Native American players from across the U.S. head to Hoopa for this basketball classic

Ethan Hanson
Redding Record Searchlight
Plainzmen forward and Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians tribe member Donald Gunville Jr. (center) puts up a shot near the basket during the 60th All Indian Hoopa Valley Basketball Tournament on Sunday, April 23, 2023.

More than 90 basketball players flocked recently to a white gymnasium stationed in the middle of Hoopa Valley, a thriving Native American reservation tucked inside the forests of Humboldt County's Trinity Mountains.

Mattz Gymnasium is home to the 60th Hoopa Valley All Indian Basketball Tournament — one of the oldest basketball competitions featuring the most skilled basketball players of Native American descent.

Players in the tournament have to be a certified member of a federally recognized tribe. Nontribal members are not eligible to compete.

Pageantry and competition wove together in celebration of tribal traditions and the sport of basketball at the tournament, held in late April.

Before the second game of the tournament at the April 21 tipoff, the All Indian Queens, Princess and Warriors awards were given out. Those awards are earned by the families who sell the most tickets for the tournaments. Little Princess awards are distributed to youngsters between the ages of 4-8, Princess winners are between the ages of 8-14 and Queen awards are given to a woman between the age of 15-24. Little Warrior awards are given to boys between the age of 8-12. All award winners wear traditional Hoopa Jump and Brush Dances attire.But selling tickets is only part of what it takes to be recognized as a queen, princess or warrior.

"They have to be people of high character," 68-year-old tournament organizer and Hoopa member Inker McCovey said. "They have to perform acts of community service and represent Hoopa. These princesses, queens and warriors will then represent our area at other Native-only tournaments."

60th Hoopa Valley All Indian Basketball Tournament at Mattz Gymnasium program.

The competition drew members of 32 tribes from 13 U.S. states — from Alaska to California to New York — along with the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia.

Why does this basketball tournament in a small Humboldt County town hold such prestige in the world of professional Native American sports?

Answers can be found in players like Ronnie Battle, a Comanche tribe member who traveled from Oklahoma to compete in the tournament. Battle played professional basketball in Puerto Rico and Mexico and averaged 23.7 points per game in 2010 while attending Bacone College an NAIA university in Muskogee, Oklahoma.

The foundation for tradition and excellence is rooted in local coaches like McCovey and volunteers including Hoopa Recreational Committee member Lovae Blake.

For four decades, McCovey has worked to keep the tournament thriving and displaying the best Native American basketball players, all while creating a family-friendly environment that gives members of other tribes a taste of Hoopa culture.

Blake runs the tournament from behind the scenes. She also handles business expenses, recruits each of the tournament's 10 teams, manages volunteers who work the snack shack and helps run the social media pages that promote the event. She has helped run the tournament for the past 20 years.

"This is a special event for our community to come out and enjoy basketball," said Blake, a Hoopa tribal member. "We have a lot of talented athletes in our area."

Here's an inside look at the Hoopa Valley All Indian Reservation Basketball Tournament and why athletes travel from across the country to compete in the yearly event.

Yurok 34-year-old tribe member Rico Tello (right) backs down his opponent from Stronghold during the 60th All Indian Hoopa Valley Basketball Tournament on Sunday, April 23, 2023.

In Hoopa, McCovey is 'everyone's community godfather'

McCovey coached at Hoopa Valley High School for over 40 years, serving as a mentor and trainer to the hundreds of players who have competed at the tournament during that time.

He now runs the Hoopa Valley Recreational Department and manages the area's youth and adult leagues. He was back on the sidelines, coaching, during the tournament.

From time to time, McCovey will pick up the clipboard and coach teams during the Hoopa Valley All Indian Tournament. His team, the Buckeyes, were engaged in a close battle with North Side Bears back in April.

McCovey's deep voice could be heard motivating his players on the bench. The seasoned coach had plenty of depth to his voice and knowledge of basketball as he noticed the game steadily shifting in favor of the opposition..

Watching the game was his close friend Joseph Hutt — known for being the only basketball player from Shasta County to sign an NBA contract with the Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors. In the prior game, Hutt's team Tsewenaldin had just lost a tightly-fought battle against the North Side Bears.

McCovey kept his team's focus in check after the North Side Bears used a late bucket from his nephew, Juju McCovey, who belongs to the opposing team. Eventually, Inker McCovey's Buckeyes pulled out a tight victory on the first day, advancing to the winner's bracket.

Dion Hutt, who played for Tsewenaldin and grew up in both Redding and Hoopa, credited McCovey with helping him and his brother Josiah develop as players. Dion Hutt averaged 26.1 points per game at Lassen College in 2011 and played on the same team as his brother.

Josiah Hutt graduated Foothill in 2019 and averaged 11.9 points per game at Shasta College in 2022-2023.

"He is basically everyone's community godfather," Josiah Hutt said of McCovey. "He'll take care of you and he'll train you. Since I was a little kid, I could always go to the gym if my family was having any arguments."

Blake is McCovey's niece. She has fond memories of sitting by a television as a young girl, watching game film with her uncle.

"He strives to makes people better," Blake said.

Basketball games played on Native land feature two 20-minute halves while using a 24-second shot clock. The clock continues running after a basket is made, until the 5-minute mark that stops for fouls, change of possession and free throws.

The 24-second shot clock and running time means players are moving at a sprinting pace. Hand checking can sometimes go unregulated, creating an environment that leaves both sides with bumps and bruises on knees and arms.

"It's both fundamental, but it's also run and gun," Battle said. "It's a lot different and harder than college, at times. Native players don't look like they can play at first. But we can shoot the ball; it's a lot more physical."

McCovey believes the aggressive play on the court is transcended by the brotherhood shared between players and tribes during the games.

"The culture of the tournament is about basketball and it's about representing your community," McCovey said.

Fastbreak forward and Muskogee Creek tribe member Rob McClain (left) is defended by four Plainzmen players including Standing Rock Sioux member Jim Archambaut (right) and Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians member Donald Gunville Jr. (left) during the 60th All Indian Hoopa Valley Basketball Tournament on Sunday, April 23, 2023.

Native basketball players view themselves as pro athletes

During the championship game, Battle slashed his way to the basket against multiple defenders from the Plainzmen. It was either score or find his 24-year-old Muskogee Creek teammate Rob McClain with a pass in the low post.

Both men had their minds set on winning the $10,000 prize against the Plainzmen, a team considered within the Native American sports community as the best tribal team in North America.

Basketball is Battle's primary source of income and he plays in over 20 tournaments yearly.

"I'm a ball player and that's it," Battle said. "I train kids and I run camps. I've been on the go for the past eight weeks playing tournaments every weekend. Before Hoopa, I was in Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Vancouver, Miami, Buffalo and small towns in North Dakota, Texas and Kansas."

It had been a rough first day for McClain and Battle, whose team had been outplayed by the Plainzmen on day two of the tournament. Plainzmen athletes hailed from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which straddles the border of North Dakota and South Dakota and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa from North Dakota.

But McClain, a 6-foot-7 forward who played two years at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, was determined to bring back a share of the tournament's top prize.

"I had to say cool, calm and collected and not try to exert too much energy," McClain said. "I know my body so well that I know when to go all out and when to hold back."

McClain's team accomplished its mission by winning five games on the final day and beating the Plainzmen twice to win the tournament championship. McClain is hoping his play, caught on video, can help him land a professional basketball deal overseas.

McClain coaches at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota, but is moving to Washington to begin training full-time, with the goal of earning a pro contract.

McClain is driven to succeed for the love he shares for both his family and young, aspiring Native American basketball players.

"Growing up on the reservation, I had a little cousin who passed away of cancer," McClain said. "He's the reason why I continue to play basketball. And now I'm a role model for my community back home. I'm the second person to go play Division I basketball after playing at a junior college, so I might as well give it forward."

Stronghold guard and Paiute tribe member Landon Watah drives towards the basket during the 60th Hoopa Valley All Indian Basketball Tournament at Mattz Gymnasium on Friday, April 21, 2023.

Reigniting passion for basketball in Hoopa Valley

McCovey described how lines of people once stretched from outside Mattz Gymnasium onto the high school's grounds at previous Hoopa Valley tournaments.

"Basketball is like religion here," McCovey said.

But the once-proud Hoopa Valley High School boys basketball program — and by extension, the tournament — has fallen on hard times.

Hoopa Valley High School boys basketball has produced just two winning seasons since 2017 and finished 5-15 in 2023. The girls basketball team has held a winning season since 2011 and went 9-14 in 2023.

"It takes the culture of coaching and we don't have that great culture of coaching anymore," McCovey said. "Basketball is like a living sport here. But you have to live, eat and breathe basketball. That's all I used to do when I coached here. I'd watch film, kids would come to my house and we'd go to the gym and work."

Fastbreak forward and Muskogee Creek tribe member Rob McClain (center) grabs a rebound over Plainzmen guard and Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians tribe member Donald Gunville Jr. (right) during the 60th All Indian Hoopa Valley Basketball Tournament on Sunday, April 23, 2023.

The coronavirus pandemic compounded problems for Hoopa Valley's sports identity. Teams couldn't travel. The Hoopa Valley All Indian Basketball Tournament was canceled in 2020 and 2021.

While the tournament hosted the top two Native teams in the country, Fastbreak and the Plainzmen, this year's tournament attendance was sparse. In the tournament championship, Fastbreak beat Plainzmen 96-65, not the kind of blowout tournament organizers were hoping for in the final round.

Public address announcer and Hoopa member Manuel Sanchez believes that more fans will attend next year's tournament because it was able to attract teams like Fastbreak and Plainzmen this year.

"It takes great teams and great basketball to fill the stands," Sanchez said. "There were greater teams in this tournament across the board. The more teams we get from different parts of the country, the greater attendance will be and greater attendance means it'll support our youth. This tournament is a fundraiser for our youth."

McCovey also believes players like the Hutt brothers, McClain and Battle can help reignite the imaginations of young, local athletes from Hoopa Valley.

"We've been playing basketball in Hoopa for a long time; even the elders who are older than me have played," said McCovey. "There have been a lot of great athletes that could've gone pro in football or baseball and this area has the DNA to have great athletes."

Ethan Hanson started working for the Redding Record Searchlight after four years with the Los Angeles Daily News as a freelancer. His coverage includes working the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament in South Bend, Indiana, and writing about the St. Louis Rams' move to Los Angeles with the Ventura County Star. He began his career as a play-by-play broadcaster for LA Pierce College from 2011-2017. Follow him on Twitter at @EthanAHanson_RS.