The American Basketball Association may not yet have the explosive star power that rattled rims and dazzled crowds back in the day, but it is the newest showcase for Native American basketball talent taking their game to the next level. The 2015-16 season marks the 15th year for this ABA, and will include over 90 teams with 1,000 players.
The Native Pride from Miami will open the 2015-16 ABA season Nov. 12th as the first Native team since 2004, when W.S. “Spider” Ledesma’s (Mission/Mexican Indian ancestry) team, called Native America, played in Albuquerque, N.M.
The 2015-16 expansion was scheduled to include a second all-Native team from Wyoming, but the Wind River Bison from Fort Washakie, Wyo., will delay its entry into the league until next season after running into unexpected sponsorship difficulties.
“Playing professionally is like a dream come true. I’ve been playing Indian tournaments my whole life, but the caliber of play on [the Native Pride] is really off the charts,” guard Jay Liotta, (Comanche) told ICTMN. “I can’t wait to play for Indian Country, because I’ve never played on an Indian team like this before. We can easily compete in a league with former NBA and college players.”
The ABA produced some of the greatest players in basketball history, such as Julius Erving, George Gervin, Spencer Haywood, Connie Hawkins, Moses Malone, Dan Issel and David Thompson before merging with the NBA in 1976.
Current ABA co-owners Dick Tinkham and Joe Newman decided to bring the ABA back in 1999, after the original ABA had been dormant for nearly 30 years. Newman, who compares the ABA to the Double A level of professional baseball, told ICTMN, “Our best teams can compete with any D-League team in the country.”
Newman says his idea is to showcase the amazing talent the Native American community has. “I’ve always wanted to have Native American teams in the ABA,” says Newman. “There are a tremendous number of Native American players who don’t get exposure or opportunity. If we can bring the story of Native American players to the forefront, than we’ve done something pretty good. It’s certainly a showcase for diversity in the ABA.”
The Native Pride roster is an example of diversity, with a number of affiliations, including Cherokee, Comanche, Creek and Seminole players.
Native Pride Team Owner Federico Brodsky was the 2015 ABA General Manager of the Year last season for the Miami Midnites and will be taking a run at the title with his own team this season.
Born in Argentina and living in Miami for the past 15 years, Brodsky is an internationally renowned sports operations specialist with work experience in coaching basketball, sports management, marketing, community leadership and player scouting. He also played professionally in Argentina. “Because of the relationships I have overseas, I have coaches and GMs calling me all the time looking for talent. I also have a good Latin American contact, which will be huge for the program and players moving on if they can.”
“I want our schedule to be as open as possible and go as many places as we can,” he said. “We’ll play in Texas, North Carolina and Wisconsin. We’ll host a team from Boston. I truly believe the program we are putting together with the Native Pride team will be the stepping stone for the Native community.”
Brodsky’s history with Miami Midnites owner Jeffrey Rosen, who also owns the Maccabi Haifa basketball franchise in Israel, opens the door to other professional possibilities in overseas markets.
“You have to get your foot in the door somewhere and this is a legitimate opportunity for all the young guys to look at,” said Liotta, who lives on the Miccosukee Reservation 18 miles from Miami. “I wish I had this kind of opportunity when I was in my 20s. I can’t express strongly enough what kind of opportunity this is.”
The ABA team salary cap is $120,000 per season, which means players earn roughly $800 to $1,200 a month. Nobody’s getting rich, but it is a chance to play semi-pro basketball for older players like Jesse Heart, 35, (Oglala Lakota) from Pine Ridge; Liotta, 36, (Comanche) who grew up in Oklahoma City; and his brother-in-law Jim Archambault, 31, who played for United Tribes Technical College in North Dakota.
While the Native Pride begins its 32-game schedule in mid-November, the Wind River Bison will continue to develop by playing in Indian Country tournaments while building business contacts for the 2016-17 season.
Wind River Bison owner Waylon Oldman (Arapaho) told ICTMN, “We’re sponsoring an [Indian Country’ tournament in December and we’ll play other tournaments to give our guys an extra year to learn how to play together. True value is created when you give back to your community. My only agenda is making our community a better place.”