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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Native American basketball legend Jaci McCormack continues to inspire

Jaci McCormack, a noted Native American women’s basketball player who played at Illinois State,  grew up on the Nez Perce Reservation near Lewiston. She now runs Rise Above, an organization used to help promote wellness on reservations through basketball. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

The turnaround jumper that sent Illinois State to the 2005 NCAA Tournament was among the defining moments of Jaci McCormack’s college career.

Another proved to be an intense, heart-rending exchange between the Native American guard and her coach during a homesick freshman season.

McCormack, who Nike is featuring on Hoopfest weekend as part of its native-inspired N7 Brand, wanted to leave the Midwest school and return home to the Nez Perce Reservation near Lewiston.

She sat in coach Jenny Yopp’s office and voiced her discontent, firing off reasons why she should head back to the Northwest.

Yopp wasn’t interested in McCormack’s excuses, but she crafted a response that ultimately kept the sure-handed talent in Normal, Illinois.

“Coach was like, ‘Fine, go home and become another statistic of someone who didn’t make it, but should have,’ ” recalled McCormack, who went on to star at ISU and earn a sociology degree.

“That really fired me up.”

McCormack – a 37-year-old victim assistant coordinator for the Tulalip Tribe’s Prosecutors Office and president of the Native American youth basketball program Rise Above – had already endured well-documented tribulation before setting foot on campus.

She became misty-eyed on Thursday when recalling her teenage years, the start of a trials-to-triumph story that caught the attention of producers and screen writers.

“Rise Above” – a feature-length motion picture based on McCormack’s life – has recently been greenlighted and is in the initial stages of production. It’s slated for release in 2021.

“Jaci’s story needs to be told,” said former veteran NBA head coach Lenny Wilkens, an executive producer for the project.

In the tiny, basketball-rich town of Lapwai, Idaho, McCormack was Idaho’s A-3 (now 2A) Player of the Year as a freshman and sophomore, the same distinction her mother, Patti McCormack, earned in 1976.

But months after leading the Wildcats to a state championship as a sophomore in 1998, McCormack was shunned by many of her peers following the death of a boy in nearby Clarkston, Washington.

In July 1998, a 12-year-old was killed following an altercation with a group of teenagers from Lapwai. One of the teenage boys struck the child with a small, replica baseball bat, according to reports, and he died later that evening.

Jaci – pronounced “Jackie” – wasn’t present during the altercation, but one of her good female friends was among the group of teenagers.

Lapwai’s sensational point guard later obtained information regarding the case. When involved parties didn’t appear to be forthcoming with authorities, McCormack convinced her friend to speak to prosecutors.

“A lot of my friends turned their backs on me for that,” McCormack said.

The aftermath of the Clarkston tragedy was enough to incite a major change for McCormack, who also wanted to generate more interest from college recruiters.

So she left Lapwai, opting to live with relatives in the Portland area before enrolling in the affluent Lake Oswego School District.

McCormack flourished athletically at the large high school, earning all-state honors and leading her team to the state tournament. She was inducted into the Lake Oswego Hall of Fame in 2018.

Academically and socially, though, McCormack – who said she was one of two Native American students at Lake Oswego High – struggled.

“I remember when my mom called to check on me, and she was asking how things were going, and I said they were going great,” McCormack said. “But tears were running down my face. School was hard. I didn’t have any friends, and basketball at the new school was pretty demanding.”

Before Yopp was the coach at Illinois State, she was at Portland State, and had kept McCormack on her recruiting radar, signing her in 2000. Leaving her family and hometown – where McCormack returned after college and worked with the Nez Perce Tribe – proved to be serendipitous.

“If I didn’t go to Lake Oswego and have those struggles, there’s no way I could have gone on to finish at Illinois State,” McCormack said.

Fourteen years after exhausting her college eligibility, McCormack has visited dozens of reservations as part of her budding Rise Above program, which uses basketball to raise youth awareness to violence and drug and alcohol abuse.

Former NBA stars Gary Payton, Craig Ehlo and Nate Robinson, as well as Wilkens, have teamed up with Rise Above since its inception three years ago.

McCormack’s program also recently teamed up with former Seattle Seahawk Michael Bennett’s The Bennett Foundation, according to Rise Above vice president Brad Meyers.

“The thing I’ve always respected about Jaci is that she truly serves the mission (of Rise Above),” said Meyers, a former Whitworth basketball player. “She serves the community, she serves the kids and does so much for them.”

McCormack primarily works with kids before they reach high school.

“There’s so much talent on reservations, and I think there are more opportunities for Native American kids than there were before,” she said. “But people still have to be trendsetters. Fight through those obstacles.”

A Nike camera crew recently followed McCormack for the promotion of its N7 brand at Hoopfest, shooting basketball-centric shots and scenic drone footage with her in Spokane and near Puget Sound.

She is playing in the Hoopfest women’s elite division this weekend along with her cousin, former North Central, Community Colleges of Spokane and Vanguard (California) University star Riley Holsinger.

Another Native American basketball star from the area, former CCS and Wellpinit High player Preston Wynne, is also featured this weekend by N7. Wynne went on to become the 2014 NAIA Player of the Year at Vanguard.

“It’s been a surreal experience,” McCormack said.