MISSOULA — The Warrior Movement will be taking a group of star basketball players from Montana and Wyoming to play in the Native American Basketball Invitational in Arizona later this month.
The 17th annual invitational, dubbed “the largest all-indigenous high school tournament in the nation,” will feature 64 teams from 18 states and three countries. It’ll take place from June 24-29 in Phoenix and Maricopa, Arizona.
The all-star team is led by Arlee head coach Zanen Pitts and is nicknamed Warrior Movement. It’ll be the first time he’s taking a team to the tournament.
“Being able to take a team is humbling,” Pitts said. “It’s a special opportunity to coach an all-star team and be part of something like that. To take the caliber of kid that we’re taking, it’s exciting, it’s going to be a very special experience for all of us."
The Warrior Movement team will include Arlee seniors Greg Whitesell, Lane Johnson and Isaac Fisher; Browning’s Riley Spoonhunter and Tyree Whitcomb; Hardin’s Trae Hugs; Livingston’s Brendon Johnson; and two players from the Wind River reservation in Wyoming. The players come from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Blackfeet Nation, Navajo, Northern Arapaho Tribe and Crow Tribe.
The tournament is for Native Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders who are in high school or just graduated and haven’t signed with a Division I school. Teams are guaranteed at least four games in pool play, and the championship games for the boys and girls will take place on the Phoenix Suns’ home court.
“I’d like to say that we’re going to be pretty competitive," Pitts said. "Our résumé shows that we should be competitive. There’s some incredible teams down there. Some of these reservations from all over America, North America and New Zealand, they specifically create teams to take to this tournament to play in it. This is the Native American high school basketball tournament that you want to play in and that you want to win. It’s a big deal.”
Whitesell and Johnson, who both recently signed to play junior college basketball, said they’ve never been to the invitational before and are excited to go.
“It’s a big tournament. It’s one of those tournaments you just always want to try to get in,” Whitesell said. “It’s something I’m always going to remember. Hopefully they’ll still have it when I have kids and I can tell them that I hopefully won it.”
Added Johnson: “It means a lot to me because not a lot of kids on my reservation get to play in that tournament. I hope to do good down there and show what we all can do.”
For players who aren’t already heading to the next level, the NCAA-certified tournament brings out college recruiters.
“The tournament is really exciting because it has a high placement for kids that haven’t gotten a college offer or haven’t got a home to go to,” Pitts said. “So, they’ll be able to have that opportunity to play in front of college scouts.”
Teams must qualify for or be invited to the tournament. The Warrior Movement was asked to participate by Nike and the N7 Fund, which is Nike’s “commitment to bring sport and all of its benefits to Native American and Aboriginal communities in the United States and Canada,” according to its website.
Pitts was asked to have his team give a presentation on the Warrior Movement to the 600-plus athletes at the invitational, which includes a three-day educational youth summit for the first time. There's also a career fair.
“These kids that I’m taking are going to speak,” Pitts said, “and the hope is that as we speak and present, they’ll gain a better testimony and understanding of the mindset of the Warrior Movement, and when they go back to their own communities as role models and as good examples, these younger generations will be able to see what the Warrior Movement is and start to expand that culture to other programs and other communities.”
The Warrior Movement has been raising funds through various events to pay for its trip to the tournament. People who would like to donate can do so by reaching out to Pitts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Warrior Movement recently received status as a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization, Pitts said. That allows them to have federal tax exemption and means donations to them can be fully tax deductible.
“Now we’ll be able to expand because there are lots of people out there that like to donate to non-profits,” Pitts said. “This particular non-profit is to benefit youths to help them have extra-curricular activities to help them stay out of depressed moments and give them something to do.”