Nevada Wolf Pack’s MorningRose Tobey (Assiniboine/Sioux) excels on, off the basketball court
RENO, Nev. — With a pedigree like MorningRose Tobey’s, her athleticism is a given.
Her mother was a standout basketball player at Haskell University. Her father was recently enshrined in an athletics hall of fame. Her favorite uncle is known as “Magic,” after the Los Angeles Lakers great Earvin Johnson. Plus, her grandfather, Meryl Smith, played professional basketball.
“My first memories of basketball are when I was a baby,” Tobey recalls. “My dad would put me in the ball carts during his practice.”
Like many people in Indian Country, this 20-year-old Assiniboine/Sioux says her family has always been basketball crazy.
So, her path to sports stardom was set into motion way before she joined a fourth-grade YMCA basketball league.
Now a five-foot-eight junior guard on the Nevada Wolf Pack women’s squad, Tobey continues to underpin her life with basketball, but being a student-athlete has exposed her to so much more.
As an all-star at Billings West High in Montana, Tobey was recruited to play for the Wolf Pack by former coach Jane Albright, who retired after Tobey’s sophomore season.
Initially, the opportunity to move close to her paternal family was a big factor in Tobey’s decision to enroll at the University of Nevada-Reno — father Allen and grandmother Henrietta are members of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.
Adjusting to a new coach
However, one factor Tobey did not predict was a change in coaching staff. Last spring, Amanda Levens, a 38-year-old enterprising educator, was hired to take the reins of the sagging Nevada program.
Levens brought a completely different style of play to Lawlor Events Center and already has made notable gains, including leading the Wolf Pack this past 2017-18 season to the Mountain West conference tournament championship game, and an invite to the postseason Women’s Basketball Invitational tournament. There, the Wolf Pack lost in the semifinals, 65-56, to Central Arkansas, capping the 2017-18 season with a record of 19-17.
A decorated collegiate player herself, Levens employs a coaching philosophy that requires radically different preparation than the regime for which Tobey initially signed up to play.
A self-labeled undersized guard, Levens learned to use her superior physical conditioning to slowly, but eventually, overwhelm her opponents during her days at Arizona State.
“I had to have every competitive advantage, and when you are fit, you can beat people who are more athletic than you because you can keep going,” Levens said. “When others teams get tired, our goal is just to wear them down.”
Levens’ demands of physical strength and conditioning for her team at Nevada are a drastic change, even for the athletic Tobey, who has always stayed in shape in the offseason on the powwow circuit as a jingle dancer.
The Wolf Pack now has off-the-court requirements including running a mile and a half in under 11 minutes, as well as lifting weights and performing calisthenics — push-ups and pull-ups. Calling them Battle Born Standards, Levens said that the focus on physical conditioning will eventually make her squad a championship team.
“All summer, we ran that mile and a half,” Tobey said. “The first time I ran it, I think I was about a whole minute behind.”
Tobey quickly realized that she needed more than just physical stamina to clock in on time. She remembers calling home, disappointed that the under-11-minute mark was eluding her.
“My parents kept telling me, ‘Morning, we’re Indians; we are runners,’” she said. “At that point, I was close, but still about 30 seconds behind.”
Looking for inspiration
Tobey said her parents suggested she look for inspiration from one of the greatest Native American athletes, Billy Mills. An Oglala Lakota, Mills shocked the world with his come-from-behind victory in the 1964 Olympics. To date, he is still the only American to win the 10,000 meters event for the United States.
“I’m not an Olympic runner, but I watched him and I just found it in me,” Tobey said. “I had worked too hard and I just had to dig deeper.”
And that was just the outdoor training. Tobey said that the on-court conditioning was just as difficult; however, she quickly added that the rewards of her physical and mental transformation also serve as motivation.
“At the beginning of summer, I could do one pull-up, now I can do seven or eight,” she beamed. “The more I saw progress, the more I wanted to keep going.”
Prior to the 2017-18 season opening, Tobey’s last mile and a half run was a personal best of 10:40.
It is Tobey’s self-motivation coupled with her high-skill level that impresses Levens, particularly because Levens wants the Wolf Pack to play fast.
“Mo is a great fit for our style of play,” Levens said. “As a coach, it’s obvious she played a lot of basketball, and not just at summer camps.”
Tobey credits her parents, again.
Before playing her freshman season at Spanish Springs High and finishing her prep career in Montana, there were Native tournaments every weekend that were always family outings.
One of the most memorable stops was the 2013 Native American Basketball Invitational in Phoenix, where Tobey was named the Most Valuable Player after she led her team to the championship.
Those events and the many days of travel blended nicely into her college path, but two years in, the drastic change to a new coach was shocking.
So again, Tobey looked to her family. Adjusting to a new college coach was a challenge, Tobey readily acknowledges, but her innate drive continues to push her every day.
“I’m in the best shape of my life, but I want to keep going,” Tobey said. “This year, I’ve been able to get outside of my comfort zone.”
So in addition to the results on the hardwood — Tobey started six games for the Pack this past season before being sidelined by a severe left ankle sprain — she has grown as a person under Levens’ tutelage.
More than just basketball
Members of the Nevada women’s basketball team are encouraged to leverage their public celebrity to share positive messages, especially on issues with personal significance.
“These ladies have a voice that everyone wants to hear because of their talent and their work ethic,” Levens said. “So, when they talk, people listen, and we want them to use social media to inspire people to be better.”
As a Native American — the most underrepresented minority of all ethnicities playing college sports — Tobey stays up on contemporary issues facing Indigenous people. She even spent time at Standing Rock last summer.
Driving to Oceti Sakowin Camp with her mom, brother and cousin was like traveling through time, Tobey said.
“I almost felt like I was back in the 1800s,” Tobey recalls. “It was nothing but good feelings and good prayers.”
This historic mobilization of hundreds of Native American tribes garnered international attention when the peaceful gathering temporarily halted construction of a 1,172-mile oil pipeline that could endanger a nearby reservation’s water.
Tobey said the trip gave her a whole different perspective on environmental justice and tribal sovereignty.
“I have more of a voice because I have been there,” she said.
Exposure to the federal government’s tactics, along with her past experiences throughout Indian Country, have helped solidify Tobey’s long-term goals. Currently, Tobey is studying public health and wants to help find a solution to some of the medical ailments that plague Native Americans.
“I want to promote the benefits of keeping a healthy lifestyle,” Tobey said. “I have a grandma on the Pine Ridge Reservation and even for my tribe in Fort Peck, we have nothing in the way of medical and health resources.”
In the United States, life expectancy is almost five years less for American Indians compared to the general public, according to Indian Health Service (IHS).
As the federally-operated arm of the Department of Health and Human Services, IHS struggles to provide health care to 2.2 million Native Americans, who endure all the predictors of poor health — poverty, unemployment, extremely low high school graduation rates — much more frequently than other populations.
So while Levens’ continues to focus on building Tobey and her Wolf Pack teammates into a championship basketball team, the residual effects will go beyond March Madness or even Tobey’s college tenure.
“One of our jobs as coaches and mentors is to teach our team to be great leaders,” Levens said. “We want these young women to inspire and positively impact other people.”
Levens doesn’t doubt that Tobey has that potential. After all, just a year ago, Tobey embracing a new coach who implemented unparalleled physical fitness demands to build mental toughness.
Today, after Tobey’s month-long recuperation from that ankle injury, once again, she is ready to see show far she can go.
“I have a fighter mentality,” Tobey said. “My parents instilled it in me.”
Stacey Montooth (Walker River Paiute) is public relations officer for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. The Nevada Athletics department also contributed to this report.