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Hoop madness, Indian style

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HELENA, Mont. ? Indian Country doesn't need the NCAA to go mad about basketball. High school teams from Navajoland to Montana reservations have been bringing home state championships.

Maybe the most dramatic outbreak of enthusiasm hit the Fort Belknap and Blackfeet Indian reservations in Montana where teams recently swept all the state's final boys' basketball tournaments.

At the Class C level, the Hays-Lodgepole Thunderbirds, based on the Fort Belknap Reservation, grabbed their first-ever state title March 9 in a 90-71 win over the Blackfeet Reservation's Heart Butte Warriors. The Warriors were defending their first-place berth from the 2000 and 2001 Class C competitions.

"We're still kind of in a dream," said Hays-Lodgepole school employee Michael Morin, whose brother Ken is the team's assistant coach. "We waited 27 years for something like this. It's really been an experience."

The Harlem Wildcats, another team from Fort Belknap, took the Class B boys' state title over the Fort Peck Reservation's Wolf Point Wolves at the same time. The Wildcats, led by Coach Cal Bigby, beat the Wolves at the final tournament buzzer by a score of 69-67. It was also the first time the Wildcats won a state title.

"I think it's been awesome," says Harlem Athletic Director Erin Eaton. "You couldn't have asked for anything better. Basketball is a big thing here for our families. It couldn't have happened to a better bunch of guys. I couldn't be happier for them. They're not arrogant at all."

Morin says, however, that having two Fort Belknap teams in final competitions made it tough for reservation fans. They had to decide which tournament to attend since the contests were held on the same weekend in different Montana cities. Everyone came together after the championship, though, and miles-long caravans of vehicles escorted the teams back to their hometowns after the wins.

"These kids were really focused," Morin says of the Hays-Lodgepole players, who are coached by Shawn Backbone. "They were very serious and had their sights on the championship. They were very disciplined. Most of them have been playing together since junior high. Before, people never took us seriously. Now people know we're something to be reckoned with."

Meanwhile, Browning High School, led by Coach Ray Augare, won its second Class A state boys' basketball championship in a row on Feb. 23. The Indians, based on the Blackfeet Reservation, routed the Flathead Reservation's Ronan Chiefs 80-62.

"It's great," says team member Alvin Little Owl, a junior who also played on Browning's 2001 squad. "It's great to play with such a great team. Everyone is really supportive. It really feels good to be the best in Montana."

"It's really good," adds Mike Chavez, who helped lead Heart Butte to statewide wins for two years before transferring to Browning High School as a senior. "It helps the reservation look good."

Chavez, who recently signed on with the University of Montana's basketball team, says he believes that being a positive role model helps other reservation students.

"Every one of our games was sold out," he notes. "It's good motivation for the younger kids to stay good and out of trouble."

"Winning brings respect in the community and throughout the state," observes Leo Bullchild, who marked his second year on the winning Browning team. "The community was pretty hyped. They pretty much packed the gym to see us."

All of this year's wins were marked by community-wide celebrations, parades and victory dances. Hundreds of residents came out of their homes in the cold winter air to cheer their heroes in Browning, Harlem, Hays and Lodgepole.

"The whole reservation was behind these kids," says Morin. "As a result, they brought it home. It's something else. It's still something else."

In New Mexico, meanwhile, the Navajo girls of the Shiprock Lady Chieftains brought home a Class AAA state championship for the first time in 10 years. The Lady Chieftains won on the Bob King Court at the University of New Mexico's Pit, named for the legendary UNM coach who is the father of their own head coach Larry King.