TsaLiDi Sequoyah feels he has something to prove.
Overlooked by a nearby Division I school he’d spent time practicing at, the 6-foot-9 North Carolina native will play at Northeastern State next season, bringing some much-needed height to RiverHawks coach Larry Gipson’s program.
If he’s closer to 6-8, as some observers say, it may be that weight on his shoulders, a determination to change stereotypes of Indian athletes.
The cause was both researched, then lived by the member of the Eastern band of Cherokees.
His senior project was to dig into why the stereotype exists — looking at the lack of Division I athletes, particularly from tribal reservations. It was where the star at Cherokee Central hailed from, leading his team three rounds deep into the North Carolina Class A playoffs as the state’s second-leading rebounder (16.9). He was also a top 10 scorer at 21 points.
Western Carolina had some early interest but that slowed as time passed. Sequoyah was faced with nothing except a walk-on to the school he’d had his sights on his whole career, just 30 minutes from home.
“When they began dragging their feet, I didn’t think they were taking me seriously,” Sequoyah said.
Not serious enough to offer anything but a walk-on opportunity, which they did.
“Unfortunately a lot of college coaches are aware that tribes will pay for a kid’s education and those that do view that as a way of getting them to walk on and using the money elsewhere,” said his former head coach, Rob Strong.
“He’s worth the cost of that scholarship.”
Part of that senior project involved a kids camp running a kids camp along with his assistant coach, Aaron Hogner.
“He came to understand that a lot of kids from reservations are so family-connected, and in a rural setting that is so different from where they end up in a college. For some it’s too much change. Many get homesick and leave.”
Hogner, who attended Northeastern State the year after Gipson and his team captured the 2003 national championship, suggested the school to Sequoyah and sent Gipson some film.
“Honestly I didn’t know he existed but I liked what I saw on film,” Gipson said.
Sequoyah felt the same about his view.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in the summer in Oklahoma,” he said, referring to family in Colcord and Jay, just north of Tahlequah. “It felt right.”
He bears the surname of the father of the Cherokee Nation and perhaps, in a sense, it is home — Tahlequah being the capital of the Cherokee nation.
“It’s an opportunity to play in front of my people and hopefully make them proud,” he said.
No signs of homesickness there.
“You never know,” Gipson said. “With any freshman there’s a learning curve and it’s impossible to predict how they’ll adapt to the changes — new coaches, being away from home.
“But in visiting with him and watching the NBA playoffs with him while he was here, I noticed how he pays attention and makes good observations on what he’s seeing. He’s definitely an intelligent player, I saw that for sure.”
Sequoyah was raised by his grandmother, Brenda, and her husband Gary from the day his birth mother, Melissa Welch, was killed in a car accident when he was 2. Brenda Sequoyah said when her grandson was born he fit into a pair of Air Jordans for infants.
“I said they would be too big but they fit,” she said. “He got a Fisher Price backboard when he was 3. He’d stand in front of it and shoot and shoot and shoot.”
Sequoyah gets his inspiration from the play of San Antonio Spurs center Tim Duncan.
“I’ve always been amazed at how easily he works around the post,” he said.
He knows that the bulk of Gipson’s roster which is coming off a dismal 5-20 campaign ranges from 6-2 to 6-5 — a sign that Sequoyah could become Gipson’s Duncan.
“He got there by working hard. I know I’ve got to do that,” Sequoyah said of his idol. “I feel good about being able to go down there and contribute but it’s not like I don’t have to go and work hard. I still have to prove myself.”
Hogner describes Sequoyah as “a quiet kid who doesn’t do anything flashy and won’t do anything flashy.”
Not to say that’s a negative.
“He just does what he has to do and does it to the best of his ability,” Hogner said. “I haven’t coached a kid who works as hard as he does and he doesn’t hesitate to work on his own.
“He really didn’t have anyone working with him on post skills until the ninth grade. If someone had a move, he didn’t have a countermove. He was the tallest player in our conference but against kids his own size he always showed up and had big games.
“He’s got quick feet, but once he gets some confidence in that quickness and how to use it, well, that lack of confidence is that part of his game is probably his only drawback.”
Hogner has little doubt that Sequoyah will live up to his self-expectations.
“I really believe this about him because I’ve seen it,” Hogner said. “He’s one of the few kids who understands by going away to college, he has a lot of weight on his shoulders. He doesn’t want to fit into that stereotype he’s heard so much about.”
TsaLiDi Sequoyah feels he has something to prove.
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