DENVER— The six-court basketball arena stands empty now. The freshly swept hardwood floors reflect the florescent lighting and the only echoes are from the traffic outside. But like bees to a hive, a swarm of students and their families will buzz throughout the building for one of the biggest Native youth basketball tournaments in the country.
More than 1,000 high and middle school students will descend at the Gold Crown Foundation Field House April 1-3 for the annual AMERIND All West Native American Basketball Classic and Youth Weekend to vie for bragging rights as one of the best basketball teams in Indian Country.
The tournament began in 1985 after the alarming rate of youth suicides on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Many of the families affected by the tragedies lived in tribal housing. The directors of the United Native American Housing Association (UNAHA) region that includes Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Native American Programs (ONAP) in Denver created the tournament to provide off-reservation incentives and educational opportunities. Students who come to the tournament listen to motivational speakers and are encouraged to apply for college scholarships.
Guest speakers have included the late NBA star Darryl Dawkins, NBA coaches and Denver Nugget players, Chickasaw astronaut John Herrington, Native American artists, educators, scientists and pro boxer Muhammad Ali. Speakers emphasize the importance of education and remaining drug- and alcohol-free. Past tournament participants played in area college campus gyms and toured the campuses.
“A lot of the kids we bring to the tournament mark this event as a turning point in their lives. They get to see what another part of the world looks like,” said Jason Adams, Salish & Kootenai Housing Authority executive director and UNAHA board chairman, who also participated in the tournament when he was in high school. He said many of the students who participate have never been off the reservation before.
“It opens their eyes to a bigger world at an early age. You just can’t put a value on that,” he said.
More than just basketball, the tournament has also opened doors for students through education. The Mark K. Ulmer Native American Scholarship Foundation has awarded 77 scholarships in the past 25 years creating teachers, mechanical and electrical engineers, physical educators, a physician and other Native professionals. Sam and Nancy Ulmer started the foundation in honor of their son, an ONAP attorney who died in 1988. Mark Ulmer helped create the tournament after seeing dire conditions on the reservations. Scholarship recipients are awarded $1,000 a year for four years if they keep a GPA of 2.0 and then paired with a mentor. A requirement to be eligible for the scholarship is to play in the basketball tournament.
“More than 85 percent we have given scholarships to have either graduated or are still in school,” said Sam Ulmer, adding that it sometimes takes students 10 years to graduate. “It gives us a great deal of joy to see a student finish, go back to their community and get a job.”
AMERIND Risk, the only 100-percent, tribally-owned company in the nation that provides tribal housing insurance and other employee benefits packages, has been a partner to the Ulmers and tournament organizers, granting funding for more than a decade. In 2005, the event was renamed the AMERIND All West Native American Basketball Classic after the insurance company became a marquee supporter, sponsoring more than one-third of the event.
“They are a great partner, a valuable partner,” Adams said. “The organization appreciates the assistance that they provide. There is a lot of expense to put such a thing together.”
For the 31st annual tournament, 96 teams from all over Indian Country have registered for the event, drawing participants from Arizona, California, Florida and Oklahoma. In the past, First Nations teams from Canada have played. HUD ONAP attorneys and accountants, and law firms that represent tribal housing authorities still volunteer as scorekeepers and crowd control. Teams are offered discounts to Nuggets NBA games.
David Heisterkamp, an attorney representing tribal housing and tournament director of the All-West Native American Youth Association that oversees the tournament, said the event has gotten so big that some college basketball recruiters have come to watch the games. A few of the tribal colleges have also sent recruiters to scout for the best students.
“It’s important to keep sending that message to the kids that there is a next step, you’re not done when you enter high school, there is more than that to life and there are next steps,” he said. “Some kids say, ‘I wasn’t even thinking about school until I got the scholarship.’”
For many of the students, the tournament is like the NBA Native playoffs. Felix McGowan of Fort Peck, Mont., an environmental policy consultant for tribes who now lives in Idaho, said he remembers playing in the tournament in 1988-90 before he played in junior college and at Montana State.
“Indian Country is a small world, especially when you hear about guys from South Dakota and Wyoming. You hear about those Lodge Grass guys, the Old Bulls, and you heard about the guys at Rosebud and Pine Ridge. That Denver tournament was an opportunity to see them and play them and measure your skills. For a high school kid, it was an awesome opportunity,” he said.
For Adams, who played in the early years and has watched the tournament grow, nothing beats this tournament.
“If you like Indian basketball, it’s the place to be,” Adams said.
The 2016 AMERIND All West Native American Basketball Classic and Youth Weekend runs April 1-3, and is free and open to the public. Follow the event on Facebook: www.facebook.com/groups/460282234125176/.