Lady Griz have two American Indian starters

Montana basketball players Tamara Guardipee, left, and Dana Conway
are photographed at the university on Friday, March 9, 2007, in Missoula, Mont. The two starters are both American Indians.
AP/Missoulian, Photo by Michael Gallacher

by Kim Briggeman
Missoula, Montana (AP)

Tamara Guardipee must have been in about first grade when Malia Kipp
left the Blackfeet Reservation 15 years ago to play basketball for
the Montana Lady Griz.

"She was kind of a big deal to me," Guardipee said. "I was saying,
like, I want to play Division I. So I made that my dream."
"Which," she added with a bashful grin, "I accomplished."

"That's kind of cool," Kipp said when Guardipee's words were
repeated. "It goes full circle. Now I'm looking up to her, in a way.
I really respect what she's doing. I tell my daughter: 'Watch that

Guardipee, just a sophomore, has started at center for Robin Selvig
and the University of Montana Lady Griz the past two seasons.


Kipp, a registered nurse, teaches at Kicking Horse Job Corps on the
Flathead Reservation. She and husband J.R. Camel, a former guard for
the Grizzlies, are assistant coaches for the Salish-Kootenai College
women's and men's teams, respectively.

In 1992, Kipp, a forward at UM, was Selvig's first recruit off a
Montana reservation. Six years later, forward Simarron Schildt,
another Blackfeet Reservation product from Browning High School,
followed her to Missoula and, ultimately, into the starting lineup.
Then came guard LeAnn Montes off the Rocky Boy's Reservation in
central Montana. Montes played a key role for the Lady Griz from
1999-2003 - the first three seasons alongside Schildt.

By the time the 6-foot-2 Guardipee showed up from Browning in 2004,
and popped up in the lineup a year later to lead the Big Sky
Conference in blocked shots, a roster dotted with contributing
American Indians was no big deal in Missoula.

"I think Rob does a great job of bringing the most out of them," said
Trish Duce, who played with Kipp and is in her 13th season as an
assistant at Montana. "It's been a comfortable place for them to come
and go to school."

Selvig may be the only coach in NCAA Division I basketball currently
starting two players with American Indian roots. Guard Dana Conway's
father, Pete, came off the Blackfeet Reservation to play basketball
at Eastern Montana College in Billings, where Conway grew up.

Mandy Morales, Conway's teammate at Billings West and now an
All-America candidate at UM, has more Mexican blood than Indian.
"My grandpa was half Native (Comanche) and my dad is only a quarter,
so I'm like half a quarter," Morales said. "They always say I'm a
wannabe Native."

Like Kipp, Schildt and Montes before her, Guardipee probably wouldn't
have landed in Missoula had she not attended Selvig's summer camp as
a youngster.

Duce said the camps continue to draw "significant" numbers of
youngsters from reservations, especially the Blackfeet.

"Their parents will call and ask you, are Dana Conway and Tamara and
Mandy Morales going to be there? Those are the three they ask about,"
Duce said. "It's cool, because I think those guys are role models for
their culture, and they can make a big difference to kids."

Hardin senior Dvera Tolbert, an enrolled member of the Crow Tribe,
didn't come to Lady Griz camp. Guardipee showed the 6-foot Tolbert
around campus on a recruiting visit last November.

When Tolbert announced recently she would sign to play for the Lady
Griz in April, it sent a buzz around the Big Sky. Had the wily Selvig
tapped yet another high-powered recruiting ground?

He can't talk publicly about Tolbert until she signs, but Selvig
scoffs at such a notion. UM's primary recruiting ground is and always
has been all of Montana, Indian reservations or not.

"We don't single them out. We look for talented players, and there
have been some talented ones (from reservations), and I personally
love to give them an opportunity. So it's been good," he said.

"I think the coaches are looking for basketball players," Conway
said. "I know, like, the standards of Native Americans coming from
the reservation and not being able to keep up with the academic work.
But I think coaches are looking for athletes who love playing the
game of basketball, so that wasn't an issue for me."

Guardipee and Conway, like Kipp, Montes and Schildt before them, are
fan favorites at Lady Griz games. They've also been bolstered by
tremendous family support, even though their families live across the
Continental Divide.

"That's a long trip from Browning, and the Guardipees are at almost
every game," assistant coach Annette Rocheleau said. "I think of the
Kipps and the Schildts - they drove forever. Conways - my goodness
they put the miles on. I think all of those guys have worn out a few

Being the first, Kipp bore perhaps the biggest burden in her playing
days, which ended in 1996.

She saw the Lady Griz play on TV when she was in eighth grade and, as
she described it, a 5-foot-11 girl who towered over the boys in her
class and "felt like a geek."

"I thought, that is so cool, all those tall girls, and I loved
playing basketball," she said.

That brought her to the Lady Griz camp, which brought her to UM to
stay. Then things got serious.

"You kind of have to live in two worlds, per se," Kipp said. "You
still have that connection back home coming off the reservation, and
you're also having to conduct yourself in a different way off the
reservation... It's like putting on two different types of shoes."

A good student, whose mother is a school teacher of 30-plus years in
Browning, Kipp nonetheless couldn't settle on a course of study and
jumped from major to major before settling on pre-nursing.
Then there was the tremendous pressure of being a pioneer.

"I felt if I didn't succeed, others wouldn't get the opportunity.
That included my sister, that included other Natives," she said.
Kipp remembers a visit to Selvig's office during her playing days,
when she noticed books on Indian culture.

"I don't even know if he knew that I knew that," she said. "He was
trying to learn a little bit about me and where I was from, maybe in
order not to offend me or to make me feel more comfortable. I thought
that was really neat."

By all measures, Kipp succeeded at UM. Not only was she an integral
member of four Lady Griz teams, she earned a degree and opened the
door for others.

That door remains wide open, but as Selvig preaches and his players
know, those who enter have to bring the full package - on the
basketball floor, in the classroom, in all aspects of their lives.

"He's looking for players who can play ball and know what to do as
far as academics, too," said Guardipee. "If they don't have the
academics, then it's pretty useless recruiting them, is how I would
look at it."

These are great kids," Selvig said. "A lot of them have been to our
camp, so we know them, we know they're good kids. I don't have any
qualms about recruiting kids from the reservation.

"The main thing is that we've identified that they're talented enough
to be players, so when we've given them an opportunity, they've taken
advantage of it.

"When she goes home to Browning, Guardipee loves to watch her little
sister's games and hang out around the gyms and courts.

She cuts quite a presence.

"It's kind of like a big deal, since the little girls, they have
somebody to look up to," Guardipee allowed. "The whole community's
proud of all of us, for coming here and sticking it out and making

Is the next Tamara Guardipee on the horizon?

"Yeah," she said. "There's some kids that are coming up that are
looking pretty good."

In Ronan, Kipp and Camel's 9-year-old daughter is playing 3-on-3 and
swimming and playing softball.

"She likes a variety of different things, which is good, because they
all complement each other," Kipp said. "But she'd better be a
ballplayer, darn it."

A future Montana Lady Griz, perhaps?

She laughed.

"That," she said, "would be nice."