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, Ill., 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 Mandamin was not always a fan of the game that 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 five 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.”
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 16, she moved to Toronto 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.”
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 said one of the reasons she picked basketball is its low cost. 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.”
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 Jan. 23.
You can hear the full interview with Emily Mandamin on CBC’s Superior Morning here.