There’s a reason why Preston Baker and his boys basketball team from the Brighton Reservation spent a good chunk of a June weekend playing USAAA tournament games in Broward County
gyms. It’s the same reason why they spent the prior weekend at an AAU showcase in Orlando, and why they’ve been practicing three days a week and traveling to tournaments on weekends for the past seven months.
It’s all about preparing for the North American Indigenous Games, the largest such athletic gathering on this continent for ages 13-19. The Games will be held July 16-23 at a variety of venues in the Toronto area.
Baker’s team, filled with middle schoolers, will be part of about 5,000 indigenous athletes from throughout Canada and the U.S. who will vie for gold, silver and bronze medals in the Olympic-style games that occur every three to four years. About 50 Seminole Tribe of Florida athletes will represent Team Florida in archery, track and field, basketball, riflery, swimming and wrestling. Four basketball teams from the Tribe are scheduled to compete. Plenty of other sports are on the agenda – although likely not to have Seminole representation — including badminton, baseball, canoe/kayak, golf, lacrosse, soccer and volleyball.
Coaches for Team Florida are scheduled to be: Joe Collins and Dawna Bell (archery), Darren McPherson and Green Cummings (track and field), Big Cypress Board Rep. Joe Frank and Darren Marlin (riflery), Jennie Busbin and Stephanie Becker (swimming), Sammy Johnson (wrestling), Eddie Redd and Dessie Thomas (girls U16 basketball), O’Bryan White (boys U16 basketball), Marvin Newkirk and Timothy Clark (boys U19 basketball) and Preston Baker and his wife Mona Baker (U14 boys basketball).
Preston Baker wants his hoops team – known as Chobee Nation in area tournaments — to be as well prepared as possible.
“The more we play, the more they stay together, the more we get better,” Baker said as he was getting his team ready for a tournament game in Coral Springs. “We’ve got to be ready to play.”
The team has been practicing at the Brighton Recreation gym. Practice paid off in Orlando as the squad earned runner-up honors in its age division.
Baker knows from previous experience that competition at NAIG is serious stuff. In a previous NAIG, he coached a softball team, which included his daughter Jaryaca, that didn’t fare too well in the win-loss column.
“It’s very serious. I learned that in softball,” Baker said. “We just got a team together within a month. This time we started as soon as we knew we were going to Indigenous. So we got like seven months in.”
Baker isn’t coaching softball, but the basketball team will include his sons Ramone and Pherian as well as Caleb Billie, Chanon Frye, Dathen Garcia, Dakoya Nunez and Nakai Alex, and Preston’s wife Mona, who handles the scorebook. Chobee Nation started the tournament in Broward on a positive note when they rallied for a 61-47 win against Rock United behind 19 points from Donovan Harris, who will play for the U16 team at NAIG.
“They came back. I’m proud of them,” said coach Baker, whose squad went on to finish the tournament with a 2-3 record.
Baker wants his team to have a good showing at NAIG and also enjoy perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play in Canada.
“I hope they get the experience of a lifetime, to go out there and have fun … but be ready to win. Go in with a winning attitude and be ready to play,” he said. “Bring something back home.”
Three years ago, Sammy Micco Sanchez brought something back home that nobody else from the Seminole Tribe accomplished. Sanchez was the only Seminole to win gold at the 2014 NAIG in Regina, Saskatchewan. His performance in wrestling as a 14-year-old brought back fond memories for the football and wrestling standout who is heading into his senior year at Fort Gibson High School in Oklahoma.
Sanchez, who recently attended Florida State University and Oklahoma State University football camps, was already a proven top notch wrestler when he arrived in Regina, but his accomplishments had come in wrestling style different than the NAIG style, which is freestyle. He wasn’t familiar with freestyle and only found that was NAIG’s style not long before he stepped onto the mat.
“I was new to everything. I didn’t know freestyle,” Sanchez said. “I teched (technical falls) everybody through, but it was still hard.”
“Last time we weren’t prepared at all. We had no clue it was freestyle,” said Sanchez’s high school and NAIG coach Sammy Johnson. “Sammy’s an athletic kid; a real coachable kid. I figured we’d be successful, [but] I was surprised at winning it.”
This time around the wrestler and coach will be prepared for freestyle. Sanchez won the 220-pound title three years ago at a lighter weight than his competitors. He’ll still give up some weight in Toronto, but not as much because he expects to be close to 200 pounds when the competition starts.
“I’ll be wrestling the same weight at 220. Last time I wrestled in it I was 175. Instead of giving up like 40 pounds, I’ll be giving up like 25,” said Sanchez, who will be the only Seminole wrestler at NAIG.
“Expectations from us are pretty high,” Johnson said.
Some other top Seminole athletes include Conner Thomas in archery and Julius Aquino in track and field. This spring Thomas qualified to compete in a national 4-H archery competition in Nebraska. Aquino, a nephew of wrestler Sammy Micco Sanchez, recently finished middle school track in Oklahoma by pretty much dominating every race he entered.
Although Marcia Trudeau-Bomberry and her team of organizers had only 12 months to get everything ready for the Games – including sponsors, venues, dormitories, officials, culture villages, broadcasting partners, advertising, entertainers and 1,500 volunteers — the 2017 NAIG CEO said everything is right on track.
“We all came aboard in July 2016. Normally, with games like this there’s three years to plan. We had one year to plan. We have a very committed team of professionals,” Trudeau-Bomberry said in a phone interview with The Tribune on June 24.
The Games, which started in 1990 in Edmonton, Alberta, should shine right away thanks to an indigenous star from the music industry. Taboo, from the Black Eyed Peas, will perform at the opening ceremony in Aviva Stadium. The 12,000-seat venue is home to the Rogers Cup tennis tournament, but for NAIG opening night thousands of athletes will parade through it while representing their home state, province or territory. The ceremony will be streamed online at cbcsports.ca.
Trudeau-Bomberry said all 13 Canadian provinces and territories will be represented as well as nine U.S. states, including Florida, California and New York.
Other musical performances and two cultural villages – one at York University and the other at McMaster University — will be part of the Games throughout the week. Athletes will be housed in dorms on the campuses of York, McMaster and two other colleges. NAIG received $3.5 million in funding from the province of Ontario. That amount was matched by the federal government. Trudeau-Bomberry said the event has been well received. A ceremony was held in April that included Toronto Mayor John Tory.
“We’ve had tremendous support from the City and the various departments in the city as well as the province,” Trudeau-Bomberry said.
Most of the Seminoles are scheduled to fly to Toronto on July 15 in time to participate in the opening ceremonies the following day. Competition in most sports starts July 17.