Thousands of Native American basketball fans traveled from all parts of Arizona and around the country to Phoenix August 5 to see Atlanta Dream’s Shoni Schimmel in action as her team took on WNBA leader Phoenix Mercury. The Phoenix Mercury capitalized on an anticipated large audience by hosting Native American Heritage Night and featuring United National Indian Tribal Youth, Inc. (UNITY) as a benefiting charity. The near sell-out crowd roared and held up homemade signs as “Showtime Shoni” entered the game midway through the first quarter.
“It was a great feeling. It felt like a home game for us, especially being in Indian country,” said Schimmel, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indians.
“I was like I can’t believe this is happening. It was powerful seeing all the Natives. It was so loud, I didn’t even hear her name announced when she was introduced. It was awesome to be there representing my tribe,” said Carrie Hood, 20, Miss Ft. McDowell Yavapai Nation.
“I never thought I would have met Shoni Schimmel, but to have her autograph on my necklace and to be recognized at a game she played at was truly humbling,” said Layha Spoonhunter, 24, Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho, who flew in from Wyoming for the game. Both Hood and Spoonhunter were recognized with other UNITY youth during halftime festivities.
Thanks to the Phoenix Mercury’s Community Assist Program, the UNITY organization benefited through ticket sales and the featuring of Native youth at the event. The night began outside the US Airways arena with UNITY youth from the Ak-Chin Youth Council, Yavapai Apache Nation Youth Council and Yellowbird Indian Dancers sharing cultural songs and dances as fans arrived.
Inside the arena, UNITY shared information about its youth programs such as “Today’s Native Leaders” at a booth on the concourse. UNITY youth served as “high five” greeters in the pre-game and halftime fan tunnels where they cheered on both teams. During halftime about a dozen UNITY youth leaders, including tribal royalty and “25 Under 25” Honorees, were recognized after UNITY’s PSA played on big screens in the arena.
Schimmel, who didn’t have a great night making only one of six three point attempts but ending with 13 points for the night, become the first ever rookie last month to be named MVP of the WNBA All-Star game and she broke the record for most points in an all-star game with 29. Fans didn’t seem to mind, with hundreds staying for a post game Question and Answer session.
The Q & A session had been reserved for special groups like UNITY, however, the Phoenix Mercury opened the session to anyone who wanted to stay resulting in an overflow crowd taking up more than two reserved sections.
“Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do it,” said Schimmel to young people pursuing their dreams. The WNBA rookie talked about the personal interests, pre-game rituals, the All Star Game, her major in college (communications), and raising the bar while playing in the big leagues. Following a formal post-game interview, fans were given a chance to ask Schimmel questions. At the conclusion of the interview, UNITY youth presented Schimmel with a Pendleton blanket and Apache burden basket.
UNITY and WNBA teams, including the Atlanta Dream, New York Liberty, and the Phoenix Mercury, are partnering nationwide for Native American Night events. Through ticket sale efforts, UNITY has raised more than $5,000 for its youth programs. For the latest promotions visit UNITYInc.org or follow the organization on Facebook for updates.