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Sport takes you places, says Ontario teen heading to Native American Basketball Invitational

Keelan Meekis, a 17-year-old straight-A student from Deer Lake First Nation will tip off a new chapter in his life, when he takes to the court with Team Ontario at the Native American Basketball Invitational in Maricopa, Arizona on Sunday.

'I just felt like I needed to be playing this game' says 17-year-old Keelan Meekis about basketball

Keelan Meekis (centre) is flanked by Aaron Guthrie (left) and Alex Aiello (right) the basketball coaches at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay. (Cathy Alex/CBC)

You can listen to the story of Keelan Meekis.

Call it Hoop Dreams. Keelan Meekis is a 17 year old straight A student from Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay. He's on his way to Arizona with Team Ontario at the Native American Basketball Invitational. Cathy Alex has his story 5:35

A 17-year-old straight-A student from Deer Lake First Nation will tip off a new chapter in his life, when he takes to the court with Team Ontario at the Native American Basketball Invitational in Maricopa, Arizona.

Keelan Meekis, who is a student at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay, was selected because of his play during a tournament organized by the Aboriginal Sports and Wellness Council of Ontario.

"I was really excited and overwhelmed" by the feeling of accomplishment, he says, when he was told he had made the team.

Meekis is a relative newcomer to the game of basketball because in his community of about 1,000 people, nearly 600 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, most kids play hockey.

But it was a slam-dunk, once he tried the sport.

Keelan Meekis, 17-years-old, sinks a basket as he practices for the Native American Basketball Invitational, starting Sunday in Arizona. (Cathy Alex/CBC )

"Basketball just felt well-suited for me because it's a high-intensity game and it involves a lot of running and a lot of skill and I just felt like I needed to be playing this game."

His skills on the court have impressed many, including Alex Aiello, a youth outreach worker with Dilico child and family services in Thunder Bay, who helps coach the high school team.

'He works super hard at his craft'

"He [Keelan] improved so quickly and he's the one youth that we coach that we tell him to do something and he does it right away and he's always dedicated and he works super hard at his craft, which is basketball."

For Meekis, getting better is a constant process, and he tries to spend some time on the court each day.

"I like to just shoot around on the court or just try to do some layups. My teammates are trying to be better at basketball too. They're trying to encourage each other and trying to build each other up," he said.

The team supports each other off the court as well.

Support off the court as well

Like Meekis, most of the players grew up in small, remote First Nations and coming to Thunder Bay for high school means leaving behind mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and friends.

The team, in its two short years of existence has become a surrogate family, said Aaron Guthrie, the health and active living teacher at the high school and the basketball coach.

Keelan Meekis says sports helped him when he was missing his family after moving from Deer Lake First Nation to Thunder Bay for high school. (Cathy Alex/CBC)

"We tried to create a team culture," he said. "We do a lot of things together. We'll have team meals... We're riding to the games together. We've done some road trips and things like that where it's a real culture where the team is first and it's not one guy."

Taking part in sports, and belonging to such a tight-knit group has been very important, said Meekis.

Team is 'like family'

"It's like I'd always be missing home, missing my family and sports kind of helped me through that. I built this great relationship with my teammates, my coaches and I can pretty much say they're like family too."

Meekis comes from a long line of successful athletes. His father played for Team Ontario in volleyball, and a cousin represented the province in basketball. Now, he's hoping to be a similar role model for his five-month-old daughter, Kiowa.

"Sports can always take you to places, I believe, and I want to show her what sports did for me and what it could do for her."

Six students from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Kenora, Ont., are also taking part in the tournament, which begins Sunday and wraps up on July 2.