When former NBA center Mark West, GinaMarie Scarpa and the late Scott Podleski founded the Native American Basketball Invitational (NABI) in 2003, they had one goal: To create scholarship opportunities for American Indian high school athletes. Since then, their idea has grown. A lot.
“What was meant to be a small tournament for the Phoenix-area local tribes has turned into the largest all-Native tournament in North America and the first to be sanctioned by the NCAA,” says Scarpa, NABI’s chief executive officer. “Since its inception, NABI has created athletic scholarship opportunities for more than 50 athletes, has awarded more than $75,000 in scholarships and, in 2010, became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.”
The list of sponsors NABI has attracted is long and varied. Among them are the National Basketball Association’s Phoenix Suns, the Women’s National Basketball Association’s Phoenix Mercury, Nike, former National Congress of American Indians President Tex G. Hall, National Indian Gaming Association Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. and the Ak-Chin Indian Community.
The relationship with Nike N7 has been an especially apt match of interests. “Since the introduction of the Nike Air Native N7 in 2007, NABI has become the signature event promoting the new Nike N7 brand,” Scarpa says. “In July 2011, Nike N7 incorporated into the NABI College & Career Fair, which takes place the day of NABI basketball registration, a full Nike booth which included a photo booth, video-game lounge and a display of their most recent N7 line.”
NABI creates athletic venues for American Indian youth to focus on their health, while keeping them away from the many potential pitfalls of adolescence—alcohol, drug use, gang involvement and depression. “We will continue to strive to create programs and sports tournaments that create a safe environment for Native youth,” Scarpa says.
Along with basketball, baseball and softball tournaments, NABI has also created the NABI 10K and Health Fair, and the NABI Youth Physical Education Program for youth ages 8 to 14 to help combat childhood obesity and diabetes. NABI also continues to award financial assistance to its alumni through the NABI College Scholarship Fund.
The group has begun focusing on suicide prevention as well. Partnering with superstar dunker and N7 Ambassador Kenny Dobbs, Choctaw, NABI has added the UpRise Youth Motivational Presentations to its list of programs. These presentations showcase Dobbs’s two incredible talents: executing gravity-defying dunks and connecting with Native youth.
Traveling to reservations across the country, Dobbs puts on his incredible slam-dunk show and then speaks to the kids about ways of staying mentally and physically healthy. He does so by talking at length about his own struggles with alcohol, drugs and depression. “The dunk show is my icebreaker, my bridge-builder,” he says. “It creates a bond with me and the kids and makes them more open to hearing about what I went through and how I became successful.”
As Dobbs relates, he had a tumultuous adolescence filled with drinking, selling drugs, robbery and, nearly, a prison sentence. Then, after piecing his life back together, he fell into a deep depression over his divorce and his struggles to provide for his family. His condition was so severe that in 2007, he took an entire bottle of pills and nearly died. “I felt like a failure, like I was never going to make it. And now I look at my life, just four years later, and I realize I would have never seen this side of the mountain,” Dobbs says. “When you’re depressed you feel like the mountain is huge, you’ll never get over it. But I did.”
“Now I’m supporting my family [he has two daughters] doing what I love,” he continues. “And I get a chance to teach the kids about setting goals, journaling, focusing on academics and making positive choices. I tell them to see themselves as leaders. On these reservations, with all their problems, I put away my shame and tell them my story so they can know things change.”
Scarpa thinks Dobbs’s message is getting through. “Kenny has an incredibly kind spirit. The kids love him,” she says. “We created a program that reaches out and delivers a powerful message. Our goal is to bring this message to as many tribal communities as possible in the hopes that it changes lives.”
As NABI’s UpRise Youth Motivational Presentations continue, Dobbs envisions that his group’s commitment to reaching out to the youth of Indian country will inspire others to do the same.
“If I get can get a group of five Natives to feed off my passion and help other youth out, and then those youth want to help others out,” he predicts, “eventually it’ll create a whole youth movement.”