TROY – Caitlyn Ramirez grew up searching for a role model. Instead, she grew up to be one.
The former Troy University women’s basketball player is one of the faces for Nike’s N7 line of shoes and gear like shirts, shorts and other active wear. The N7 line is a campaign designed for indigenous athletes – Native American athletes and tribal members.
Caitlyn Ramirez, a 6-foot-2 center from Shawnee, Okla., and a 2017 Troy graduate, is a Native American who is proud of her heritage in the Seminole tribe of Oklahoma deer clan. She is who N7 looks for.
“The N7 Foundation provides millions of dollars in grants to build facilities in communities that don’t have them,” Ramirez said. “Kids are able to get a basketball and just go play.
“I actually played in a few of those N7 Foundation gyms when I played in the World Indigenous Tournament in Vancouver in 2017. They had an N7 facility. It was nice to practice and play in. Nike wants to get kids involved in playing and moving. They don’t want you to be another statistic with alcoholism or suicide.”
Ramirez, Jude Schimmel of Louisville and Michael Linklater, a member of the Canada’s 3-on-3 national basketball team, flew to Venice Beach, Calif., in March for three days of photo shoots, interviews and basketball as part of the N7 campaign.
“It was as lot of fun. It was Venice Beach. It was cold over there, by the way,” she said. “I was in shorts and I was like, ‘I should have bought a jacket.’ We did a lot of the stuff at 5 a.m. each day.”
Ramirez was a better match for N7 than anybody knew. The daughter of Michelle and Rosendo Ramirez grew up in a sports-oriented family.
“Every weekend we’re playing volleyball, horseshoes, softball,” she said. “They still play softball to this day. Every summer I go home and I’m in a softball tournament every weekend, which I love it. It’s great family time. I’ve always grown up in sports.”
She liked basketball, even if resources were limited.
“All I had was a backboard – a backboard, a rim, no net and I’m playing on the dirt in the backyard of my grandmother’s house,” Ramirez said. “That’s how I grew up playing and that’s all I knew. My defense was the potholes in the ground. It’s not like my parents could afford to send me to a gym every day or to the camps.”
She signed with the Spanish team Cadi La Seu shortly after graduating from Troy. Throughout her time as a professional, and at her own expense, she has written encouraging notes and letters to young people she’s never met in this country.
“When I was in Spain, I wrote over 200 letters to kids back in my community, Montana, Mississippi, Michigan,” Ramirez said. “I thought I’ve made it this far on this platform. I played in the NCAA Tournament – not far, we didn’t make it far, but I was there.
“Here I am, a native American athlete playing against these WNBA players, playing against these European professionals. Why can’t I tell others that they can do it also? That’s where my letters tied in to give back.”
Her letters – she wrote more than 200 to teens she heard about who might or might not be having a hard time – just encouraging them to follow their passions.
“What I did was include an autographed picture, put the letter in, put a scripture verse in and put a motivational quote on there. Every letter was always different. They were never the same,” Ramirez said. “It was a way of connecting with them.”
You get the idea that perhaps a 17-year-old Caitlyn Ramirez would have given anything to get that kind of encouragement.
“My mom’s an alcoholic and my dad, who was in law enforcement, passed away when I was 17,” she said. “That’s when it was hard.”
It got harder when, just before her senior season at Shawnee High, she tore an ACL. Her plan to attend Tulsa was dashed when her scholarship offer was pulled.
“I was like, ‘My world is over,’” she said. “That’s why I struggled so much. But that’s life. Things happen to knock you down. I just continued to pick myself up.”
She wasn’t even sure she should pursue basketball after high school. Her high school coach told her she had talent. She enrolled at Tyler (Texas) Junior College, taking an academic redshirt year the first season. When she got herself eligible and played, it didn’t take long for coaches to see her talent – even when they weren’t looking for her specifically.
That’s how she wound up at Troy, quite by accident. Troy assistant Courtney Simmons was at a summer showcase and wasn’t working, but had plans to meet a friend who was at the University of Arizona. Simmons saw Ramirez.
“She was like, forget Arizona, I want you to come play at Troy,” Ramirez recalled. “She never let up. I took a visit out here. It’s a great school. I fell in love with their arena. That’s where you’re going to spend the majority of your time, and it’s absolutely beautiful there.”
She was a Trojan – and a great one. She was a two-time All-Sun Belt selection and helped the program win consecutive Sun Belt Conference titles. She averaged 10.5 points and 7.1 rebounds for her career.
“I’ve met great friends here, there are great resources, had an amazing career here,” she said. “Why not stick around a little bit more?”
Her game, even after the ACL injury, was in line with Troy coach Chanda Rigby’s preferred frenetic pace.
“That’s kind of where the style of the N7 ties into it,” Ramirez said. “It’s kind of how you grow up playing. It’s what you play into. We call it ‘Rez Ball,’ because it’s like who can score the most in this amount of time. That’s kind of what I grew up playing – in high school, at my JUCO and Troy.”
When her rookie pro season ended in Spain, she went home to Oklahoma and started speaking at schools, telling her story in and around Shawnee. Eventually, word of her selflessness spread. “That’s the girl who talked at our school.”
“That’s the girl that is sending all those letters.”
Natalie Welch of Knoxville, Tenn., learned about Ramirez and contacted her in the middle of the night after she had returned for her second pro season, this time in Israel.
“I had an offer to go back to Spain, but I decided if I’m going to travel the world, I want to go somewhere else,” Ramirez said.
Welch was working on her PhD dissertation on Native American athletes wanting to be involved in their community. She sent Ramirez a series of questions and the athlete recorded her answers and sent them back.
When Welch presented her project, Izzy Yasana, who works for N7, was in the audience. After that presentation, Yasana pressed Welch for information on Ramirez.
When Welch emailed Ramirez to see if she could give Yasana her contact information, the player replied, “Yes, please do.”
Things moved quickly.
“It’s just been a whirlwind of crazy emotions,” Ramirez said. “This is what I’ve wanted since I was little. You would see commercials and wonder, ‘What do I need to do to be on TV?’”
The photo shoots and video have been compiled. Ramirez said the campaign is just beginning. She’s looking forward to it, but not from a “me” standpoint.
“It’s setting a goal for other kids,” she said. “I’m from Shawnee, Oklahoma. I want to be a role model for kids who don’t have a role model. Growing up, I didn’t have that. I want to be that for somebody. Hopefully, I’m doing that for somebody – even if it’s just one person, I’m fine with that.”
She’s got a different season coming up. Her pro basketball career is over. She turns 25 on Friday.
She’s been working out for her next career, too. She’s putting her criminal justice degree to work.
“I report this Sunday to the Academy this Sunday in Selma and I’ll be there for six months training to be a state trooper for the state of Alabama,” Ramirez said. “I’ll be working within Pike County, as well, so I’ll move right back down here.”
Her tentative graduation is December 3.
“That’s definitely a date to remember,” Ramirez said. “It’s been a very, very long process – from the written exam to the polygraph exam, it’s been a process.”
It’s one she’s prepared for.