The first class of inductees entered the Montana Indian Athlete Hall of Fame on Friday night.
The hall of fame is brainchild of Don Wetzel Sr., a former Browning and University of Montana standout and coach, who with his father decided that Montana’s standout American Indian athletes needed recognized.
Most of the seven inductees were all-round athletes, but each was a standout on the basketball court. They told stories of shooting at small hoops, some just 6 inches in diameter, that were usually nailed to trees or shed walls.
“That’s why we’re good dribblers, we gotta dribble around all those rocks,” inductee Pete Conway said during Friday’s ceremony, which was held during the Native Holiday Classic basketball tournament at MetraPark Arena.
Some of those athletes are now elders – who have great-grandchildren are carrying on their sports traditions – and their talents needed to be recognized soon, Wetzel said. Wetzel is one of three American Indians in the Montana High School Association Hall of Fame along with Willie Weeks and Larry Pretty Weasel, who is in the first class of inductees.
Among the aging inductees are Louie Longee and Philip Red Eagle, both members of the Fort Peck Assiniboine-Sioux Tribes. Both in their early 90s, the men were childhood friends at Indian school and went on to play high school basketball together. They won state championships in 1936 and 1938.
“I thought that they forgot about me out there,” Wetzel said Longee told him.
Longee, who lives in Yakima, Washington didn’t attending the Billings ceremony, but he and his wife, Winona, sent a video and thanked Wetzel. Many of their family from Yakima and many from Fort Peck attended. The Fort Peck relatives brought a star quilt to send back to Yakima and the tribe sent a cash contribution to honor Longee. Tribal Chairman Rusty Stafne also presented an honor check to Red Eagle.
Red Eagle said it was a politician – he couldn’t recall which one – who got a gym for the Indian School where he and Longee attended.
“It was the best gym in the whole northwest,” he said. “That’s where we learned to play basketball.”
Red Eagle hasn’t lost any of his hometown hoops pride for Brockton and reminded the standing-room only crowd that during his high school years “Poplar only beat us once by one point and we beat them two times.”
In 1936, his senior year, the team was state champions. Now, he has great-grandchildren playing ball. “Good blood line,” Red Eagle said.
Here are highlights of the other Indian Athlete Hall of Fame inductees:
Malia Kipp, of Browning, was a divisional track record holder and all-state volleyball and basketball players all through high school. Her scoring and rebounding record – for both boys and girls – still stands at Browning High School. She attended the University of Montana on a scholarship and played Lady Griz basketball. All four years of her UM career, the Lady Griz won the Big Sky Conference.
Kipp was an assistant coach for the women’s basketball team at Salish Kootenai College for two years. She is a nurse and instructor at Kicking Horse Job Corps Center.
Marvin Camel, of Ronan, was a was a quick-handed basketball player who started boxing and landed two world boxing championships in the cruiserweight division including the Boxing Council in 1980 and International Boxing Federation in 1983.
Sam Horn, who is Crow, was part of St. Labre’s 1977 state championship team.
“He’s so damn quiet,” Wetzel said.
But when Wetzel was researching the inductees, Horn’s presence was loud: “his name always headlined,” including a 43-point game. Horn was an All-American his senior year.
“He was a wicked player,” Wetzel said.
Horn also played football and competed in track.
“It’s about time they gave some credit where credit is due,” Horn said to a burst of laughter.
Horn’s sister, Joanie, recalled him hanging a hoop on a tree outside their grandma’s house and practicing until after dark. He worked all-year before athletes realized they had to keep practicing year-round, she said.
“He had a goal and he knew what to do,” she said. “He never quit until he reached that goal.”
Pete Conway got on the Browning high basketball team his senior year by one vote. He only tried out because he had a buddy who played and after making the first cut the coach put the final draft to a vote. Conway didn’t think he’d make it, even though he voted for himself, but he did.
Wetzel, who was a coach at the time, recalled that Conway was a left-handed center “we just couldn’t stop.”
When Conway came to Billings to attend Eastern Montana College, coach Mike Harkins – a legend in Yellowjacket hoops history – took Conway under his wing and he got on the college team and went All-American.
The lesson he said, is “if you’re willing to work hard, anything is possible.”
Conway, who is now director of the Indian Health Service’s Billings Area regional offices, called himself a “30-point guy” in junior high.
“Thirty points behind and the coach puts you in.” he said.
Conway said the honor of being in the hall of fame is enhanced by the opportunity to be a role model for younger people, on the court and off.
“Basketball has done great things for me,” Conway said. “But what I have is my education and my work ethic.”
Larry Pretty Weasel scored 148 points on four tournament games playing for Hardin High School and his individual game record, 48 points in 1957 at the Class A high school tourney, stood until 1984. Rocky Mountain College, where he was also a standout, has a scholarship in his name.
“If the three point line was in there at that time, it’s hard telling what he wouldve got,” Wetzel said.
Pretty Weasel is widely regarded as one of, or the, best Indian basketball players in Montana history.
“He’s a real legend in Indian basketball lore,” that Pretty Weasel was an amazing high-jumper – back in the days when the path was more difficult and jumpers landed in sand or sawdust – who could clear his height.
“God, he could jump,” Wetzel said.
Pretty Weasel said that helped in basketball, too. He used the backboard a lot – something you don’t see much now, but he got a lot of point off of tip-ins.