Jack McNeel
Youth practice basketball drills at "The Hoop" clinic at the Salish Kootenai College in Montana.

Gettin' Mad Skillz: B-ball Clinic Helps Native Youth, Coaches Go Higher

Jack McNeel

Young athletes got instruction from some of basketball’s best teachers at the “The Hoop,” a basketball clinic at Salish Kootenai College (SKC) on the Flathead Reservation in Montana in May. Students learned from Ganon Baker, a Nike Skill Development Trainer and workout director, as well as Tara Vanderveer, head coach for Stanford University women’s basketball team.

Juan Perez, head women’s basketball coach at SKC, organized the clinic. He introduced Vanderveer, who is now in her 37th season as a coach -- and for 30 of those years, she has worked at Stanford. “Tara has led Stanford to two NCAA championships, 12 Final Fours, 24 conference championships and 28 consecutive NCAA appearances. In 1996, Vanderveer led the U.S. Olympic basketball team to a gold medal, and a 60-0 record. Tara has been inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and the Naismith Hall of Fame.”

About 100 coaches from the region gathered for the long weekend. “This is a different clinic than any you will ever attend,” Vanderveer said. “If you have not seen Ganon Baker before you are in for an incredible treat. I just got tired watching him do his warm ups.”

Baker graduated from high school with offers from 31 Division 1 colleges. After college, he played in Austria, Iceland, and France and coached for five years at the college level. Perhaps his greatest strength is helping players improve, whether they are youngsters or NBA stars. He’s worked with the best players in the world, including Shoni Schimmel, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.

Baker’s enthusiasm was extreme and contagious. He preaches respect – for the game, for your opponents, for your coaches and teammates. He also talks of the “three C’s: charisma, connection, and communication. “You’ve got to connect with the players,” he said to young Native players and coaches. “You can’t be old and crusty as a coach, and that has nothing to do with chronological age. You have to sweat with your players and more importantly you feel passion: energy, touches, high fives.”

Alyssia Vanderverg, an Oglala Sioux,said of the clinic. “I came because I just love basketball, and want to get better. Ganon is really good, and I’m glad I came. My teammates are loving it too.”

Coaches were equally enthused. Theodore Little Light, who coaches at Crow Agency, joined the clinic to get more fundamentals to pass on to his players. “It’s been worthwhile, lots of drills and hands-on things we’ll put into our program,” he said.

“The message they’re trying to get across about positive coaching is important to me,” said Zach Camel, the men’s head basketball coach at SKC, who’s earned nine National Tribal championships. “The days of intimidating, bullying – those days are over in coaching.”

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