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George Ferguson Column: Native American Hall of Fame class brings back memories

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December 18, 2014



The Native American Classic basketball tournament is a special, annual event in Havre. It’s one of the best gatherings of high school basketball teams on opening weekend of each season anywhere in the state.

And the 2014 edition of the NAC, played last weekend at the Armory Gymnasium was no different. Great basketball, great players, great fans … the NAC is simply, great.

But there’s was an addition to this year’s NAC that made the event even more special. And it’s one that took me back to my own high school days … which were, I’m sad to say, a long time ago.

Last Friday, 10 Montana’s were inducted into the Montana Indian Athletic Hall of Fame during the NAC at MSU-Northern. It’s a high honor, and this year’s class held some special, and some painful, memories for me.

First, former Box Elder girls basketball standout LeAnn Montes went into the Hall of Fame last week, and deservedly so. Less than a year after the Box Elder boys captured their first state championship in two decades, Montes was honored for leading the Lady Bears to the 1998 Class C state title. It was Box Elder’s first, and only state championship in girls basketball, and Montes was the star.

I remember that Box Elder team, and I clearly remember watching Montes’ ability to move the ball so effortlessly. Her ball-handling skills were unparalleled at the level, and she always had a knack for making the right play, at the right time.

But Montes’ achievements on the basketball court pale in comparison to her achievements off of it. While she went on to have a standout career for the famed University of Montana Lady Griz, under legendary head coach Robin Selvig, what Montes should be most revered for is her perseverance and her contributions to her community — contributions that extend far beyond the game of basketball.

After graduating from UM with degrees in business administration and in management and marketing, she went on to the University of New Mexico School of Law. In 2006 she received her law degree, and currently serves as Attorney General for the Chippewa Cree Tribe on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation.

Today, Montes serves as a role model for Native American students, not only for what they can achieve in the athletic arena, but as an individual who persevered in the face of significant personal challenges. The importance of academics is something Montes has emphasized throughout her career as a women's basketball coach, as she currently serves as women’s head coach at Stone Child College.

And while basketball is a way of life at Rocky Boy and other reservations across Montana, Montes is a shining example of how basketball can be an avenue, an avenue to success and importance off the court. There are examples like Montes all over Montana, but she is Rocky Boy’s example. She is the role model, she set the standard, and I think it’s just as important to know LeAnn for those things as it is to remember her for the great basketball player she was and probably still is.

But Montes wasn’t the only inductee to the Montana Indian Athletic Hall of Fame who stirred my emotions and sparked my fading memory.

Colstrip’s Kenny Big Back was also inducted last Friday, and while he is one of the most revered multi-sport athletes in recent Montana Native American history, and rightfully so, my memories of Big Back are more like nightmares.

Most Havre High fans remember the 1990-91 school year as the year of Blue Pony boys basketball. But many should also know that the Blue Pony football team went a perfect 8-0 during that magical fall, running all over the Central A Conference on their way to the top ranking in Class A.

The stage was set for a real run at an elusive football state title and the Ponies were loaded with talent, just like they were that winter on the basketball court. And then comes Big Back, and he tore it all down.

In the first round of the Class A playoffs, in front of a huge crowd at Blue Pony Stadium, Big Back ran wild on the Blue Pony defense, and in the end carried Colstrip to a stunning upset of the Ponies. Literally, Kenny Big Back carried the Colts on his back, and left me, a sophomore at the time, in tears. My dreams of watching my school win a state championship in football were over, and it was all Kenny Big Back’s fault.

Big Back went on to play basketball at Rocky Mountain College, and he had a fine career. In fact, I have no doubt he tortured Havre some more when he played against the Lights. In all the great things Kenny Big Back did on the football and basketball court, he certainly was a thorn in Havre’s side.

But, as time went on, and I got over that heartbreaking October day when Big Back romped up and down the turf at Blue Pony Stadium, I realized how lucky I actually was to be there. First, I was lucky I wasn’t good enough, or big enough to even be on the field with a dude like Big Back. But more importantly, I was lucky I got to see him play. I’m lucky I’m able to say I got to see Kenny Big Back do his thing on the football field. Because Kenny Big Back was that special. And now I’m not bitter. Now I’m just glad I got to see a living legend when he was in the prime of his sports life.

In fact, there are so many things that are special about the 2014 Montana Native American Hall of Fame class. From Big Back to Montes, to Harlem’s Rick Has the Pipe (track), to Tamara Gardipee of Browning, who was a force against the Havre Blue Ponies on the basketball court more times than I can count, this class had a lot of local ties, and it was fitting, that this special group of people, shared a special day in their lives, with the Havre community.

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