What Utah star Alissa Pili represents to the basketball fans who flock to see her

SALT LAKE CITY— Admirers swarmed the arena, all eager to see No. 35, and congregated at a random end of the floor to wait. As time passes, the crowd of fans grows larger. Soon, there will be more than just a swarm of ecstatic spectators; it will be a bright, growing audience. Some flow out onto the floor, while others stand patiently in the stands.
Alissa Pili, one of the country’s greatest basketball players, eventually appears, having completed her postgame media duties. The fans erupted. Pili separates the crowd, finds a location to set up, and shakes hands after hand, beaming broadly for photos and clinging tightly to a marker to autograph whatever presented to her.

This image occurred following a January away win against Arizona State and is common in the Huntsman Center at Utah. It’s also very normal anywhere the Utes have gone in recent months.

Pili was still wearing her red Utah road jersey less than a month later, after scoring a game-high 31 points in an early February victory over Washington. It grew so large that ushers did their best to manage traffic on the floor of Alaska Airlines Arena. The scene repeated itself two days later, following a game at Washington State.

“I was chatting with three or four people who came to see me after a game, and I turned around and there were just hundreds of people waiting for her,” Lynne Roberts, the head coach at Utah, said. “That is the definition of representation and impact.”

Pili’s combination of force and grace, dead-aim shooting prowess and persistence down low, is enough to convince any college basketball fan that, at 6 feet 2, the Utah senior center is one of the game’s most interesting talents. She is the primary reason why the No. 20 Utes, who advanced to the Sweet 16 last season and gave eventual national champion LSU everything they could handle, might make another deep NCAA Tournament run this month.

But crowds flock to see No. 35 because she is more than just a unique basketball talent — she is representing not one but two minority communities historically underrepresented in Division I college basketball. Pili, who grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, is both Samoan and Iñupiaq, a group of Indigenous Alaskans. Most of the fans who typically wait for her after games are Polynesian as well as members of various Indigenous communities locally and afar.
Fans drove from reservations in Arizona and New Mexico as far as 10-plus hours away when the Utes were in Tempe in January. When they were in Seattle in February, some braved the winter elements and drove from as far away as reservations in central Montana to glimpse at the player they know represents more than just a loaded box score.

“The ball and the court don’t care what color you are,” said Brent Cahwee, who has covered Native Americans in collegiate and professional sports at NDNSports since 2000. “They don’t care what background you come from.”

In the season when Iowa’s Caitlin Clark has captivated America and shattered scoring records long thought to have stood the test of time, there is another lesser-known star in women’s college basketball inspiring two communities and drawing massive, adoring crowds.

Pili offers not only a beacon of belief to both of her communities but also just as importantly, a tangible goal for Polynesian and Indigenous girls who haven’t seen someone who looks like them prominently featured on this stage. Until now, of course.

“The thing about Polynesian and Indigenous people, when they see somebody of their kind winning, it means the whole community’s won,” Pili said.

The northernmost town in America is located around 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It is the birthplace and childhood home of Alissa’s mother, Heather. Her father, Billy, moved there from Hawaii as a teenager. And where Pili lived till she was seven. In October 2016, it was renamed Utqiagvik, a place famed for gathering wild roots, from its previous name, Barrow.

The town of 4,300 people experiences 24 hours of daylight in the summer and 24 hours of darkness in the winter. In December 2007, Utqiagvik reported a bone-chilling temperature of -42 degrees. The weather used to be constantly colder.

Polar bears can wander their way through the town from time to time, Pili’s mom said, especially during the Iñupiat traditional bowhead whale hunting season. “It’s a very unique place,” she said. “It’s not for everybody.”

When Pili was in first grade, her parents enrolled her in Little Dribblers in the town’s recreation center. It was there at the edge of the world where one of college basketball’s most versatile players first worked with a basketball in her hands. In those consistent subzero temperatures synonymous with her hometown, the most logical place to start sports was indoors. And from the time she picked up the ball, she wouldn’t be slowed down.

The Pilis eventually moved to Anchorage, where they raised their nine children. Alissa is the second oldest behind her brother, Brandon, who played football at USC and is a defensive lineman for the Miami Dolphins. At Dimond High in Anchorage, she became one of the most dominant athletes in Alaska prep sports history, winning a total of 13 state titles in five sports: basketball, volleyball, shot put, discus and wrestling.

She eventually followed her big brother to Los Angeles, where she played three seasons for the Trojans, winning the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Award in 2019-20. It wasn’t until she transferred to Utah that the entirety of her skill set was unlocked, just as she envisioned when seeking a new setting. As a junior, she was named Pac-12 Player of the Year and was named a second-team All-American by the Associated Press. This year, her stardom is reaching new heights.

Pili’s following within college basketball was already growing, but it wasn’t until her 37-point performance against No. 1 South Carolina in December that word started to spread nationally. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley repeatedly said the Gamecocks had no answers for Pili. “I hope we don’t see them in the tournament, and whoever does get to see them,” Staley said, “good luck to you.”

As new fans learned more about her, word also spread that she is a member of the Indigenous community. In less than 12 hours, Pili gained 10,000 followers on Instagram. Since then, her audience has exploded. She has more than 70,000 Instagram followers. Fans who drive long distances to watch her play and wait patiently after games to pose for pictures often post grateful captions thanking her for representing both of her communities.

“It’s just crazy to see what you can achieve when you keep working and raising the expectations of yourself and not letting any limitations get to you,” Pili said.

Lately, when her parents attend games, they know it might take a while before getting one-on-one time with their daughter. Billy Pili has joked with her that he is tired of standing and will wait in the car in the parking lot. At several games this year, Samoan fans waved a Samoan flag in the hope of being seen by Pili and the TV broadcast crew. High school girls basketball players of both Indigenous and Polynesian descent tag her as their idol on social media.

Two days after the crowd at ASU, Pili was met by Laney M. Lupe, Miss Indian Arizona, in the tunnels of the McKale Memorial Center in Tucson. Utah had just lost a 71-70 heartbreaker in overtime to Arizona, but Pili was presented with a flag by Lupe that she eventually draped over her shoulders. The flag represented the 22 federally recognized tribes of Arizona. In her Instagram caption, Lupe wrote: “I know that the Creator has big plans for her and her journey.”

“It gives a lot of hope to all of the natives in America. It’s amazing to see,” Heather Pili said. “It’s hard to describe being in that environment and seeing the crowds that she’s drawing. It’s pretty emotional.”





Dylan Goodwill has seen Pili’s star soar from the start. Goodwill, who is of Diné, Dakotan and Lakotan descent, has worked in USC’s undergraduate office as an adviser for the last five years. She was helping sell raffle tickets to the USC Native American student assembly during the 2019-2020 season to encourage them to go see the Trojans’ breakout freshman.

In late February, Goodwill was back in the Galen Center rooting not only for the Trojans but also for Pili. She made a sign that read: “Native Trojans 4 Pili #35.” After Pili led the Utes to victory with 23 points over then-No. 7 USC, she stopped and signed Goodwill’s sign before getting to the rest of the fans waiting for her.

“I genuinely think we can see ourselves in her or see some of our relatives in her,” said Goodwill, who grew up in Window Rock, Ariz., the capital of the Navajo Nation. “And she is a relative to us. And you always show up for your family.”

This is a familiar flashpoint for the Indigenous basketball community. A decade ago, sisters Shoni and Jude Schimmel (members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla in eastern Oregon) starred at Louisville, and Cahwee remembers Indigenous fans swarming arenas around the country wherever the Schimmel sisters played to show their support.

“Even though people aren’t from Alissa’s Indigenous community,” Cahwee said, “they know what she represents.”

Naomi Mulitauaopele Tagaleo’o wondered if the day would ever arrive. The former Stanford basketball star was picked in the first round of the 2000 WNBA Draft by the now-defunct Utah Starzz, and she is still the league’s sole Samoan player.

“When I was the one, I would tell all the reporters and everyone I knew that it was only a matter of time that there would be more of us,” she was quoted as saying. “But, after 20 years, I didn’t expect it to take so long. After the tenth and fifteenth years, I continued wondering where she was. “Where are they?”

Tagaleo’o was instrumental in establishing the nonprofit Education with Purpose Foundation for Pacific Islanders, which is situated in Seattle. When she learned that Pili and the Utes would be playing at Washington in February, she organized a group of 20 local students to go. They were part of a large group waiting for a photo with Pili.

“We were taught that when we leave that house, we represent our family, last name, culture, and islands. It becomes that for us,” Tagaleo’o explained. “With Alissa, the torch is carried on. “It has not died.”

Pili is not alone, either. In the matchup between Utah and South Carolina in December, another Samoan basketball player, South Carolina

Starter Te-Hina Paopao scored 15 points. Paopao, who transferred from Oregon, has helped South Carolina to its second consecutive spotless regular season. Stanford guard Talana Lepolo (Samoan and Native Hawaiian) and Oregon State guard Talia van Oelhoffen (Native Hawaiian) are also key to their teams’ success in March.

Pili’s Samoan heritage is always evident to admirers. The majority of her right leg is tattooed with traditional Polynesian cultural patterns. She thinks that it took roughly 16 hours to complete in four separate sessions.

“It gives me a chance to represent my culture and put it on display for people to see when I play on the court,” she told reporters.

Ryneldi Becenti recognizes the significance of such a show. The first is usually remembered as the first. In 1997, the Phoenix Mercury signed the first Indigenous player in WNBA history. Gary Smith, a renowned sportswriter, wrote a profile in Sports Illustrated about the former Arizona State guard who rose to prominence in 1993. Becenti, who is of Diné heritage, resides on a reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico, where she continues to teach basketball to local youngsters.

“For Alissa to be at that level, she’s going to experience so much that she’s going to come back and tell her people,” she added. “She’s going to be doing that for the rest of her life.”

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