How Utah’s Alissa Pili is embracing her role as an Indigenous basketball star

“I’m carrying my culture on my back,” says the Utah basketball star who has welcomed her role as a voice for Indigenous and Polynesian fans.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili poses for a photo as a line of fans wait to meet her following a game at Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 2, 2024.

When Alissa Pili flew home from Arizona, she came back with dozens of traditional Native necklaces draped over her head. The next week, Pili visited Washington and families presented her with handmade Native earrings.

Anytime Utah’s 6-foot-2 scoring savant goes on the road with the No. 22 Utes basketball team, Pili’s trove of gifts from fans grows. “I have a stash,” she said. “It’s kind of crazy.”

Between Utah’s Pac-12 championships, a Sweet 16 run and the All-American player’s 2,000 career points, Pili became something more than a basketball player: an icon to Indigenous kids who are delighted to have a college star to call their own.

When she was growing up in Alaska, Pili said, she didn’t see any college standouts who shared her background. Her father Billy is Samoan. Her mother Heather is Native Alaskan, a member of the Inupiat tribe.

They juggled the games and practices of their nine children, shuttling the young athletes from football fields to wrestling mats, from volleyball practices to basketball games.

Now Pili sees young athletes who look like her and look up to her at arenas around the country. There was an Indigenous family with Navajo roots who waited 30 minutes just to talk to her after a home game at the Huntsman Center. Their son, Hayden Fatt, burst through the receiving line wrapped around the court and yanked off his two basketball shoes for her to sign.

“I want to become a Utah basketball player like her,” said the 10-year-old, whose aunt said he had a basketball in his hand before he could walk.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili stands for a portrait at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024.

His aunt snapped a photo of Hayden with Pili and added, “She is a big role model to all Natives. All tribes, small tribes to big tribes.”

Pili has recognized this new role and embraced her importance to the fans who adore her.

“They have somebody to look up to. It’s something that they’ve been needing,” Pili said. “It’s hard for me to think of myself like that, but I know that I’m having an impact on these girls, and [helping] more Indigenous and Polynesian girls grow in basketball. I’m carrying my culture on my back.”

Out of Alaska

Pili grew up in Barrow, Alaska. Now called Utqiagvik, the town north of the Arctic Circle is cloaked in darkness for 67 days each year. With winters stretching nine months, Pili said she basically lived in a basketball gym.

When her family later moved to Anchorage, Pili spent nights and weekends playing pickup games with her brothers, cousins and father.

“It was a big part of something my family did together,” she said.

Pili dominated the basketball, volleyball, wrestling and shot put scene in Alaska. She won 13 state titles across multiple sports. But she thought college basketball might not be in the cards.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili (35) shoots as Oregon State Beavers guard Lily Hansford (2) and Oregon State Beavers forward Raegan Beers (15)defend, in PAC-12 basketball action between the Utah Utes and the Oregon State Beavers, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024.

“I didn’t really have anybody to follow in their footsteps, nothing like that,” Pili said.

Her brother left Alaska to play football at USC, but Pili didn’t see other young women like her get basketball scholarships.

“A kid like Alissa might go under-recruited because they don’t get a chance to see her,” said Jocquis Sconiers, one of Pili’s coaches in Alaska.

Often it takes players traveling to the continental US to get noticed by college coaches. Pili went on a trip to Las Vegas for a basketball showcase and came away with a scholarship offer from USC.

She spent three seasons with the Trojans, but never starred. After playing 30 minutes a game as a freshman, her playing time and scoring dropped each of the next two years.

Some fans from Indigenous communities took note of her, but she was far from a national name.

Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts needed a scoring big and targeted Pili when she went looking to transfer schools in 2022. The Utes were rebuilding. And Pili, while undersized, was a crafty scorer who could use her strength to create space under the basket and use her shooting touch to be a weapon beyond the 3-point arc.

Pili decided to leave Los Angeles for Salt Lake City.

In her first season as a Ute, she got herself in better shape, her mental health improved and she became an All-American.

It would put the Utes on the map and put Pili in the lives of so many.

Becoming a name

Pili expected to see a big crowd when the Utes played a tournament in her home state of Alaska in November. There were so many fans wanting signatures that the rest of the team nearly drove back to the hotel without her.

“It was like ‘Wow,’” Pili said.

But she put herself into the national consciousness a few weeks later when the Utes traveled to Connecticut for a Hall of Fame showcase.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili (35) signs a poster for a fan following the game at Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 2, 2024.

Playing No. 1 South Carolina on ESPN, Pili powered her way to a career-high 37 points. She took on All-American Kamilla Cardoso, luring her into space and punishing her to go 15-of-23 from the field.

It left South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley exasperated.

“We can’t stop her,” she said.

This was the player Roberts saw when she recruited her to Utah. It was also the player so many Indigenous fans hoped to see.

Utah lost, but Pili’s fame grew. WNBA mock drafts projected her inside the top 10.

The next trip after that breakout performance, Utah traveled to Arizona for two games. For the first time, new fans came out in droves to see her on the road. Almost 500 people gathered after the game to try to get a glimpse of her in Tempe. One woman sobbed in front of her, saying Pili “inspired her daughters who play basketball.”

Kay Clark was already a fan of Pili. When Utah’s schedule came out last summer, Clark and her extended Navajo family rushed to make travel arrangements to see the Utes in Arizona.

”The Navajo tribe, we live and breathe basketball,” Clark said. “And we haven’t had many make it. When we see another Native American out there, we want to support them especially when it comes to college basketball.”

Clark’s niece is a 10-year-old basketball player who grew up around the sport. She and her teammates in New Mexico discovered Pili’s game through social media clips. Before that, she and her teammates argued over who the best player was in college basketball. Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and LSU’s Angel Reese dominated their debates. Now they had a player who looked like them they could insert into the conversation.

They drove six and a half hours to watch Pili play at Arizona and Arizona State. The 10-year-old gawked as Pili smoothly finished with 18 points against the Wildcats. They fought in line to get her autograph after a game against the Sun Devils.

“Just to touch her, it brings so much joy to them to keep pushing,” Clark said. “Her Native and Polynesian heritage brings her to life. Dreams can come true for them.”

“We had to see her”

Sitting in the front row of the Huntsman Center last weekend, a group of three young girls held signs reading, “Pili Power” and listing her career scoring accomplishments.

“My niece just started basketball,” Carissa Wolfgramm said. “I came just to show her another Polynesian player. We drove an hour from Payson.”

Meanwhile, Indigenous kids from Fort Duchesne in Utah and the Navajo Nation in Arizona to the upper reaches of Washington and Alaska have flocked to watch her play.

A family who lived on a Uintah and Ouray reservation drove two hours to Salt Lake to see Pili play for a final time. As they left the game with five minutes to play, a mother stopped her family so they could take a picture with Pili on the court in the background.

“My mom always talks about her,” said her son, Nolan Bullethead. “We didn’t want to miss her.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fans line up to meet Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili following a game at Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 2, 2024.

Basketball is central to many Native communities.

Historian Peter Iverson once said, “The five major sports on the Navajo Nation are basketball, basketball, basketball, basketball and rodeo.”

But there haven’t been many Indigenous basketball players who have become national names. Ryneldi Becenti played at Arizona State in the ‘90s and became the first Indigenous woman in the league. Shoni Schimmel, the Louisville point guard, made a run to the Final Four in 2013 and was a first-round pick in the WNBA.

But Pili’s combination of skill and accessibility, in an age where star athletes are amplified on social media, resonates differently with a younger generation.

“It is really neat to see Alissa’s following, wherever we go, of Indigenous people,” Roberts, her coach, said. “That is why representation matters so much. These younger kids who have never seen somebody who looks like them, comes from their background, succeed on such a big stage. It is really powerful. … You talk about impact.”

The most important gift

It took Pili a while to see it that way.

“It’s just little me from Alaska,” she once thought.

Now, she sees the power of her position.

“There’s not a lot of people of my background that have a big platform,” she said. “It’s very humbling. With all the attention I’ve tried to stay true to myself and how I was raised.”

Pili’s college career will end in a matter of weeks.

The Utes lost in the Pac-12 tournament Thursday. Next, Utah will try to make a run in the NCAA Tournament, where hundreds will come out to see Pili. After that, Pili is almost certainly a lock to be drafted by a WNBA team, where she will have a chance to have an even bigger platform.

But already her impact is lasting. In Alaska, an AAU basketball team will be named after her: “Team Pili” will try to help even more kids become college athletes. In Utah and the West, hundreds of young people will see a pathway to college they didn’t before.

On the Utes’ senior night last week, a pair of Indigenous girls wore Utah women’s basketball shirts and stared quietly at Pili as they waited in line for autographs. It was their third game they’d been to, always to see Pili.

Another young Indigenous girl, Marley, walked the hallways of the arena past the large poster of the Utes’ star. She grew up playing basketball. She idolized her father and Golden State Warriors guard Steph Curry.

But since this season, when her dad started taking her to games, she added one more to the list: Alissa Pili.

Of all the gifts Pili has received, she said that one meant the most.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A fan of Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili (35) cheers during the game at Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 2, 2024.