Dan Connelly, head coach of the Browning High School Runnin’ Indians boys basketball team, stands with his arms folded and his eyes on the thousands of empty seats in the gym around him.
“I don’t think this gym’s going to hold all the Browning fans,” he says matter-of-factly.
Two nights later, just before the championship game of the Northwest A district tournament at Whitefish High School, the now-packed gymnasium is buzzing with anticipation. The parking lots outside are overflowing, the lines at the concession stand are endless, and the once-vacant seats are now brimming with thousands of black-and-red clad Browning residents, alums, fans and supporters who have trekked through a February snowstorm to the Flathead Valley.
When the clock strikes zero in the game preceding theirs, the Browning Runnin’ Indians huddle briefly, grab red-and-white feathered war bonnets, place them atop their heads, and storm the court. The crowd roars. From now until tipoff a wave of noise persists, the sound of familiar faces greeting one another on the stairs heading up the bleachers, of a woman painting giggling young boys’ faces, and of the Browning High School pep band sending out a song.
And then there’s the team on the floor. Pretty much everyone plays basketball in Browning, and the dozen or so players fortunate enough to make the Runnin’ Indians travel roster for this tournament are shooting, dribbling, passing and rebounding their way through a pregame warmup. But most notably they are smiling. Laughing, even. In the ensuing four quarters, they will play the game of basketball with a radiant, irrepressible joy. They are contemptuous of the sport’s stodgier impulses, soaring with Roadrunner’s energy, a dance partner’s instincts and a gleeful tenacity.
Eight seconds into the Northwest A district championship game, Deion Mad Plume splashes in a no-hesitation 3-pointer from the corner, the Browning fans erupt, and this game, for all intents and purposes, is over. The Indians are off and running.
Browning led 19-1 and eventually won the district championship 78-50 over Polson on Feb. 16, a title that was all but academic after the Indians went 10-0 against district opponents in the regular season, winning those games by an average of more than 23 points.
The boys from Browning are 22-2 this year and will be seeded third out of the West Division at the Class A state basketball tournament next month. The Runnin’ Indians girls are 16-6 and will also be in Great Falls for the state tournament, reaching the final stage despite a season-ending injury to their leading scorer, Tamika Guardipee, after 15 games.
The two teams are connected in more ways than just a school. The girls coach is Ray Augare, the man who brought the Browning boys three state championships in 13 years as head coach before taking over the girls program six years ago. This year’s state tournament — a place only the eight best teams in Montana reach — is the third for the Browning girls in the last four seasons.
Connelly coached under Augare in the mid-2000s, and both men played basketball for the Indians when they were in high school. Both also believe strongly in a certain style of play for their Runnin’ Indians teams, with an emphasis on Runnin’. At first glance their games feel like chaos, played at a breakneck pace with a gambling pressure defense, lightning-quick offense and plenty of action on both ends of the court. But if it is chaos, it is orchestrated as such, and more than anything it is an identity and a mindset.
“I like the up-and-down, I like the pressing, the defense; it’s fun,” Augare said. “At least for me it was fun, and I try to make it fun for the kids. Something they enjoy doing.”
“Not just Browning people (but) Indian people, they love that exciting brand of basketball,” Connelly added. “Living on the edge where you’re just about turning it over and it’s exciting, and you’re pressuring, and it brings them out.”
Connelly is in just his second season as the boys head coach, and in his first year he brought Browning to the state tournament for the first time since 2013. He’s also brought back the war bonnets, a tradition dating back more than 40 years, and most importantly, in his mind, the style that resonates with his players and his hometown.
“I thought we kind of went away from that — we weren’t running as much as we used to and pressing as much,” he said. “The Browning kids, that’s how they like to play and we’re successful when we do that. They’re freer, they get up and down the court and it’s fun. They enjoy it.”
Playing at Runnin’ Indian speed is far from easy, however, and it takes a special kind of roster. Browning’s boys and girls teams are extremely deep — around 80 boys and 40 girls tried out for one of 12 varsity roster spots earlier this year — and balanced. Almost everyone plays in every game, and on a given night almost anyone can be that day’s star.
“You have to have depth, otherwise, to be honest, we couldn’t play that style,” Connelly said. “Thankfully, finding talent in Browning isn’t very hard to do.”
More than talent, though, Browning’s teams must also be almost telepathically connected and ingrained with deep basketball instincts. Grueling summer schedules and years spent playing together make it possible for the Runnin’ Indians to make the right, aggressive play without second-guessing.
“I don’t want them thinking about moves; I want them just reacting and playing,” Connelly said. “We call it ball sense. This group of kids have been playing together since, geez, they were fifth-graders, sixth-graders, and they can read each other’s mind.”
Mike Chavez won three state championships in high school, two at nearby Heart Butte and another at Browning in 2002. Chavez grew up on the Crow Reservation and went on to play basketball at the University of Montana, and he has seen the high-pressure, up-tempo style of basketball thrive on reservations throughout the state.
“You’ve got to have the horses to do that, but at the same time that’s the way we’ve playing ever since we were little,” he said. “We play so much that we’re able to develop that savviness, that basketball IQ, because you know how to play with (your teammates), what they’re best at, what’s the best place to hit them.”
It is impossible to fully understand basketball in Browning, or on any other reservation in Montana, without understanding the history. And there is so much history.
Malia Kipp, the first Native American woman to play basketball at the University of Montana and a 1992 Browning grad, traces a line between reservation basketball and the girls team at the Fort Shaw Indian Boarding School outside Great Falls that was named world champion after defeating all challengers at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Augare played for the legendary Don Wetzel in the 1970s (Wetzel himself had played for another legend, Willie DeGroot, in Cut Bank) and went on to coach players like Chavez, who saw his love of the game sparked by watching Elvis Old Bull star at Lodge Grass High.
“Everybody in the state of Montana, you hear about these legends,” Chavez said. “That’s kind of why I started playing — I looked up to guys like (Old Bull). I saw the way that they were talked about on the reservation and the way that people packed gymnasiums.”
Leo Bullchild played with Chavez on Browning’s 2002 state championship team, the second of back-to-back titles for the Indians. Bullchild, now an assistant for Augare and the Browning girls, grew up like most other Blackfeet boys and girls, hearing about the teams that came before him and heading to the gym on game nights to see the Runnin’ Indians in action.
“You knew that when wintertime came, you could go to a hot gym and watch some of the boys play,” Bullchild said. “For me, I actually have a (relative) of mine that was a manager on the first state team … He had a picture of the team in his room and I would go in there and look at it all the time.”
“That’s what you did,” Kipp remembered of going to Browning games as a youngster. “That was our entertainment. There wasn’t much to do, really, as a family. It’s not a bad thing to go out and support local, young athletes that are trying to do good.”
Years later, players on this year’s Browning team can recall teams like the ones that went to two straight state championship games in 2007 and 2008, winning the title the second year.
“We would go to every single game; we idolized those guys,” Brant Bremner, a senior on this year’s team, said. “Basketball is the heart and soul of Browning. It brings everybody together.”
The next time Browning’s fans will be together is at the Class A state tournament, March 7-9 in Great Falls. In their quest for the state title, both Browning’s boys and girls will open the tournament against the same opponent, Hardin, another reservation school. It will be an uphill climb for Browning’s boys and girls at the state tournament, beginning in the first round, where their games against Hardin are certain to be among the most-watched in the state.
“Our crowds on the reservation, they follow us everywhere, and a lot of times it can be the difference between wins and losses,” Chavez said. “It’s a confidence-builder. You know that everybody on the reservation is pulling for you, and it makes you want to play harder for the community. You’re representing the reservation and all of Indian Country.”
Wetzel, now in his 70s, is among the most strident supporters of all. He is the founder of the Montana Indian Athletic Hall of Fame — an organization that has recognized Kipp and Old Bull, among many others — and coached cross country as well as basketball at Browning, building a cross country dynasty that won 11 straight state titles. At least in Browning, his hiring in 1972 was a turning point. Wetzel was just two years out of college at the time, having spent the previous season as an assistant at UM under Jud Heathcote, and it was Wetzel who began the tradition of wearing war bonnets, and who electrified Browning on cold winter nights.
When he looks around reservations in Montana today, Wetzel sees not just the renewed success in Browning. Hardin’s boys won the Class A state title last year, and the girls were runner-up. And in Class C, Arlee (Flathead Indian Reservation) won a state title a year ago and made national headlines with its Warrior Movement that promoted suicide prevention among Native Americans. All of it, from Browning on down, is something that makes Wetzel swell with pride.
“Not only am I proud,” he said. “We’re all proud. And they feel it. Call it Indian pride. It’s coming back strong.”