CALGARY — Young basketball players from a southern Alberta First Nation will be able to play in a tournament this week despite a dispute with a Calgary referee group.  

Truman Soop, a coach for two Indigenous teams in the Stampede Showdown tournament, said the kids were devastated when they were told they might not be able to take part.

“I had parents call me and say, ‘my son bought brand new shoes — he was excited to go and he’s crying to me all night,'” said Soop, who coaches with the Kainai Basketball Association.

“They broke a lot of these kids’ hearts.”

He said the Calgary Basketball Officials Association (CBOA) did not want to referee any games involving Kainai players because of a conflict earlier in the year involving a high school team from the community.

“If they have an incident with one person or one team, they should deal with that one person and one team, instead of banning an entire native community,” Soop said.

“To me, it’s a racist decision to ban an entire native community based on one person’s encounter.”

The teams do not get any funding, Soop said, and the children spent months fundraising to be able to play in the tournament, which starts on Friday.

“All these kids live and breathe basketball,” Soop said. “And they still can’t grasp why they couldn’t play. They now have the mentality: Is there something wrong with being from Kainai? Is there something wrong with being native?”

The CBOA said in a statement Wednesday that it is refusing to referee any Kainai teams due to security concerns. The association hasn’t revealed what led to those concerns, but said it involves more than one person.

“As it could not be guaranteed that no individuals from the earlier incident would not be at this weekend’s Stampede Shootout, we initially felt it was prudent not to be involved,” the statement said. 

“CBOA has since worked out a compromise with the tournament organizers that addressed our concerns, and the event is now proceeding as originally planned, with all teams participating as intended.”

Stampede Showdown tournament organizers were not available for comment.

But Soop said the organizers decided Tuesday to hire different referees for Kainai games so the players, who are between eight and 15 years old, would not be banned.

“They’re kids so they forgive and forget,” he said. “They’re all happy and they’re excited to go, and plus it’s the Calgary Stampede, so they all want to go on the rides.”

But, he said, the fight with the referee association isn’t over.

“We have been trying to reach them and we’ve been trying to talk to them, but they won’t give us the time of day,” Soop said.

“We are not going to stop until we get an explanation, until we get an apology and until this ban is lifted.”

He said the teams will be playing in other tournaments and they don’t want to have the same problem.

“All these kids want to do is play basketball,” Soop said. “These kids did nothing wrong for this to be taken out on them.”

He said more than 50 children from the community will play in this year’s tournament. Four teams are from the Kainai Basketball Association, while a fifth is from Blood Tribe Recreation.

— By Daniela Germano in Edmonton

The Canadian Press

The Canadian Press