TULALIP, Wash. — It has been a long and winding trip to the Boys & Girls club gym on the Tulalip Reservation. But for Jaci McCormack, it is a home away from home, and center court is also center to her story.
"I attribute it to my parents," she said as she recalled her formative years on the Nez Perce reservation. "Back then, you played with your own tribe or your community. There's a lot of pride representing who you're playing for. We had one of the longest running reservation tournaments in Indian country."
McCormack was a dominant force as an Idaho State player of the year. She was destined for big things, until the controversial murder of one of her peers caused conflict on the reservation and prompted a change in scenery.
"It was a tragedy that happened on my reservation. It was something that, you know, it hurt me to the core of, of knowing, you know, having information. And, you know, in hindsight, when I think about it, as a 14-year-old kid having to really stand up and understanding that you have to stand up for what's right, even if you stand alone," she said.
Basketball was always a grounding presence as she moved away from home to an Oregon suburb, which she said lacked other teens who looked like her.
"It was just a struggle. It was a struggle academically. It was a challenge. I had to learn to reach out and ask for help. It was a struggle athletically, and overall, it just really, it really broke me, but in the best way possible," she said about those years in Lake Oswego.
By sticking with sports, she landed an athletic scholarship at Illinois State and helped lead her team to a title.
She came back to the Pacific Northwest as a Native American hoops legend, aiming to show others how to rise above the challenges in life.
"Basketball was always my saving grace," she said.
McCormack, who works by day in the Tulalip Prosecutor's Office as a victims services coordinator, spends the rest of her time helping to run the nonprofit, called "Rise Above," which aims to connect indigenous children to basketball while simultaneously educating them on the risks of violence and drug and alcohol abuse.
The work, and her story, caught the eye of Lenny Wilkens.
"It's young people, it's working with young people. I've always had the feeling that young people are our future," said the basketball hall of famer and coach of the 1979 World Champion Super Sonics.
After spending time with her at a few events, Wilkens was struck by the parallels between his longtime work with the Odessa Brown Children's Clinic, and McCormack's philanthropic passions.
He grew up in Brooklyn in poverty, and related to the struggles of trying to fit in. He knows how basketball can build bridges.
Wilkens also was drawn in by McCormack's life story after reading a book on Northwest Tribal history.
"So, I got thinking about it. What better way than to tell her story? Let young people see that," he said. "Yeah, if she can do it, maybe I can do it too. Because that's how I grew up. I began to see people who became role models for me. And I felt like, they always encouraged me to feel like, if I can do it, you can do it."
It is why Wilkens agreed to executive produce, along with former Sonic Gary Payton, Actor Danny Glover and others, a full-length motion picture about McCormack's inspiration journey. Called "Rise Above"" like the name of the nonprofit, it has been scripted by writer Erica Tremblay and counts artist Portugal, the Man as a musical advisor.
It is set to begin shooting on tribal grounds in the summer of 2021. Chairman Willie Frank III of the Nisqually Indian Tribe, Phil Haugen of the Kalispel Tribe of Indians and Chief Operating Officer of the Kalispel Tribal Economic Authority, and Rebecca Miles, member of the Nez Perce Tribe and Operations Director at the Potlach Fund, will serve as executive producers, along with the nonprofit Rise Above's co-founder Brad Meyers.
"You know, I was as a kid, I love the movies. Because it shows that people can make a difference, and how we could change our world," Wilkens said.
It is not lost on anyone involved that traditional Hollywood films have been short to highlight Native American stories and culture. That's one reason McCormack is also excited to tell her story, though who will play her is still up for discussion.
"I try and say that representation matters," said McCormack, who also notes that the official announcement in the trades will come during Native American Heritage Month.
"It's kind of a scary thought putting all of ... not only your accomplishments, but your challenges and maybe some of the not-so-smart decisions that you've made in your life, like up on the screen for the world to see," she said. "If it just impacts one kid, it's totally worth it. I'm doing it with the hopes that it's going to create an opportunity for kids to see that if I can make it, you can make it."