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With an eye on growth, NABI returns

When the Native American Basketball Invitational decided it was “game on” again, the president and CEO of its foundation figured about half the normal field would attend. After all, the country is still in the midst of emerging from pandemic shutdowns and restrictions.

GinaMarie Scarpa is glad her estimate proved to be wrong because it is expected to be nearly a full house when the tournament for Native high school players and recent graduates returns July 11-17 in Phoenix after a one-year absence due to the pandemic.

“Right now we have 124 teams coming,” Scarpa said in a phone interview June 16. “We’re really excited about it.”
Those teams from throughout Indian Country, including a few Seminole squads, will squeeze in more than 400 games in four days. Spectators will be required to wear face coverings.

The tournament – on and off the court – is vastly different than when it began in 2003 behind the efforts of Scarpa, former Phoenix Suns player Mark West and the late Scott Podleski.

“We started with 24 teams (12 boys, 12 girls). It’s crazy. It was only supposed to be for our local Arizona tribes. In the first year, it just spread like wildfire through Indian Country. We were getting interest from teams from other states, so we decided to open it up,” Scarpa said.

There’s no sign of slowing down. NABI is the largest Indigenous basketball competition in North America, but it has evolved into far more than just a tournament. Its educational summit, which coincides with the tournament, featured 36 presentations and 18 speakers when it was last held in 2019. A college and career fair and scholarships are also part of the opportunities offered to players. This year’s offerings have been scaled back due to the pandemic and there will be no parade of flags or meet-and-greet party, but continued growth is just around the corner.

NABI has plans to expand to 256 teams by 2025. An adult version for ages 21 and over is in the works with the hope of attracting alumni. The foundation’s golf tournament, which raises money for scholarships, has grown so much that two courses are now needed.

On June 30, the foundation announced the launch of NABI Network to livestream games.

NABI has local partnerships with the Suns and the WNBA’s Mercury and it hopes to add Arizona State University as a major partner in the educational summit.

“They have one of the best Native American programs,” Scarpa said.

The foundation is constantly seeking additional sponsors.

“It’s a great organization for those big companies who want to have those initiatives where they’re giving back to Indian Country,” she said.

The Seminole Tribe is a major sponsor of NABI. The tribe’s financial support began in the tournament’s infancy when Max Osceola was on the Tribal Council.

“Max loved NABI. He really got involved. That was when we were really little and just starting,” Scarpa said.

After Osceola left office, the tribe’s sponsorship went away until about five years ago when Scarpa met Hollywood Councilman Chris Osceola at a conference.

“I introduced myself to him and he called me probably a week later to see how he could help. He’s a big advocate for youth programs and helping our kids,” Scarpa said.

Since then, the tribe has restarted its sponsorship. Scarpa has provided updates to the Tribal Council, which she said has been “fabulous.”

“Extremely instrumental in our success. They’re very significant sponsors,” she said.

Seminole teams are often among the top contenders. A Seminole boys squad won the championship in 2018.

“Seminoles are up there with Cheyenne Arapaho and some of our northern Navajo teams that are just consistent in level of play,” Scarpa said.

Champions to attend NBA Finals

An additional incentive to winning the NABI championships was announced July 7. The boys and girls teams that win the championship games will be invited to attend game 5 of the NBA Finals on July 17 at Phoenix Suns Arena. That’s the same day and location where the NABI championship games are scheduled to be played, but if the NBA needs the arena, then the NABI games will move to a different location.

Robert Shippy, owner of Rolling Plains Construction and a NABI Foundation annual donor, has committed to underwriting tickets to the Finals for the NABI teams who will see the Suns host the Milwaukee Bucks if the Suns, who won game 1, don’t sweep the series.

“It is our honor to support the NABI Foundation by turning a bittersweet situation into a uniquely special one for our
young Native American athletes who look forward to playing the championship game on an official NBA court,” Shippy said in a statement. “We enjoy supporting such a worthy organization that brings our tribal communities together in sport and helps develop future leaders. We look forward to seeing the memorable time they will have at the NBA Finals.”

Kevin Johnson
Kevin Johnson is senior editor. He has worked for The Seminole Tribune since 2014. He was previously an editor, photographer and reporter for newspapers in Southwest Florida and Connecticut. Contact Kevin at