March 10, 2011
By David Boyce
Moments after celebrating with her teammates, Gabby Curtis walked to the stands and started hugging family members.
One of the nets from Municipal Auditorium hung around her neck. Nothing could wipe away the smile and the happiness in Curtis' voice as the family rejoiced in Northwest Missouri State women's basketball team winning the MIAA Tournament.
It's a scene that's played out by countless basketball players at all levels in college throughout March.
The ceremonial cutting down of the nets after winning a title and, for some players, the wearing of the net as if it's a permanent part of the wardrobe, represents so much for so many players.
Almost without exception, the story of going through ups and downs after leaving high school and maturing into a young woman or young man is poignant and remarkable.
This is Gabby Curtis' story - rising to MIAA Player of the Year and becoming a key cog in the Bearcats championship season.
Oh, there are chapters left in the Northwest portion of her life. The next one begins 2:30 p.m. Friday in Tahlequah, Okla. when No. 2 seed Northwest, 25-4, takes on Texas Women's, 22-10, in the South Central Regional quarterfinals.
Curtis arrived at Northwest in 2009 after spending two years at Cowley County Community College.
Her background was unique for Coach Gene Steinmeyer.
"I've coached Native Americans before but never one who grew up on a reservation," Steinmeyer said.
Curtis spent the first 18 years of her life living on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona.
People who live in small towns can somewhat relate. Her mom, Mildred McNabb and stepfather, Chris McNabb, said the reservation was very rural.
"We had to drive 30 minutes to get to a small store to get groceries and another two hours to get to the nearest Wal-Mart," Mildred said.
The bond of family members was strong because of the isolation.
"It's one small place where everybody knows each other or everybody is related in some kind of way," Curtis said. "Growing up there taught me a lot because we didn't have as much as people out here.
"It taught me how to grow up more and how to survive more. I just grew up around my family. I didn't have many friends until I got to middle school and high school. I always relied on my family. They are my backbone."
The current Northwest players can see how much family means to Curtis.
"I know her family comes in flocks when they do come," junior Shelly Martin said. "They are the nicest people I've met. They are really family oriented. I love that."
Besides her mom, stepdad, little brother and little sister, two of Curtis' aunts were at Municipal Auditorium for the MIAA Tournament. The two aunts still live in Arizona.
"I'm glad they watched me play," Curtis said. "It's a long drive out here. They are driving back tonight because they have to go to work Monday - 17 hours back and go to work."
That's devotion. There are many more at the Navajo Reservation who follow her college basketball career.
Curtis was a star high school player at Ganado High School. She led her team to the 3A state title in 2007. She was named Navajo Times Player of the Year and made the 3A All-State first team.
It was during her senior year in high school that she realized basketball could take her to a new life beyond the Navajo Reservation.
"It really brightened my future and career," she said. "I really didn't think about it as a future for me. My family talked to me that I had the talent. I took it. I tried my best and worked really hard every day. My family was there to push me."
When Curtis left for Cowley County in Kansas, her parents and younger brother and sister moved to Manhattan, Kan.
It gave them a much better opportunity to watch Curtis grow as a player and a student.
"Gabby is one of the most unusual cases I've ever had," Steinmeyer said. "We recruited her thinking she could be a good player. She became a great player.
"We recruited her thinking we might have an average student, and found out we have an excellent student.
"Her GPA isn't through the roof, but I will give you an example of how she turned it around. She did poorly in a math class last year and she's doing much better in math class this year.
"She just turned it around. She doesn't skip classes. She's really become a complete person. The No. 1 thing you have to remember about this is her mother deserves all the credit."
Plus, her stepdad is a biology teacher who taught on the Navajo Reservation for 10 years. Education is important.
"I became more focused during the summer when I was working out with my family," Curtis said. "My mom and I were always talking. She was saying this is your last year playing basketball. She said you got to lead the team. I was like, ‘yeah.' She looked back at my grades and kind of got mad at me. She got me back in shape with my grades.
"When classes started I said I'm going to settle down and really focus on school and basketball and nothing else and that's what I've been doing so far. It has been paying off.
"But these last two weeks, I have a lot of catching up to do."
Those statements show how much Curtis wants to please the people around her and also her sense of humor.
"Gabby is quiet but goofy," Martin said. "She doesn't come across as being talkative, but when you get to know her she can joke around pretty good. I've been rooming with her the last couple of days at the MIAA Tournament so I know that for a fact.
"She will try to act really serious when something is really funny and then start laughing later."
On the serious side, Curtis wants to be an example to younger children on the reservation about all the possibilities that are out there. She knows they are watching and following her.
"People down there look up to her because she is doing big things. She's their hero," senior Gentry Dietz said.
That can be a lot of pressure for somebody leaving their teens and entering adulthood.
Curtis doesn't back away from it.
"Yes, I'm a big role model to people back on the reservation, especially younger age and especially my little brother and sister," she said. "They look up to me. My little sister is always telling me, ‘I'm going to play basketball just like you.' I tell her she is going to be 10 times better than me.
"It does put a bunch of weight on me, but at the same time I take that and respect that. I'm hoping the younger generation on the reservation will read about me and how far I came and where I came from. They can take it in and say, ‘if Gabby can do it, then I can do it.' I want them to see there is another world beyond the reservation. It's sometime I really like."
Her Navajo culture, though, still means a lot to Curtis. She was moved emotionally on senior night when the Navajo National Anthem was played at her last home game in Bearcat Arena.
"I'm very grateful they took the time to do that to play that part of my culture. It was an honor and I thanked them for that," she said.
"When they played the Navajo Anthem I looked at my mom and she was so emotional. Hearing that song gets us so emotional and pumped up. I was thinking about being back on the reservation with my family. It really brought back a lot of memories being back on a reservation."
Curtis simply couldn't ask for a better way to conclude her college basketball career.
She enjoys being around her teammates even when she doesn't understand everything they are talking about.
"They have inside jokes I really don't know about," Curtis said. "They are all from Nebraska. They all played with each other or against each other. Me, being from Arizona, I'm sitting on the side saying, ‘yeah' and laughing with them, but I have no clue what they are talking about.
"But they are good people. I'm with them 24/7 and they are part of my family."
There is only one thing that Martin and Abby Henry will not be able to do and that is to convince Curtis of the greatness of pop singer Justin Bieber.
"I'm trying to convert her," Martin said.
It likely won't ever happen.
"Shelly was in the room singing all these Bieber songs and it was time to put my headphones on. I don't have the fever for him," Curtis said.
That's probably the most outward dissension you will find from these Bearcats. Winning is all they care about.
"It is such a rare thing to win championships and be surrounded by such great athletes. They all get along so well and play together so well. There is no drama. It's just a fun experience," said Chris McNabb.
So it is easy to understand why Curtis relished every second of celebration after the Bearcats won the MIAA Tournament. Her journey to that moment was filled with so much love from so many people.
"It really does mean a lot, especially with my family here. I'm so happy. It reminds me when we won the state championship in high school. They gave me the net and I wore it, also. I'm wearing this net with pride and joy," Curtis said.
Her actions make her the pride and joy for so many other people.
"I'm so proud of her," Mildred McNabb said. "She has come a long ways since growing up on a reservation. We exposed her to two cultures. It's just really amazing."
David Boyce spent more than 20 years covering high school and small college athletics at the Kansas City Star newspaper in Missouri. He's covered six of Northwest Missouri State's seven national championship football games and recently served as a guest columnist for the MIAA.
Boyce was named KIAAA Sportswriter of the Year in 1994. He covered boxing at the Star from 1991-2004 including Tommy Morrison and worked both championship fights between Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis. His 1997 exclusive story on Morrison becoming HIV positive was named an Associated Press Sports Editor top 10 feature for papers serving more than 150,000.
Boyce was born in New York City and was raised in Kansas City, Kan. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 1988 with a degree in journalism. He is currently one of three official scorers for the Kansas City Royals and is a contributing writer for the Royals Gameday magazine.
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