Young Indigenous basketballers relish high-level competition and tribal pride at upcoming Indigenous Games
Indigenous hoops players finding their place on the national court at Toronto 2017 NAIG
In British Columbia, Kristy Innes, 14, is preparing to play at the 2017 North American Indigenous Games with the B.C.'s under-16 girls basketball team. The Laxgalts'ap First Nation member practices under the tutelage of her uncle in the town of Prince Rupert on B.C.'s Northwest Coast.
Meanwhile, 1,500 kilometres away in Vancouver, Kobe McKnight, 16, is working on his basketball skills under the watchful eye of his father, Chris. The member of the Kitasoo First Nation is one of 10 players on the Team BC under-19 boys squad going to NAIG.
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Though they're taking different paths, this summer they'll join more than 5,000 Indigenous athletes will gather in Toronto for this year's North American Indigenous Games in July.
Teams from all 10 Canadian provinces and three territories, as well as from the United States, are expected in Toronto for the Games -- the eighth time the event has been held since starting in 1990.
I want to be the best
Basketball is in Innes' blood.
She's the second oldest of five children in her family. Her siblings play basketball, as did her parents. She often trains with her mother and younger sister and her older sister is also on her tribal team.
Innes was first exposed to basketball in elementary school. She was considered too young to play on her older sister's Indigenous team, but that lit a fire in her.
Her uncle Gerald taught her the game's fundamentals and she practiced until she was good enough to join the team.
"I wanted to do this. I wanted to be better and I wanted to play with them," she said. "But I also knew I wanted to be the best."
Today, she plays for the Charles Hays Secondary School junior girls team, the Rainmakers, in Prince Rupert, B.C. She also played for her First Nation team, the Timberwolves, who are this year's B.C. Junior All Native girls champions. Innes won the tournament MVP award, which was significant considering she is three years younger than her 17-year-old competitors.
In June, she will join nine other teammates from First Nations across B.C., including some she competed against and beat, as a member of the Team B.C. U16 girls team going to to the Indigenous Games.
This will be Innes' first time playing at the Games. She's eager to face players from other teams who, like her, are the best of the best in their regions.
But going to Toronto also gives her a rare chance to travel.
"I've never travelled out of B.C. before. I've never been to Toronto before. Basketball is pretty much the only way I get to travel," said Innes, whose grandmother is accompanying her to Toronto.
The Indigenous Games gave Innes a goal to work toward. Now, she sees something else on the horizon - collegiate basketball.
"I haven't figured out what I want to study for yet. When I figure out what it is that I want to do in college then I'll think more about college ball."
For Kobe McKnight, there is no basketball off-season.
"I'm a gym rat. I stay in the gym. I always like working on my game as much as I can," said McKnight, whose basketball idol is former NBA player Steve Nash.
The Grade 11 student played high school basketball for the Britannia Secondary School Bruins in Vancouver. He was a member of the boys championship-winning team the Vancity Sons at the 2017 B.C. Junior All Native basketball tournament, where he earned tournament MVP honours.
In June, he'll play at the North American Indigenous Games with the B.C. U19 boys team. After that, he'll play club basketball in Vancouver until the school season starts.
All that work pays off, McKnight says.
"I notice I'm stronger and quicker when the season starts in November."
This is McKnight's second time at the Indigenous Games. He played with the B.C. U14 boys team at NAIG 2014.
But the players are bigger, faster and more skilled now than his first go around.
"Manitoba beat us in overtime back then. They were tall and quick. I think Washington is going to be strong this year," he said.
McKnight notices subtle differences between high school and Indigenous basketball at NAIG. "Indigenous ball has more family and tribal feel because you have to win to represent your First Nation against another First Nation," he said.
"In high school, it's school against school and that's a different thing."
While McKnight remembers games at NAIG, the kinship he felt with Indigenous people from across the continent still resonates with him.
"I remember how there was such an Indigenous feel about it. There was lots of basketball spirit, but there was just so many Indigenous people," he said.