Hoop dreams: 17-year-old basketball player from tiny First Nation earns full scholarship to U.S. college

By | August 20, 2020

Although 17-year-old Emily Mandamin is the first person from Iskatewizaagegan First Nation to earn a basketball scholarship, she is determined to make sure she isn’t the last from the tiny northwestern Ontario community of approximately 300 people.

Mandamin was courted by 10 schools across Canada and the United States, finally committing to Highland Community College in Freeport, Illinois, because she felt it was the best place to pursue both her academic and athletic ambitions.

“It’s crazy what I have accomplished and sometimes I have to take a breath and step back,” she said. “My mind just boggles and my brain explodes when I think ‘Wow! I really did that’.”

But like many other athletes before her, Mandamin was not always a fan of the game that she said has changed her life

When her older sister started playing, Mandamin just kept saying “how much I hated basketball and how much I wasn’t going to start playing, and my Dad would always be like ‘yeah, yeah, whatever’.”

Mandamin said she is very close to her father, who often takes her to ceremony and has instilled a sense of pride in, and understanding of culture and tradition.

He knows his daughters well because soon Mandamin came to appreciate the positive impact basketball was having on her sister’s life and decided she should give the game a try too.

Wanted to follow in big sister’s footsteps

“Always seeing her play sports and make all these connections and friends and stay out of trouble, I guess I just wanted to follow in her footsteps and do everything my big sister had done.”

Together, the girls would go to the outdoor court, with older teaching younger the finer points of passing, shooting and dribbling.

At 5 feet 10 inches, Mandamin has always been taller than her peers, which often left her feeling isolated. But she soon learned that her height was a definite advantage on the court, and her love of the game caught fire.

“It brought me a sense of meaning,” she said. “I felt like I was needed somewhere, and I really enjoyed that feeling.”

Emily Mandamin, 17, (shooting at basket) attended Dakota Collegiate in Winnipeg before moving on to the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association preparatory league. She is now on full scholarship at Highland Community College in Freeport, Illinois. (Emily Mandamin )

As a player, Mandamin is used to not having the home court advantage.

The move to Illinois is not the first time Mandamin has left her community to pursue her passion for basketball.

She attended Dakota Collegiate in Winnipeg in grades nine and 10 in order to improve her skills. Then, at just 16, she moved to Toronto in order to play in the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association, which prepares young players for the game at the university level, as well as providing more exposure to scouts and college recruiters

“Being a little kid from a little reserve, I was a little worried that I was going to fall off the radar, but having the right people in my corner kind of helped me get to where I am today, and where I’m going to get,” she said.

She also credits an organization called Underrated Hoops with helping her obtain a scholarship.

When I chose basketball I feel like it really saved my life and gave me all these opportunities to see the world and what it has to offer and I think that’s life-saving in itself – Emily Mandamin

Underrated Hoops works with young people by filming their games, compiling stats, contacting scouts and connecting with potential coaches at American schools.

“It gives you the best options you can get and just gives you exposure and gives more attention to the underrated crowd, which often gets overlooked.”

Emily Mandamin, 17, of Iskatewizaagegan First Nation in northwestern Ontario says basketball changed her life and now, after earning a full scholarship to an American college, she is becoming the role model she needed when she was younger. (Emily Mandamin )

Mandamin is aiming to play basketball professionally, but she is studying social work with the goal of setting up her own organization to help other talented Indigenous and under-served young people who struggle to be able to afford, or even access sports and schools.

She believes that she picked basketball because it was a low-cost sport. All she needed was the ball and her own desire to improve.

Mandamin said she is now becoming the role model she needed when she was younger.

“I was in a really dark place growing up, because I was at the point where I was going to decide if i wanted to stay in the community and follow suit with my friends and family where they’re going down the drug and alcohol path, or I could make a decision to just stay at the basketball court and play basketball and stay inside, shut myself away from that and when I chose basketball I feel like it really saved my life and gave me all these opportunities to see the world and what it has to offer and I think that’s life-saving in itself.”

This is what Emily Mandamin posted to Facebook about committing to Highland Community College in Illinois for a full basketball scholarship. (Emily Mandamin)

Mandamin is preparing to start classes on-campus, but the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the start of the basketball season.

The Highland Cougars will start full practices in mid-October, and their first game is scheduled for January 23, 2021.

You can hear the full interview with Emily Mandamin on CBC’s Superior Morning here.

Emily Mandamin is a 17-year-old from Iskatewizaagegan, or Shoal Lake 39 First Nation, near Kenora. After being courted by many teams, she accepted a basketball scholarship to Highland College in Freeport, Illinois, near Chicago. She told the CBC’s Cathy Alex about her hoop dreams, how basketball changed her life and her how she’s planning to help other young Indigenous and under-served athletes. 7:15

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