Coach questions why entire First Nation was banned from basketball tournament after referee dispute

Basketball players from a southern Alberta First Nation are relieved they'll be allowed to play in a Calgary tournament this weekend, but their coach is still hoping for an apology, after the entire First Nation was banned from competition.

Teams are back in, but Kainai Basketball Association coach still wants answers — and an apology

Basketball coach Truman Soop and members of the U11 Kainai Basketball Association team pose in a handout photo. Playersm from left, are Saxon Fox, Kashton Many Grey Horses, Logan Bruised Head, Aiden Across The Mountain, Payton Provost, Jyson Eagle Plume, Lance Wolf Child, Zennan Many Grey Horses and Kaydence Many Grey Horses. (Canadian Press/Handout-Truman Soop)

Basketball players from a southern Alberta First Nation are relieved they'll be allowed to play in a Calgary tournament this weekend — but their coach is still hoping for an apology, after the entire First Nation was banned from the competition after a referee dispute with another coach whose team wasn't registered to compete. 

Coach Truman Soop said the players on his Kainai First Nation's U11 and U13 teams are ecstatic to be back in the Stampede Showdown, an international youth tournament for kids ages eight to 15. 

"The kids were heartbroken," he said. "We had to tell eight-year-olds 'you can't play basketball because you're native and you're from Kainai.'"

Soop said the Calgary Basketball Officials Association (CBOA) had told the organizer of the Stampede Showdown they would not referee any games if a single team from Kainai attended.

"CBOA came back and said, 'we are banning every single team from Kainai. If any team from Kainai comes up we will not ref their games,'" said Soop. "I was also told by different Calgary basketball clubs that CBOA told them, 'do not invite Kainai to any basketball events or any tournaments,' to exclude them from everything."

The CBOA referees all basketball games in the city, so the ban would have made it almost impossible for teams from the nearby First Nation to play. 

Tournament organizer Tony Tan confirmed what Soop said, adding that he was told the ban was due to a dispute with another Kainai team, whose coach was kicked out of a past game after he challenged the refereeing. 

Soop said he's emailed and called the association and hasn't heard anything back. He said the coach CBOA has a dispute with also reached out to say that an issue with him or his team shouldn't be taken out on the entire First Nation, and that he hasn't received a response either.

"They just will not talk to us or give us the time of day."

Referees say they have security concerns

CBOA told CBC News in an emailed statement that they had security concerns, but didn't detail the incident that led to those concerns involved: 

"Calgary Basketball Officials Association (CBOA) experienced an incident earlier this year that it felt jeopardized the safety and security of its referees. Our concerns over the incident were not limited to one individual. As it could not be guaranteed that no individuals from the earlier incident would not be at this weekend's Stampede Shootout, we initially felt it was prudent not to be involved.

"CBOA has since worked out a compromise with the tournament organizers that addressed our concerns, and the event is now proceeding as originally planned, with all teams participating as intended. CBOA empathizes with any inconvenience this may have caused."

Tan has hired independent referees to allow the Kainai games to go forward, at the tournament's additional expense.

"This is the solution for now to make the tournament run," he said. "I just want the tournament to run smoothly."

Coach questions why entire nation was banned

Without hearing from the association, Soop said he's left guessing as to why the team was excluded.

But in a lifetime of playing basketball, he's never heard of an entire community being banned over an issue with one coach.

"It sounds like there was no violence or threat made of any kind, but even if there was, if there was a Calgary team and they threatened the refs … you kick out that team and that coach if you have to. You don't kick out all of Calgary," he said.

"To tell an entire native community that [they] cannot come play basketball and to tell other organizations in Calgary, 'don't invite this native community to come up,' that's racist."

Soop said he's still awaiting an explanation and apology for his players from CBOA.

With files from Colleen Underwood