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Basketball is my medicine: Hoops leads Wagner's Iverson to become bridge for cultural understanding

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Former University of South Dakota women's basketball standout Vanessa Iverson sits outside her home in Wagner, where she works as a school counselor for her alma mater. (Matt Gade / Republic)

WAGNER -- Basketball delivered an identity that Vanessa Iverson struggled to find as a young child.

Wandering through childhood attempting to find a way to appease the Native American and white cultures pulling her in opposite directions was a struggle, but basketball gave her a new passion and a new way to connect.

It provided Iverson a path to a college degree from the University of South Dakota that otherwise would not have been financially feasible. It served as medicine for a young girl trying to find a balance between white and Native American cultures and led to becoming an outlet and a guide for kids currently experiencing the same struggles.

The former Vanessa Yanez was a steady performer for the Coyotes from 2002 to 2006, then a Division II program, but she was never one to stray too far from home. She would return to Wagner after graduating, this time with a new goal and purpose for her life -- helping students as a school counselor.

Having her own tale to tell allows Iverson an avenue to impact kids, but an ability to listen is what transforms her into a bridge for students looking to escape disconnect between white and Native American cultures.

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“(Basketball) got me to where I was,” Iverson said. “That medicine got me to the most beautiful place educationally. … Something that I loved so dearly and helped heal me, served its purpose for what it needed to do for me. It was the catalyst for where I needed to be in life.”

Making her name

Iverson is a member of the Ihanktonwan Dakota Oyate, and while she grew up under the guidance of a loving, fiercely protective single mother, she also had the luxury of living with both maternal grandparents.

Love was endless and cash was limited for Iverson, but it was the color of her skin that often brought doubts over her identity and where she belonged. As a light-skinned Native American, Iverson often found herself walking a line. She was too dark for some in the white community and too light for some members of the tribe.

“I felt I walked in two worlds,” Iverson said. “So many times people would say horrible, racist things about Native people, bypassing that I was Native American. When I would speak up, they would say, 'Oh, but not you. You’re one of the good ones.' That is saying their perception of my people is that we aren’t good people.”

Initially, basketball was not much help. Most of elementary school years were spent sitting on the bench, playing limited minutes. She hated it and wanted to quit. Then everything took a turn.

During her eighth-grade and freshman seasons, the Red Raiders won back-to-back Class A state championships, led by future USD teammate and Division II national player of the year Mandy Koupal.

During her high school career, Iverson formed a bond with Wagner head coach Neil Goter, who would frequently travel to college games in the area and invite his rising pupil to tag along. It was one of those outings that eventually helped Iverson realize college basketball was an attainable goal.

“It made me think, ‘I can do this,’ but it also made me think, ‘Why are there no Native people?’” Iverson recalled. “I just remember thinking, ‘I need to be out there. This is going to be me.’ That made me feel a desire -- that feeling of a college basketball game.”

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The 5-foot-11 Iverson would go on to become a three-time selection to the Little Missouri Valley and Southeastern South Dakota all-conference teams and was also a finalist for the state’s Miss Basketball award in 2002.

Iverson threw herself into the sport and it eventually gave her an identity as a person, while earning a coveted college basketball scholarship within driving distance for her family members.

“It was an important part of the medicine to have them see me play,” Iverson said. “... They were at every single USD home basketball game I played. I knew vicinity mattered. … When I did my campus tour, I saw some black people and the Native American center and that was the grounding factor that made me feel like that’s where I had to be.”

Life in a new world

Iverson redshirted her first year on campus in Vermillion for a Coyote team that qualified for the NCAA Division II tournament, but life off the court brought the biggest challenges.

She never owned a computer prior to college and came from a family that dealt exclusively with cash. When she received her scholarship refund check, then-USD head coach Chad Lavin inquired where she would put the money without a bank account and Iverson’s response was blunt: “In my wallet.”

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Vanessa Iverson passes the ball to a teammate during a University of South Dakota game against Augustana on Feb. 23, 2006 at the DakotaDome in Vermillion. (Dave Eggen/Inertia)

Despite being in an environment of higher education, many of her classmates at USD had never met a Native American. The result was ignorant questions and assumptions and a feeling of being a spokesperson for Native Americans and a need to prove herself.

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Iverson was met with offensive stereotypes that included a belief she was only in school due to Native American-based scholarships and that her family drank, when in fact, she grew up in an alcohol-free home.

When she finally got on the court, she was met with racial slurs from opponent fans, but it was compounded when a USD professor pulled her aside in admonishment for not enunciating words, saying, “This isn’t the rez anymore, if you wanted to be taken seriously.”

Many of the questions came from well-intended people that enjoyed Iverson’s company, but there was a lack of tact and boundaries laced within the never-ending line of questions.

“I think she was in a tough position of always having to educate people,” said Meghan Woster Roche, former USD teammate and current assistant U.S. Attorney in Sioux Falls. “It’s not like she could ever take a night off. If somebody said something to her, she had to be ready with an answer and she had to represent her tribe or Native American people, which I think was unfair. But she did a good job and never backed away.”

A new purpose

As a basketball player, Iverson flourished for the Coyotes, appearing in 91 games -- with 45 starts -- in three seasons and averaging 9.1 points per game.

Iverson still ranks in the USD top-10 lists in 3-pointers in a season (72) and 3-pointers in a career (162), but after four years, basketball was no longer serving as her medicine.

Despite a year of eligibility remaining, Iverson opted to end her basketball career, citing burnout. School work, combined with practices, weight training and film sessions were taking a toll. Lavin wanted Iverson to return for another year, but supported her decision to move on.

“I really believe at that time in her life that basketball had taken a backseat,” said Lavin, who now serves as the Colorado State University director of women’s basketball administration. “I don’t think V probably ever really missed it. I think she filled the void with her calling at that school and with her children. I don’t think I ever worried about V.”

While her passion for basketball may have been flickering, experiences provided new ideas and passions that were burning. The time-consuming duties of college athletics were stifling the pursuit of opportunities to be a “voice where voices weren’t heard.”

“If you’re trying to become a professional person and do an internship, I don’t think the two things go together well,” Roche said. “You sort of have to make a choice sometimes. You have to start sooner rather than later. I think we were ready to start the next step.”

Bridging gaps

Armed a degree in addiction studies -- the first member of her family to earn a degree -- Iverson worked for a drug and alcohol prevention agency in Sioux Falls, but unhappiness set in and felt it was time to go home.

She returned to Wagner as the cultural coordinator nine years ago, helping plan Native American cultural activities and aiding staff in becoming aware of Native American ways of life. But as staff and students began coming to seek her counsel more frequently, it became clear that it was time to return to school in 2012.

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Following a successful basketball career at the University of South Dakota, Vanessa Iverson now works as a school counselor at her alma mater Wagner. (Photo courtesy of the Iverson family).

Now five years into her capacity as a high school counselor, while still serving as cultural coordinator, Iverson has become a bridge for students seeking to be heard and those with difficulty listening.

“I feel like 90 percent of the students I see, a lot of the underlying concerns stem from lack of identity,” Iverson said. “That’s why it’s so important that we are working toward understanding our lives or cultures -- whatever that may be -- but finding that identity, that that we can grasp onto.”

Iverson is now in a position to help Native American kids find an identity and to be comfortable around those that do not share or understand their culture. She is also able to help white kids understand Native American culture, cancel stereotypes and learn to ask the right questions in the proper moments.

Basketball is now limited to shooting in the driveway with her husband, Cullen, and their 6-year-old twins. Conversations that delve into how basketball can be used as medicine and a way to heal, as well as conversations about cultural heritage and what comes with it, have already begun as Iverson’s purpose as a bridge has no bounds.

“To truly bridge the gap with racial relations, it’s to ask questions to learn, listen and see minority people for who they are,” Iverson said. “No more, “I don’t see color.” When people say. ‘I don’t see race or color, that is saying they don’t see you for who you are and I don’t see your identity. Own and recognize what happened and happens in this country with racial relations.”

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