by Larry Colton
Warner Books, October 2001
Counting Coup: A True Story of Basketball and Honor in the Little Bighorn was recommended to me by my stepdad when he and my mom visited last month. His description didn't make it sound like much--a book about high school girls' basketball on a Montana Indian reservation?--but his taste is often excellent and he swore I'd love it, so I requested it from the library.
He was right. It's fantastic.
I grew up in a basketball town, though I never played myself (much to the chagrin of many, given my height). Through a little bit of paying attention and a whole lot of osmosis, I understand basketball pretty well. That probably added to my enjoyment of this book, since none of the technical basketball details were lost on me. However, I don't think any knowledge of or interest in basketball is necessary to enjoy the book. At its heart, it's not really about the game. It's about the girls, about the place, about hope and taking control of your own life. And it's about those things in a really non-hokey way.
Colton is a sports writer (I think) who went to live for a year in Hardin, Montana, on the edge of a Crow Indian reservation, with the idea of writing about the traditional of high school basketball (specifically, boys' basketball) among the Crow. However, soon after arriving in Hardin, Colton observes (by chance) one of the stars of the girls' high school team, Sharon LaForge, casually shooting hoops. Impressed with LaForge, Colton takes an interest in the girls' team, and soon his project changes from the boys to the girls.
Colton follows the team throughout the season, interviewing all of the players extensively, going to all of the games and many of the practices, spending time with the players and their families and friends outside of basketball, etc. His narrative focuses on the team's season, but also on the details of the girls' lives, their relationships with each other and with their families, and the racial tension between the Indian and white players (Hardin is about 50-50). While he focuses on LaForge, Colton takes an interest in many of the players on the team, as well as a couple of high school students who are only peripherally related to basketball.
The picture Colton paints is bleak, particularly for Crow students like LaForge. Part of the original question he came to Montana to investigate was why Crow students almost never play basketball in college, no matter how good they are in high school. The answers he finds--a mixture of pure racism and socioeconomic and cultural conditions that stand in the way of Crow students going to college--is depressing. Much of Sharon LaForge's life is depressing. Her father is absent, her mother is a terrible alcoholic, her boyfriend is abusive, and her prospects are bleak, no matter how she shines on the court. Colton doesn't sugarcoat this.
On the other hand, though, neither does he give in completely to hopelessness. To his credit, at least in my mind, Colton does not even pretend to be an uninvested observer of LaForge and the other girls he writes about. He tries to help them, especially LaForge. He lends money, give rides, makes calls to college coaches. He cheers his heart out at every game, plays HORSE, scrimmages. He attends family dinners, puts in his time in the sweat lodge, and even goes to a player's wedding. And he feels the players' triumphs, on and off the court, as much as their failures.
Another thing I really loved about the book and respect about Colton is that there never seems to be a question as to whether or not the female basketball players are real athletes. They are playing the same game as the boys, with the same stakes, and it seems that Colton takes his female subjects just as seriously as he would have had they been male. The story is different, obviously, as the obstacles faced by the young women Colton observes and interviews are different than those of their male counterparts, but it's not lesser. This is an especially bright spot in a story that is full of male-to-female violence, as is reportedly very common on the reservation.
A final thing I admire about Colton's approach is that he doesn't leave the team, or LaForge, at the end of the last game of the season. He follows them, particularly LaForge, for several years. He cares about the outcomes, not just of their season, but of their lives. And he tries--and in some cases succeeds, I think--to find victory in their decisions, even if they don't make the choices he would have made for them.
All in all, this book is a great read. It moves fast, it makes you care, and if you happen to like basketball, or be interested in modern reservations, all the better. If not, though, pick it up anyway, just because it's well done.