- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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GinaMarie Scarpa has spent the bulk of her adult life trying to help kids.
Often it can feel a lot like tilting at windmills: The odds are long and the struggles frequent. Instead of growing frustrated, Scarpa only grew more determined. She worked with former NBA player A.C. Green, eventually becoming the executive director of his youth foundation.
Seven years ago, Scarpa had an idea -- a crazy, quixotic notion of bringing attention to a group long competing in the shadows. She approached former NBA player Mark West, then the vice president of player programs for the Phoenix Suns, and together they all but bullied the Native American Basketball Invitational (NABI) into existence.
The idea was simple: College coaches never thought to look for basketball players on the 304 reservations across the country, so they would bring the players to the coaches.
That first year, NABI attracted 24 teams to Phoenix. Last summer more than 80 all-Native American clubs accounting for 1,200 athletes (boys and girls) participated.
"There's a whole population of kids who are passionate about basketball and no one knows about them," Scarpa said. "We know this is going to take time, but we want this to happen and that's half the battle."
For Native American players, NABI has been a godsend. Many grow up playing basketball -- or at least rez ball, the frenetic, hyperkinetic reservation version of it -- but rarely have a chance to do anything with it.
"To get noticed, it's up to you," said Clint Not Afraid, a sophomore at Haskell Indian Nations University. "People just don't know how to do it, coaches or anyone. It's not that they don't want to help; they don't know how."
Three years ago, NABI received critical NCAA certification, opening the doors for coaches from Division I, II and III schools to attend the tournament. It wasn't easy. Because Native American players from one tribal nation can be from multiple states, Scarpa and West had to convince the NCAA to change its 'same state' requirement for teams and recognize tribal nation sovereignty.
Even with certification in place, Scarpa has realistic goals. She doesn't expect to see Roy Williams, Bill Self and Tom Izzo filling her stands any time soon.
"Our goal is for them to use sports to get a college education," said Scarpa, who, in conjunction with the Arizona Diamondbacks, will help launch NABI baseball and softball this summer. "I don't care if it's junior college, tribal college, whatever. They need an education."
NABI isn't perfect. It still separates Native American players from mainstream kids, making it more difficult to judge just how talented a prospect is. And rare is the NCAA coach who attends. Haskell head coach Ted Juneau, who is a logical regular at NABI, said the stands are stuffed with junior college and NAIA coaches and he can't remember ever seeing even an NCAA Division I assistant in attendance.
But, Scarpa argues, it's a start.
"People like to tell us compared to Vegas, we're not doing enough," she said, referencing the huge shoe-company-sponsored tournaments in July in Las Vegas. "Well, hello. We're just getting started from ground zero. Rome wasn't built in a day."
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An NCAA-certified basketball tournament featuring 1,200 Native American kids? For many years, it would've been considered an impossible notion. Not anymore.