Sports history is full of “famous firsts.”
Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play in the major leagues, in 1947.
Brazilian soccer player Pelé became the first player to score 1,000 career goals, in 1969.
And the UConn women’s basketball team became the first club in sports history to win 90 straight games, in 2010.
But when UB graduate student and women’s basketball player Summer Hemphill became the first member of the Seneca Nation to receive a full Division I athletic scholarship back in 2016, she made history in her own right.
Hemphill, who is half-Black and half-Native American, is a member of the Seneca Nation, a sect of the Haudenosaunee Six Nations Confederacy and the largest of six Native American nations in New York State. She says that while she loves playing basketball, her biggest source of pride is being able to represent her community on a bigger stage.
“I play to represent my family and myself, the university that gave me this opportunity, and this city where I’m from,” Hemphill said. “And to just be a great player. I’m thankful to be in this position today and I’m going to continue to get better.”
As a freshman in 2016, Hemphill says she didn’t have much exposure to Native American studies or students at UB, so she went to the Native American Resource Center in Rochester to learn more about her heritage.
But now, in her sixth year at UB, she says she is seeing “progress” — albeit slowly — from the school and was finally able to enroll in a Native American course, AMS 197, about the Seneca language.
“This semester, I’m actually enrolled in a Seneca language learning course through UB,” Hemphill said. “I feel like UB has made some progress since I first came here, and I feel like we aren’t done yet. As a university in Western New York, I feel like we have a long way to go to honor the tribes that live here.”
UB operates on land that originally belonged to the Seneca Nation and is covered by The Dish with One Spoon Treaty of Peace and Friendship, a compact to share and care for the Great Lake resources. The region is still home to the Haudenosaunee people to this day.
Hemphill’s grandfather was a fluent Seneca speaker. The traditions flow through the elders, and her grandfather’s passing in 2012 inspired her to educate herself of her heritage and pass it on to younger generations.
Since 2018, the number of enrolled Native American students at UB has hardly increased — from 12 in 2018 to 15 in 2019 to 16 in 2020 — but Hemphill is glad to have the chance to see fellow Native Americans on campus.
“You go to campus and see all types of different people, and with Native Americans being such a small minority, I feel like we’re often ignored,” Hemphill said. “If I could see another Native while on campus, I would feel joyful, especially because of my major.”
Hemphill, a graduate student, majored in sociology for her undergraduate studies and has learned extensively about racial and ethnic disparities. She says disparities exist in all facets of life for minorities, but especially when it comes to quality education.
“I see so many disparities with schooling regarding minorities,” Hemphill said. “Our chances of being college and high school graduates is not the highest, and to see the progress that we’ve made and UB has made, it’s amazing and means the most to me.”
Native Americans often have to deal with negative racial stereotypes and myths. Hemphill says she has never felt ostracized for being a member of the Seneca Nation, but that she prides herself in educating others on her heritage every chance she gets.
“I take it upon myself to educate others on who I am and where I come from,” Hemphill said. “People don’t really know what’s offensive to us or what isn’t. I take pride in that and for the people who choose to ignore us still, that’s on them. I can’t blame people for something they don’t know.”
Hemphill, a six-foot-one forward, had an interesting path to the sport.
She didn’t play competitive basketball until she was 12 but dabbled in nearly everything else, including tee-ball, softball, volleyball and track and field.
As a kid, she even begged her father to let her play football and was able to play quarterback in the neighborhood streets with her brothers.
But, once she picked up a basketball, everything changed. The more she practiced, the better she got, both offensively and defensively. In her senior year of high school, Hemphill averaged a double-double — 16 points and 10 rebounds — to go along with 3.1 steals per contest. She led Tonawanda’s Cardinal O’Hara Hawks to a 23-3 record and the Monsignor Martin Association Championship.
Hemphill was named All-Catholic Player of the Year and the Pastor Cooper Tournament MVP for her efforts. Coming out of high school, she was rated a three-star recruit with an 88 scout grade by ESPN, which caught the attention of UB women’s basketball head coach Felisha Legette-Jack.
“I saw her in the gym while I was watching my son finish up his game and I just stopped and stared,” Legette-Jack said. “You could just tell she was an athlete. There was something about her focus that drew me in and I’m blessed to be the recipient of her blessing and that we were able to offer a scholarship.”
After committing to UB, Hemphill had a big decision to make: what jersey number she would wear. Jersey numbers stick and people tend to remember the legacy associated with that number.
Hemphill, long an underdog, chose the number ‘zero’.
“When I got out of high school, zero was not a popular number. The only major athlete at the time was [NBA star] Russell Westbrook, but I didn’t wear it because of him,” Hemphill said. “I liked zero because no one really cared about it. People always forget the fact that when you start counting, you never mention zero. It’s always ‘1-2-3’ not ‘0-1-2-3.’”
Legette-Jack says Hemphill is the ultimate teammate and that her duties as head coach are lighter when Hemphill is on the floor.
“She’s a great teammate,” Jack said. “She’s like a mother hen that sits back and watches her babies. If someone around her needs help, she’s there. She’s the caretaker and if someone needs somebody to talk to, it’s her.”
It’s easy to lose focus in big moments, even for Hemphill. But Legette-Jack believes her passion and fire makes her a stellar teammate and a terrific competitor.
“She has this calm tone where everyone knows she’s locked in,” Legette-Jack said. “She plays with so much passion and ferocity. She wants to win and will call out any areas of improvement the team can make. But when you get someone like her out there on a consistent basis, winning is inevitable and that’s what we’ve done these past few seasons.”
Hunter Skoczylas is the assistant sports editor and can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @HunterSkoczylas
Hunter Skoczylas is the assistant sports editor for The Spectrum. In his free time, he can be found looking up random sports statistics, posting memes on Twitter, and dedicating his Sunday afternoons to watching the Buffalo Bills.