phoenix for the 2021 Native American Basketball Invitational, NABI. (Photo by Dalton Walker/Indian Country Today)

She's headed to Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, later this year to play basketball. She wants to leave Phoenix with a medal.

“I want to represent my community and put myself out here,” Fineday said. “I can show other people that anything is possible. I’m trying to win and bring it back home.”

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