Before Jaci McCormack sent Illinois State to the 2005 NCAA Tournament by way of a buzzer-beating jumper, Native American women’s basketball players had rarely experienced that salient position.
McCormack, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe raised 12 miles east of Lewiston, helped create an uptick in Native American women who went on to have fruitful college careers.
Shoni Schimmel, the former Louisville star who went on to become the first Native American to play in the WNBA in 2014, was among the inspired.
“Growing up, I didn’t really have a lot of (Native American) players at the Division I level to look up to, so that’s something I wanted to do” said McCormack, who was recently inducted into the Lake Oswego (Oregon) High School Hall of Fame.
McCormack played two years at Lapwai High before transferring to the Portland suburb.
Now a 36-year-old employee at the Tulalip Tribes Prosecutors Office, McCormack uses basketball as a vehicle to raise awareness for issues that affect many reservations, including violence and drug and alcohol abuse.
McCormack and former NBA veteran Craig Ehlo will be the keynote speakers Saturday at the Summer Slam 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament in Cusick at the Camas Center, an event put on by the Kalispel Tribe of Indians.
They’ll be speaking on behalf of Rise Above, a program co-founders McCormack and Brad Meyers have developed the last four years to educate, promote and empower Native American Youth through sport to live healthy lives.
The tournament, which features around 50 teams, begins at 9 a.m. Saturday.
“It’s easier to get kids to listen when they’re having fun and are engaged in a 3-on-3 tournament like this,” McCormack said.
Rise Above guests in the past included former Seattle SuperSonics coach Lenny Wilkins, Hall of Fame point guard Gary Payton and former Washington Huskies star and NBA guard Nate Robinson.
Former North Central and Community Colleges of Spokane women’s hoops standout Riley Holsinger – McCormack’s cousin – is running the tournament.
“It brings the community together, using basketball as an outlet to help the youth be aware of the issues,” said Holsinger, who works as a victim assistance services employee for the Kalipel Tribe.
The Kalispel Juvenile Justice Program and the Kalispel Tribe Victim Assistance Services Program fund the tournament.
“Basketball has been a big part of my life for a long time, so it feels nice to give back to the community with this tournament,” said Holsinger, a first-team NAIA All-American at Vanguard (California) in 2015.
Violence awareness resonates with McCormack, who was forced to leave the reservation after her sophomore year.
When a 12-year-old Clarkston boy was killed by a teenage boy from Lapwai in the summer of 1998, McCormack acquired knowledge of the incident and spoke to prosecutors.
After going forward with information in the case, McCormack, Idaho’s 3A Player of the Year as a freshman, was reportedly shunned by the peers at her basketball-rich school and moved to Oregon.
“Jaci has a great and inspirational story,” Ehlo said. “And she was a great player. I’ve heard stories that she gave Seattle Storm players all they could handle.”
Ehlo also overcame problems.
After surgery in 2013, Ehlo, a former Washington State and Cleveland Cavaliers star, became addicted to pain killers and was later checked into rehab.
“It’s important to raise awareness,” Ehlo said. “And by telling my story, I want to tell share what to do and not to do.”
“This is much more about life than it is basketball,” said Meyers, who played basketball at Washington State and Whitworth. “And we’re fortunate to have figures like Jaci and Craig to speak to these kids.”