Utah WBB Star Alissa Pili’s Positive Impact On Women’s Sports, Indigenous People
Feb 8, 2024, 1:40 PM
SALT LAKE CITY – Women’s sports are having a major moment as more and more fans are watching, admiring, and supporting female athletes.
Utah Athletics has been particularly blessed to have several of the best and brightest in their respective sports on campus the past few seasons, but they all seem to pale in comparison to what Utah women’s basketball star Alissa Pili is doing.
Pili has been lumped in with the likes of Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, Cameron Brink, etc. but what pushes her apart from all of the other great super stars in women’s basketball is her Native heritage and representation of a very underserved group of people that just want to be seen.
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Representation Matters And Alissa Pili Is Providing It For Indigenous People
Pili is part Samoan and part Inupiaq– a Native Tribe primarily located in Alaska and surrounding areas.
It’s always great to see the Polynesian culture represented. However, it is much rarer to see Indigenous cultures represented at high levels of sports with former Olympic gold medalist and football star Jim Thorpe being the most famous and that was nearly 100 years ago.
Pili is beginning to change that and is providing powerful, modern, positive, much-needed voice to the space. So much so that Pili is now attracting large crowds of Indigenous People who travel from near and far just to be able to see someone who looks like them perform at an elite level.
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“We were at UW, and it was insane,” Utah head coach Lynne Roberts said. “I talked to a family- they had driven from San Fransisco just to see Alissa play. They didn’t know her. I’ve done that drive. It’s like 14 hours to see her play. That’s impact. They looked of Indigenous decent, right? And that is where I keep saying representation matters and Pili has something that little kids can say, ‘she looks like me.’ She’s kicking butt on the biggest stage. I don’t think there is anything more powerful than that.”
For Pili, it’s a blessing to be able to show what is possible in a way she didn’t necessarily have growing up. It’s not a job she takes lightly, and it’s become a badge of honor.
“It’s honestly really crazy to me that I’m one of the first ones to be in this position with where I come from and what backgrounds I have,” Pili said. “It brings me so much joy after games to have little girls come up to me and everyone is telling me how much of a role model I am for these little girls. In the past, they’ve never had someone to look up to and I’m that person now. It’s a lot of pressure, but I think it’s a blessing to be that person for other people. I do wish I had somebody like that growing up to look up to and follow in their footsteps.”
— TOGETHXR (@togethxr) February 3, 2024
Roberts added the experience hasn’t just been a positive one for Pili and the Native People who regularly come to see her but the entire team.
“It’s so cool for all of us- not just me, but all of the players are like, ‘wow,'” Roberts said. “There hasn’t been a road trip where we have not sat on the bus- all of us, waiting for Alissa to get on because she waits until everybody gets a photo or an autograph. It takes a long time, but she doesn’t ever say, ‘ok, that’s it,’- she gets to everyone. We are on the bus for like 45 minutes waiting and no one cares. When she gets on, we all cheer. That’s everywhere we go.”
— Utah Women’s Basketball (@UTAHWBB) November 19, 2023
A Moment Happening Within A Moment: The Perfect Collision Course
None of what has happened with Pili would be possible without the continued growth and support of women’s athletics. The increased coverage and interest in just women’s collegiate basketball over the past year has made Pili more visible to people who are often forgotten and rarely represented in most societal things.
“It’s crazy the position I’m in now,” Pili said. “When I first started college, it wasn’t like this. Just to see the drastic change that has happened- it’s amazing to see how quickly it changed and how much attention all of these amazing female athletes are getting. To be named one of the best and one of these superstars- it’s a great feeling. It’s something I have worked really hard for and I just think the best part of being in this position is just seeing how much you affect others and how much others are watching you- how much I’m inspiring people. That’s the biggest thing for me. It’s very humbling.”
“It was indeed a blessing to witness this ‘generational’ player in action, but to have a chance to meet her was an honor. Her demeanor off the court is even more impressive because she is humble, kind, and respectful.”
– Miss Indian Arizona#goutes pic.twitter.com/FzIfIQm9ke
— Utah Women’s Basketball (@UTAHWBB) January 13, 2024
Roberts emphasized part of what sets Pili apart from the other superstars she gets mentioned with is the impact she has off the court, and her innate ability to not let it go to her head.
“It’s pretty fun, and it’s great for our program,” Roberts said. “The thing I am most proud of is that Alissa is about winning and the team. She is not about her ego. I think that separates her from some of the other superstars. It’s remarkable- she owns the locker room because she is about winning, and everyone listens. It’s pretty cool, but then you see the impact she is having- we’re at Washington State and they had to get their own security. They had to come down on the floor, put up extensions- all of that because it was hundreds of people. It was crazy, but pretty cool. It’s a moment for women’s sports.”
Utah women’s basketball star Alissa Pili (@alissa_pili) brought a crowd of Indigenous fans to Friday night’s game versus Arizona State.
The Samoan and Inupiaq forward stayed after the game for photos. pic.twitter.com/NdEEYX16Cj
— Aliyah Chavez (@AliyahJChavez) January 6, 2024
Michelle Bodkin is the Utah Utes Insider for KSLsports.com and host of both the Crimson Corner Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and The Saturday Show (Saturday from 10 a.m.–12 p.m.) on The KSL Sports Zone. Follow her on X, Instagram, and Threads: @BodkinKSLsports
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