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Jackson Zack-Coneybeare, a member of Garden River First Nation representing the Ontario boys at the Native American basketball Invitational in Maricopa, Arizona, U.S.A. Photo courtesy of: Susan Barbercourt

By Sam Laskaris

ARIZONA—They would have preferred if their squad had a bit more success.

But the pair of Anishinabek teenage basketball players are still rather pleased that they were able to participate in the prestigious Arizona tournament.

Owen McRoberts, a member of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation, and Jackson Zack-Coneybeare, from the Garden River First Nation, were on the Ontario boys’ team that competed at the Native American Basketball Invitational (NABI), known as the largest all Native basketball tournament in North America.

The under-19 tournament, held in Maricopa, Arizona, began on June 26 and continued until July 2. The 14th annual tourney, which attracted squads primarily from across the United States, featured 60 boys’ teams and 52 girls’ teams.

This marked the first year the Aboriginal Sports and Wellness Council of Ontario (ASWCO) sent teams to the Arizona tournament. Those chosen for the Ontario squads were identified by ASWCO officials based on performances at three separate events, including the 2014 North American Indigenous Games in Regina.

Owen McRoberts of Chippewas of Rama First Nation at the 14th annual Native American Basketball Invitational in Maricopa, Arizona, U.S.A.

Owen McRoberts of Chippewas of Rama First Nation at the 14th annual Native American Basketball Invitational in Maricopa, Arizona, U.S.A. Photo courtesy of: Susan Barbercourt

Players were also selected by their efforts at a provincial Native basketball tournament ASWCO ran on the Chippewas of Rama First Nation in 2015 and in Timmins earlier this year.

The Ontario boys’ team won just one out of its four round-robin matches. Following these results, the club was relegated to the tournament’s Silver Category (teams with more wins advanced to the Gold Category).

But McRoberts, Zack-Coneybeare and their teammates were eliminated from further action when they were defeated by a Minnesota-based club in their first Silver Category contest.

“We would have preferred to win more games,” said McRoberts, the 15-year-old shooting guard who will begin his Grade 10 studies at Orillia Secondary School this September. “But overall, the tournament was great. We played our best basketball that we could and we had some fun.”

Zack-Coneybeare, a 16-year-old point guard who is heading into his Grade 12 studies at Superior Heights Collegiate and Vocational School in Sault Ste. Marie, was impressed with the calibre of play at the Arizona tournament.

“I was very surprised at times how good some of those kids were,” he said.

Like McRoberts, Zack-Coneybeare was not upset his club only managed to win only one of its five tournament matches.

“We were fairly satisfied because the competition was very good,” noted Zack-Coneybeare. “And I think we got better every game. Our first game we got blown out by 33 points. After that our games were much closer.”

McRoberts was the youngest individual on his nine-player team roster. It has yet to be announced whether ASWCO will be sending entrants to the 2017 NABI tournament.

“I would be more than happy to go back,” said McRoberts, who for the past two years has also played club ball during the spring with the Orillia Lakers’ program.

Though he still has three years of high school studies remaining, McRoberts is planning to continue with the sport at the post-secondary level.

“Basketball can really take you places,” he said. “So I’ll be pursuing basketball.”

Zack-Coneybeare, who is also hoping to play basketball at the post-secondary level, would also welcome another invite to play in the NABI tourney.

“Winning or losing, we were having fun,” he said of his team’s experiences this year.

As for the Ontario girls’ squad, which did not include any Anishinabek players, it won one out of its four tournament matches.