She Got Game: Empowering Native youth to Rise Above

By Micheal Rios, Tulalip News

A Native American hoops legend, Rise Above founder Jaci McCormack (Nez Perce) has lived a fascinating life. So much so that a feature-length film is currently underway that will bring her story of triumph over adversity to the big screen. Executive producers include NBA Hall of Famers Gary Payton and Lenny Wilkens, Hollywood icon Danny Glover, and civil rights activist Gus Newport. 

While some may recognize her from her previous work as a victims services coordinator in Tulalip’s Prosecutor’s Office, most know her from her bucket-getting prowess on the hardwood. Whether it was taking down championships in the always competitive Native tournament circuit, or being named an Idaho State player of the year, or her 2005 game-winning jump shot that propelled Illinois State University to a Missouri Valley Conference championship and resulting NCAA tournament appearance. 

Rise Above founder Jaci McCormack.

“My story demonstrates that while it isn’t easy to break barriers, it is possible. Representation matters when it comes to Native youth because my story is their story,” Jaci said in an interview with Deadline. “I feel extremely grateful to have found filmmakers and producers that I can trust to tell this story. [They] understand the importance of Indigenous representation in film, and wholeheartedly believe in the social movement this project will support.”

Best known for her role as an executive story editor on the award-winning tv series Reservation Dogs, writer Erica Tremblay (Seneca Nation) has teamed up with Jaci to tell her real-life story of overcoming and rising above the odds in movie form. 

“Jaci’s story is an incredible example of Native empowerment, and I was drawn to her personal journey,” said Erica in the same Deadline interview. “There is a real lack of Indigenous representation in film and television and Jaci’s story is exactly what is needed. We need to see members of our communities achieve greatness.”

While the film is currently in development, Jaci continues to instill in the next generation of Native youth the many benefits of both striving for and embracing greatness through her nonprofit, aptly named Rise Above. Through this authentically Native-led organization, young Native boys and girls are empowered to lead healthy lives despite the challenges. 

Rise Above is capable of delivering education, prevention skills, and mentorship through culturally sensitive programs tailored to their needs. It’s also capable of delivering memory-making moments through basketball clinics that have become legendary for having clinic coaches and fitness experts who themselves are Native Americans that the kids can point to as shining examples of their dreams manifest.

Such was the case on Saturday, August 19, when an estimated 200 youth from across the Pacific Northwest journeyed to Rise Above’s sports fest 2023 hosted at Seattle University’s Redhawk Center. The list of clinic coaches included Freddy Brown III (Makah), who played collegiate basketball for the University of Montana, and Analyss Benally (Navajo), who played collegiately at San Jose State University and professionally in Europe. 

Among the basketball camp participants were several young Tulalip ladies with hoop dreams, such as Charlie Contraro, Shawna Cortez, and twin sisters Cali and Chloe Iukes. Together they represented a Tulalip wave amongst a sea of aspiring ballers intent on sharpening their handles, perfecting their jump shot, and improving their defensive skills to become two-way players effective on both ends of the court.

“Basketball means everything to me,” said Shawna. “I love it so much. Making new friends is one of my favorite parts, and so is having fun during training drills. For me, I’m really small, so I can steal the ball easier when players are dribbling around me; that makes me a good defender. Some players like making passes, others like scoring, I like being a defender because I’m really good at it.”

“My siblings love sports so much. We go to the Marysville YMCA every day, whether to practice to get better or just for the fun of shooting hoops,” added Chloe and Cali’s big sister, Faith. “I hope in time they’ll understand how meaningful this Rise Above camp was, especially with how much work went on behind the scenes from Jaci and her team to make this all possible. But as far as basketball goes, I think my sisters can accomplish anything they set their minds to, as long they continue to put the work in and stay focused on their goals.”

Traditionally seen as a male-dominated sport, basketball is undergoing a transformation as more and more woman-led sports camps rise to prominence. With current and former women collegiate athletes or actual pros at the helm, camps like Rise Above sports fest are rewriting the narrative and proving that the court knows no gender bounds. Native American girls who once felt sidelined are reclaiming their voices and their game, thanks to the guidance of empowered women like Jaci McCormack who walked the same path.

The impact of these camps extends far beyond the bold lines containing 94 ft. by 50 ft. basketball courts. They are nurturing the growth of a new generation of confident young women who carry the lessons they learn into every aspect of life. The skills taught, from teamwork and communication to resilience and time management, equip these girls to thrive both in sports and in their future endeavors.

“This is my second time participating in a Rise Above basketball clinic, and I absolutely love how they operate, especially being so intentional about including us Native youth,” shared JoAnne Sayers (Nez Perce, Tlingit). “It’s so much more than just basketball. They teach us about the power of community, teamwork, and making connections that we can take from here to hopefully add to our support systems when times get tough.

“Living in Seattle, I’m far away from my home reservation, and so organizations like [Rise Above] do a lot for us urban Native kids to bring us together and establish, like, our own tribe through basketball and other sports,” she continued. “Basketball gives us an outlet to maintain good mental health. If you had a bad day, you can find a basketball hoop almost anywhere to go shoot some hoops at and help yourself feel better. And if you had a good day, there’s nothing better than making some buckets and working on your handles. We don’t need alcohol and drugs to relieve stress or anxiety when we’re capable of cleansing our bodies of those things through workouts on the court or in the gym.”

Organizations like Rise Above, and social leaders for change like Jaci, are intent on shattering stereotypes and paving the way for future generations. When young girls witness women excelling as players or leaders, it challenges the long-standing notion that basketball is a man’s world. For example, the weekend’s sports fest was not only simply about teaching basketball skills, but about presenting powerful role models who inspire girls to dream bigger and aim higher.

“For us, its all about the kids. When we can expose our kids to more opportunities, and get them in the same room with folks like a Lenny Wilkens, a George Karl, or a Vin Baker who can share their stories and let the kids know it’s possible to rise above childhood challenges and accomplish their dreams, that’s when amazing things truly happen,” said the Rise Above icon Jaci. “You never know what part of a speech, or a moment of candid care during a sports camp, or witnessing a peer get so excited after learning something new might plant a seed and grow into a lifelong lesson that helps someone down the road to rise above. At the end of the day, I just think the more stories of struggles overcome and challenges conquered heard by our kids by those they look up to strengthen our kids to become more successful in their own lives.

“I feel so blessed to be in the position to show our kids, especially the young girls, that I used to be just like them. I’m just an ordinary rez kid with extraordinary dreams who didn’t give up when times got tough,” added Jaci. “Now, to have lived by hoop dreams and to be able to give back to our communities and see these young girls come to our camps and thrive, it’s incredibly touching. My dream is for them to see what I’m doing for them through support for our people and passion for the game, and that they not only rise above to accomplish their dreams, but they also give back to the generation that follows them. That’s how we break the cycles and rewrite the negative narratives of our people, by supporting each other with a shared vision.”

Rise Above will continue illuminating a new horizon for youth on reservations or within urban communities, like Seattle, who dare to dream of sports greatness. Tulalip lady hoopers like Charlie and Shawna, or sisters Chloe and Cali, are not just learning how to shoot hoops; they are learning how to shoot for the stars. With each dribble, pass, and made basket, these girls are discovering their strength, their voice, and their power to shape the game and their world, on their own terms.

Ball Is Life: Empowering and creating lasting impact through basketball

Gary Payton with Native  youth during basketball camp.Photo/Micheal Rios
Gary Payton with Native youth during basketball camp.
Photo/Micheal Rios


by Micheal Rios, Tulalip News

On Saturday, September 19, the Tulalip Youth Center hosted Gary Payton’s youth basketball camp. Targeting basketball players in the 5-12 and 13-18 age range, the camp offered skill development under the supervision of the Seattle SuperSonics Hall of Famer and legend, “The Glove”. Presented in partnership with RISE ABOVE, Elite Youth Camps and the Tulalip Tribes, the basketball camp marked the launch of a new movement to empower and create resilience in future leaders in Indian Country using sports as a modality.

RISE ABOVE was founded by Jaci McCormack, an enrolled member of the Nez Perce Tribe, to empower Native youth to live a healthy lifestyle and provide awareness, prevention and character enrichment using the sport of basketball as a platform. The purpose is to connect with the urban Native youth on a level that they can relate to and understand in order to create a lasting impact on their lives.

“I have worked with some extremely talented and passionate people who helped develop the Native youth initiative: RISE ABOVE,” explains McCormack. “Although the vehicle to attract youth is basketball, we are dedicated to empower youth through education and prevention. RISE ABOVE basketball, RISE ABOVE your circumstance to live your best life each day. Along with our message, we are excited to bring the star sizzle to tribal communities, while creating more local heroes for our youth.”


Photo/Micheal Rios
Photo/Micheal Rios


Elite Youth Camps organizes camps, clinics, tournaments and non-profit community events for professional athletes and their respective teams. In our case the professional athlete was Hall of Famer Gary Payton and his team of 100+ Tulalip youth who were registered for basketball camp.  With the assistance of Payton, Elite Youth Camps taught our youth the importance of hard work, teamwork, discipline and self-respect. Their focus was to provide the young Tulalip athletes of all skill levels with the instructions and training that have made some of the NBA’s brightest stars elite on and off the court.

“This organization was developed from its love for education, athletics, and philanthropy,” says David Hudson, affectionately known as Coach Dave by his campers, and owner of Elite Youth Camps. “We emphasize that sports are similar to life; what you put in, you get in return.”

Coach Dave uses his immense background in basketball, as well as his relationships with professional athletes to plan and execute the best camps around. He graduated from Rainier Beach High School in Seattle before playing college ball at the University of Washington. When his playing career concluded he decided to combine his love for basketball and his passion for helping the youth and made Elite Youth Camps a reality.

As an urban youth just wanting to play basketball, Coach Dave remembers attending Gary Payton’s youth basketball camp as a child and the lasting effect Payton’s camp left with him.

“He was my favorite player growing up. I do what I do because of my experiences at his camp.” says Coach Dave. “I try to do for kids what camp did for me: spark an interest and just teach work ethics, discipline and all the skills you’ve got to have in life no matter what you want to do. Even if you are a doctor or a librarian, you have to know when to be quiet, know to project yourself when you speak, and work hard at whatever you do. We want to teach life lessons that are bigger than basketball.”


Photo/Micheal Rios
Photo/Micheal Rios


Though Coach Dave primarily leads the basketball drills with help from his assistance coaches, “The Glove” is ever-present with campers who get plenty of opportunities for autographs and pictures with the nine-time NBA All-Star.

The camp started at 9:00 a.m. Saturday morning and continued until 4:00 p.m. The camp was broken up into two 3-hour sessions. The early session was all about basic basketball fundamentals and technique on the individual level, while the afternoon session focused on group drills emphasizing sportsmanship and teamwork.

In between sessions the 100 or so Tulalip campers had a 1-hour break to enjoy their catered lunch provided by Youth Services. During the lunch hour, camp coaches and volunteers were able to explain and pass-out a wellness survey to the kids. The survey, consisting of questions regarding drugs, alcohol, bullying and self-awareness, will be used as a barometer to get a general feel for the wellness of the Tulalip youth. Results of the surveys will be compiled and processed by RISE ABOVE before being passed on to our own Youth Services department.

Also, during the lunch break it came to the attention of the syəcəb that there was a handful of Native youth who made quite a journey to Tulalip to participate in the camp and meet Gary Payton. A family with three eager young basketball players came from the Confederated Tribe of the Colville Reservation, while another family, the Vanderburgs, journeyed all the way from the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) of the Flathead Reservation, located in northwest Montana. The Vanderburgs held a frybread and chili dog fundraiser at their local community center in order to pay for their kids’ entry fees and travel expenses for the Tulalip basketball camp.


Photo/Micheal Rios
Photo/Micheal Rios



Proud mother Chelsi Vanderbug said, “It was a lot of work to get my son and daughter here, but I knew it would pay off. All the staff and coaches of this camp are people who really care about the youth. They had very good speeches about their journeys in life and provided lots of motivation on the importance of education and making good choices. Gary Payton was all about getting the right message to the youth about how they are our future. I was very impressed. My kids truly enjoyed this camp and opportunity to attend.”

Concluding the camp, each coach shared heart felt words with the kids and thanked them all for allowing the coaches the opportunity to work with them. The last to speak was the icon Mr. Gary Payton.

“It’s been a pleasure for me to be here today. This gave me the experience to go back home and be able to say that I worked with a group of kids who love the game of basketball, but who love themselves even more. I love and admire each and every one of you. I hope that when I come back, all of you who are here today will be able to tell me your goals in life and plans to achieve them. Everything will not always go your way. There will be both losses and wins, like with basketball, but if you give everything your best shot and learn the lessons along the way, you will come out a winner.”


Photo/Micheal Rios