If all goes according to plan, the term “Rez Ball” may soon become part of the mainstream lexicon. The Native American Basketball Invitational, founded in 2003, is helping to bring Indian Country’s unique variation of basketball to the outside world. NABI recently convinced the NCAA to waive its same state requirement for extending certification. Late last month, the NCAA officially notified NABI that the tournament was certified as an official event, making it the first Native American basketball competition to receive such status.
According to NABI co-founder GinaMarie Mabry, previous NCAA rules that required athletes within a team to reside in the same state as a given tournament effectively excluded American Indian high school athletes from NCAA consideration.
“It was a matter of education for the NCAA,” she says.
The NCAA issues certification for some high school tournaments to ensure that players who may be considered for NCAA play meet the organization’s requirements, which includes the condition that they are amateurs. Typically, Native American students may attend out-of-state boarding schools or schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Earlier this year, NABI received notice that the NCAA would make an exception for tribal citizens in their rules for the same-state issue. By withholding the certification, the NCAA was effectively in violation of federal tribal sovereignty that views tribes as having separate nation status, according to Mabry.
The new ruling will allow Division I and II college coaches and scouts to attend the tournament at the U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix in July. NABI’s main goal is to gain national attention from colleges that can provide scholarships for students. Tournament organizers predict that the recent NBAA decision will permanently alter the face of future collegiate basketball by permitting more Native American students to access basketball scholarships at elite colleges.
Mabry expects about 1,200 players at this year’s competition representing 80 teams, she says. Support has come from tribes, the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, Nike and other sponsors. In 2005 NABI donated $25,000 to their partner foundation that supports athletes once they get into college.
Nationally, American Indians represent less than 1 percent of students attending four-year colleges. And despite the overwhelming popularity of basketball in Indian country, only 51 American Indians — 28 men and 23 women — played on Division I teams, according to the NCAA’s race and ethnicity report for the 2004-2005 season. Kelvin Sampson of Indiana University is currently the only American Indian head basketball coach in Div. 1.
Most American Indian sports enthusiasts agree that basketball seems to have always existed in reservation life. Dating from the end of the 19th century, mission schools and other Indian boarding schools introduced mainstream sports to Native students, who eventually brought the sports back to the reservations. Basketball turned out to be an especially good fit for Native people, according to NABI’s chairman Tex Hall.
“Games have always been a big part of Native culture,” says Hall, who is Mandan/Hidatsa. Traditional games, he says, were a way for warriors to physically prove themselves through competitions involving running, hunting and endurance. Basketball allows for individual play and success, yet relies heavily on a sense of camaraderie among players, which is highly valued in Native culture. And for practical reasons, basketball is cheap to play, particularly important in communities that rank among the poorest in the nation.
But what exactly is rez ball?
“Organized chaos,” says Mabry, “much more physical than organized ball.” Exact definitions differ but most agree that it’s a run-and-gun, fast-breaking endeavor full of showboating and no-look passes.
Rob McDonald, the spokesperson for the Salish Kootenai tribe and a longtime rez ball fan says, “Indian ball is its own kind of ball.”
He explains that there is a rare connection between players in rez ball. With fewer players, fewer time-outs, no organized plays, he likens it to jazz musicians who compliment each other. He insists there is a pureness and excitement in rez ball that exemplifies native traditional and family ways.
“Rez ballers were my NBA when I grew up,” he says proudly.
“Rez ball” has a long history in Indian Country and has existed largely as a world unto itself, mostly confined to reservations and surrounding areas. Indian basketball tournaments, essentially semi-pro events, have enjoyed a huge following for many years. The Wapato Tournament on the Yakama reservation in Washington State, which is in its 52nd year, is one of the larger, more established events and hires state-certified officials to oversee competition.
Many, however, are loosely organized affairs, with fluid rules and officials hired from among the sponsors of friends or relatives. Participants play for modest sums, with winning teams earning perhaps $500 per teammate on the high end in addition to coveted leather tournament jackets. Successful players sometimes receive sponsorship that covers room and travel. The most alluring award, however, is a measure of fame in a community with precious few resources or opportunities for its youth to shine on their own terms.
“That’s why NABI is such a dream come true,” says Tex Hall, former head of the NCAI, the National Congress of American Indians. “So much is stacked against them.”
–Mary Annette Pember
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