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‘My story is their story’: Nez Perce basketball player Jaci McCormack hopes movie of her life will advance Indigenous representation

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 2, 2021

Jaci McCormack, left, places a beaded medallion around the neck of former NBA player and coach Lenny Wilkens Monday, July 12, 2021 at the Hub Sports Center at the end of the Rise Above basketball camp, which she organizes.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
Jaci McCormack, left, places a beaded medallion around the neck of former NBA player and coach Lenny Wilkens Monday, July 12, 2021 at the Hub Sports Center at the end of the Rise Above basketball camp, which she organizes. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

For Native basketball star Jaci McCormack, the journey from the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho to building a Native nonprofit organization has been one of community and resilience. Now, McCormack is sharing that story on screen.

With the help of film company Atomic Features, McCormack’s story will be made into a feature film.

“My story demonstrates that while it isn’t easy to break barriers, it is possible,” McCormack said in a news release. “Representation matters when it comes to Native youth, because my story is their story.”

McCormack was raised near Lewiston on the Nez Perce Reservation, but was abruptly moved once concerns of her safety arose after the shocking murder of an acquaintance.

From there, McCormack moved to Lake Oswego, Oregon, and found refuge in basketball, using it as her outlet to avoid some of the problems she faced growing up, such as poverty, substance abuse and untreated mental illness, common issues that plague the Native community.

She played college ball at Illinois State University, where she gained fame in 2005 for her game-winning, turn-around jump shot against Indiana State in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship game. The Redbirds’ win, and McCormack’s shot, sealed Illinois State’s first NCAA tournament appearance in 16 years.

McCormack went on to found Rise Above, a nonprofit organization with the goal of empowering Native youth to lead healthy lives.

The “Rise Above” film will incorporate McCormack’s life events on the big screen, while also focusing on the importance of Native representation in media.

“Through this film and beyond, the work of Rise Above to empower and inspire our future generations will continue,” McCormack said in the newsp release.

Erica Tremblay is a writer-director who specializes in Native narrative writing as a member of the Seneca-Cayuga Nation of Oklahoma.

Tremblay is co-creator of the upcoming Paramount+ series “Yellow Bird,” adapted from Sierra Crane Murdoch’s acclaimed true crime book of the same name, and she has written for “Reservation Dogs,” the popular Hulu comedy series with Indigenous actors.

“To see how Jaci consistently overcame things that were thrown in her way, is really inspirational,” Tremblay said in July. “There’s many different plots and directions, that we had to focus on a few because it could’ve been a 10-hour movie.”

McCormack visited Spokane in July when she hosted a Rise Above event with a star-studded athletic cast, including former Seattle Supersonics head coach Lenny Wilkens, WNBA star Ruthie Bolton and NBA players Spencer Haywood and Dale Ellis.

The camera crew was also present, with Tremblay taking note of McCormack’s interactions with the children and family who attended.

In July, she noted the power of representation and how a film about a Native woman is inspirational.

“Having grown up myself in the Native community and understanding maybe not exactly Jaci’s specific community (issues) but knowing where access does get cut off and opportunities are opened, (is important),” Tremblay said.

Filming for “Rise Above” is set to begin in summer. Most of the movie will be shot around Indian Country with the support of various tribes.

According to the news release, the film’s executive producers include Chairman Willie Frank III of the Nisqually Indian Tribe; Rebecca Miles, member of the Nez Perce Tribe and operations director at the Potlatch Fund; and Phil Haugen, member of the Kalispel Tribe of Indians and Chief Operating Officer of the Kalispel Tribal Economic Authority. Grammy-award winning band Portugal. The Man, known for their activism in Indigenous communities, will serve as the movie musical advisers and consultants. Atomic Features’ Daniel Ragussis will produce “Rise Above.”

“We hope it can make an outsized impact, not only through the power of its story, but also by the way it’s being developed and financed, with direct support from the Native community,” Ragussis said. “It’s our goal that this becomes a powerful new model for filmmaking.”

Amber D. Dodd's work as the Carl Maxey Racial and Social Inequity reporter for Eastern Washington and North Idaho primarily appears in both The Spokesman-Review and The Black Lens newspapers, and is funded in part by the Michael Conley Charitable Fund, the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, the Innovia Foundation and other local donors from across our community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper's managing editor.

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