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Schimmel sisters will appear at Fairbanks basketball tournament

  • Author: Beth Bragg
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published March 1, 2016

Shoni and Jude Schimmel, sisters who took their basketball skills from an Indian reservation in Oregon to the NCAA Division I women's championship game, will make an appearance in Fairbanks this month at the annual North American Basketball Tournament.

The Schimmels, who built a huge, nationwide fan base while playing at Louisville, will appear at UAF's Patty Center on the final day of the March 17-19 tournament.

"I would say they're probably the biggest Native athletes out there," said Edwin Bifelt, a tournament organizer.

The sisters were the subject of the documentary "Off the Rez," which tells the story of their move from the Umatilla Indian Reservation in eastern Oregon to Portland, where they could better pursue their basketball careers.

Shoni, a 5-foot-9 shooting guard, and Jade, a 5-6 point guard, went on to play Division I hoops at Louisville, where they drew crowds at home and on the road.

When the sisters played in the 2013 Final Four in Oklahoma City, "Indians from numerous tribes came in support, holding up signs that said "Rez Girls Rock" and "Native Pride" and "Never Give Up," wrote the New York Times.

Shoni was an All-American as a senior in 2014 and a first-round WNBA draft pick later that year. Various reports say she was the first Native American drafted in the league, and although she wasn't a starter for the Atlanta Dream, her jersey was the WNBA's top seller in 2014.

Bifelt said the Schimmels will appear at the tournament Saturday. They'll be available for photos and autographs, he said.

The North American Basketball Tournament dates back to 1979, Bifelt said. It draws men's and women's teams from the Interior and North Slope, with 27 entered in this year's event.

Bifelt said at its peak the tournament drew as many as 40 teams. Interest has waned a bit in recent years, he said, a product of travel costs and the increased entertainment options available in a digital age.

"Maybe the other thing is, basketball isn't as big or important for the young generation now (as) it was to my generation," said Bifelt, 31, of Huslia. "Back in late 90s, early 2000s, basketball was everything to us. It was like our Final Four to be able to come to the NABT.

"We're trying to build it up, make it as big as it was."

Bifelt said news of the sisters' appearance got a good response on the tournament's Facebook page. "Is this for real?" one commenter said.

"I think it's a big deal — a huge deal," Bifelt said. "It's kind of a big risk for us — we have a small budget — but it's just an opportunity to do something that's gonna be an awesome experience for the youth and adults.

"Everybody's a big fan of Shoni and Jude Schimmel. We watched them progress from high school to college to pro. It'll be a lot of fun."