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Utes’ Alissa Pili represents Native Alaskan ethnicity with pride
(Credit: Utah Athletics)

Utes’ Alissa Pili represents Native Alaskan ethnicity with pride

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (BVM) – Following the Utah Utes women’s basketball victory over the Arizona State Sun Devils on Friday night, star forward Alissa Pili was swarmed by a large group of fans. Pili graciously stayed as long as she could, signing autographs and taking pictures with whomever approached her. The fans and the superstar were tied together by one common thread–they are all of Indigenous descent and the crowd of supporters came just to see one of their own shine on the basketball court.

“I had a lot of people ask me if I knew who these people were and I didn’t,” Pili said. “It was just a bunch of indigenous people who take pride in my background. The people in the culture take pride in that. So to be that role model for all those young kids and young women looking up to me it’s just a great feeling and I carry that with pride. I’m just blessed to be in that position to inspire other people.”

Pili is a rare combination of two different races, both of which have large support systems.

“I am Samoan and Alaska native,” Pili said. “My dad is Samoan and the two cultures are very similar in the sense that the people take pride, big pride in the whole culture and tradition and things like that. I grew up around a bunch of traditions that were very unique to me and my family. I think my background overall is pretty different from a lot of other athletes.”

Indeed, there are not many basketball players who can claim the same diverse blend of cultures as Pili can. According to the NCAA Demographics Database, only 31 D-I women’s basketball student-athletes are considered Pacific Islander/Native Hawaiian while only 17 claim to be American Indian or Alaskan native. So for Pili to see that big of a crowd of people, especially at an away game, meant a lot.

“It felt good,” Pili said. “To have that support there definitely kind of opened my eyes to the fact that I have supporters from all around the world really. It was a great feeling to have all that support.”

Having a large support system is nothing new for Pili. Though she grew up in the small Alaskan town of Utqiagvik, Alaska, with a population of roughly 5,000, Pili and her eight siblings were surrounded by family and friends who all showed their love and affection for one another.

“The community is very close-knit, everybody knows everybody,” Pili said. “I was surrounded by nothing but love and support. It was a very unique experience in the sense that it is honestly such a tight-knit community where the support and love is through the roof so I was super grateful to grow up in that kind of atmosphere.”

That large support network showed up in droves for Pili when the Utes made their way to Alaska to play in the Great Alaska Shootout, which the team would win. For Pili, it was the first time in her college career that she was able to play in front of her home state crowd.

“It was very fun, it was a great experience. I think it was a once-in-a-lifetime type of deal.” Pili said. “There were a bunch of people at the game, and a majority of that was my family, so to play on the court where I won state championships and such I think it was a cool full circle moment for me and my hometown and my family to see me play my senior year of college. It was overall a great experience.”

Of course, with so many friends and family in the stands, it was hardly like a basketball tournament for Pili.

“It was kind of like a reunion,” Pili said. “To see all the people that came out to support me, it kind of just filled my heart with joy. I was just super appreciative of the support they were showing me.”

Pili has carried on the traditions and customs of her culture in her day-to-day life. With being so far from home and with the added stressors of being a standout student-athlete, Pili makes sure to lean on her culture and faith to help get her through her difficulties. She even implements her family-first attitude in the Utah locker room.

“Definitely just my belief in God first and foremost. College, especially being an athlete, is super tough so having that spiritual side and to lean into that has definitely helped me through tough times,” Pili said. “Something else is family and being so family oriented and being a caring person and being a giving person. It’s something that I use with any team I’m on and the people I surround myself with.”

Given the rarity of having a person of her background in professional sports, Pili didn’t have many athletes she looked up to growing up. Instead, she looked up to someone a bit closer to home. Actually, it was someone in the home.

“Honestly, when I was younger, like I said Alaska is super isolated from the rest of the world so I didn’t grow up watching pro athletes or anything like that, but I had an older brother who kind of paved the way for all of us and somebody to look up to.”

Brandon Pili, Alissa’s older brother, has made a name for himself as an athlete as well. The former Dimond High School football star became USC’s first-ever football letterman from Alaska. This fall, Brandon officially became an NFL player after he made the Miami Dolphins’ 53-man roster as an undrafted free agent.

Brandon Pili Miami Dolphins football
Aug 19, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Brandon Pili on the sidelines before playing against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. (Credit: Thomas Shea/USA TODAY Sports)

Alissa hopes she will be the next member of the Pili family to make it to the pros in their respective sport and knows how significant it would be to have another Alaskan native at the highest level of athletics.

“It would mean everything. It’s been a lifelong goal of mine,” Alissa said. “My brother has been there every step of the way, believed in me, pushed me to be better and all that. For both of us to play at the highest level of our profession I think would make our family proud and make our parents proud and that’s all we want at the end of the day.”

Now, it is Alissa’s turn to play the inspirational athlete. As one of the top scorers in women’s college basketball and a returning conference player of the year and champion, Alissa has grabbed plenty of national headlines. These have made their way into the Indigenous communities where people of a similar background now see Alissa as someone they can look up to. Alissa holds that honor with great pride.

“It means the world to me,” Alissa said. “I’ve had people come up to me, so many people of my background tell me they look up to me as a role model and inspiration for them to achieve the goals they have set for themselves. So to have that impact on so many people’s lives, people I don’t even know, is very powerful and something that I don’t take lightly. I definitely try to use my platform to the best of my ability to keep putting it on for my people.”

Alissa Pili Utah Utes Great Alaskan Shootout
(Credit: Utah Athletics)

While she still has the rest of her senior season before she attempts a WNBA career, Alissa had some words of wisdom for those Indigenous fans who aspire to be a successful athlete like she is one day.

“I would say to work hard, be determined and not let any outside noise affect what you think about yourself and affect your journey and do what you want to do,” Alissa said. “There’s a lot of outside noise that could affect people and I think once you look past that and you have a belief in yourself and have a good support system everything will work out in your favor.”

With a world of support from Utah to Alaska and beyond, Alissa has become one of the most recognizable and beloved athletes in the Indigenous community. With her impressive on-court performances and humble attitude off the court, Alissa will continue to make her culture and community proud for years to come.