Two generations of Camel basketball stars have found their answers inside the gym, and they’re helping other young Native Americans find theirs, too

Story by Myers Reece | Photography by Lido Vizzuti
Long before he became one of the greatest basketball players in Montana history, J.R. Camel was a Native American at an all-white school in Idaho, learning how to box instead of ball. His dad gave him and his brother boxing gloves and signed them up for a club. It was as much about sport as survival.

But after the family moved to the Flathead Indian Reservation, when Camel was in sixth grade, he traded in the ring for the gymnasium, the sounds of leather on flesh for leather on wood. By the time people realized his potential, the whispers had already started. You’ll never make it in college, if you make it there at all. You’ll be back. They always come back to the Rez.

There’s a heart-rending list of Indian basketball legends whose stories were never fully written; drugs and alcohol controlled the narrative and cut the words short. It seems that entrenched poverty and systematic suppression provide poor frameworks for post-secondary ambitions. So it was true that Camel no longer had to worry about opponents with a brutal left hook, but now he had to contend with something meaner: the odds. And, perhaps even more vicious: stereotypes. He beat them both.

None of which is to say that Camel never came back to the reservation. He just did so on his own terms, when he was ready, with a tale to tell and lessons to impart, like his brother did before him and, two decades later, like his nephew plans to do now. The life of a Native American isn’t any more predetermined than any other life, just as the final score of a game isn’t known until you play it. But you have to play it the right way.

That’s what J.R. and his older brother, Zack, tell the young men they coach at Salish Kootenai College. But their basketball-as-a-metaphor-for-life monologues aren’t empty words. The coaches believe in the pleas because they’ve lived the messages. Protected from the elements outside, in the heat and sweat of sacrifice, the gym is a roiling incubator of hope and self-determination.

“It’s a choice,” says Zack Conko-Camel, a burly gentle giant of a man with a soft smile and firm handshake. “If you want to live the right way, you can do it. You can do it your whole life. You don’t have to get caught up in drugs and alcohol, in all the craziness.

“You can get the life you want, the life you deserve.”

J.R. Camel, center left, leads members of the Bison basketball team in a workout before the start of a practice at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo.

J.R. Camel, center left, leads members of the Bison basketball team in a workout before the start of a practice at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo.

The Camels have players from reservations all over the country. They hope to take in boys and send back men, equipped with the wisdom and strength to finish their stories.

“Our goal is to help these guys grow up to be respectful men, to go back and be leaders and role models,” J.R. says. “Going back to the reservation isn’t a bad thing. If we can help make them better people for when they do go back, give them our knowledge, our systems of winning, our systems of respecting your parents, respecting your elders, being a brother for your teammates, that’s what we want.”

J.R. was born Henry Camel, Jr., the youngest of four kids, named after the man who slid boxing gloves onto his slender hands as a boy. Zack, six years older, is the eldest sibling, followed by Bill and Henrietta. A half-brother from their father’s previous marriage is Marvin Camel, a two-time world cruiserweight boxing champion.

But while it was their father who put them in the ring, it was their mother, Millie Conko-Camel, who taught them to fight. More to the point, she taught them that there was a lot worth fighting for, but it had nothing to with fists or violence. She knew the real battle happened in the classroom, in the home, in between the ears. Being the only Indians at a white school is a microcosm for living on a reservation in America – on an island, isolated, surrounded yet secluded.

“We had to learn to fight, how to stand up for our rights, how to be prepared and how to better our future,” Zack says.

“Millie is a tough lady,” J.R. adds. “She was a mother and father to all of us. She taught us leadership. She led us down the right path.”

After the kids moved with Millie to the Mission Valley, they were immediately swept up in the basketball fervor that’s so prevalent on Montana reservations. J.R. dunked for the first time as a 5-foot-11 eighth-grader, and he remembers listening to games on the radio featuring Elvis Old Bull, one of the towering figures in Montana basketball lore. Old Bull led Lodge Grass High School to three straight Class B state championships in 1988-1990, winning MVP at the tournament each time.

J.R. had a basketball hoop hanging on a door inside his home on which he had written, “Elvis Who?” Old Bull was a hero, but J.R. wanted to be better. And he wanted to do something Old Bull, who died in a 2014 car crash, never did: star in college. Old Bull’s career ended when the final buzzer sounded on his senior year in high school.

J.R. went on to star at Class B St. Ignatius before transferring to Class AA Missoula Hellgate his senior season. He moved in with his brother, who was attending the University of Montana. In 1992-93, Camel led Hellgate to a perfect 23-0 record and the Class AA state championship. The team is often cited as one of Montana’s best, just as Camel is called one of its finest players. Camel, a 6-foot guard, averaged 23 points and three dunks per game, many of them electrifying.

J.R. Camel, center, runs drills with members of the Bison basketball team during practice at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo.

J.R. Camel, center, runs drills with members of the Bison basketball team during practice at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo.

Camel accepted an offer to play at University of Montana and immediately felt the weight of his predecessors’ shortcomings. Old Bull. Jonathan Takes Enemy and Joe Pretty Paint of Hardin. Max Spotted Bear and Tim Falls Down of Plenty Coups. Gary Cross Guns of Browning.

Nearly any longtime fan of Montana high school basketball has a story about a great Indian player. Yet, too often, their blazing stars burned out in the darkness. Causes of death include a boozy car wreck, cirrhosis, suicide, knife stabbing. Old Bull never made it off the reservation, while Takes Enemy lasted six games at Sheridan College, the school he had chosen because of its proximity to his Crow Reservation.

More than two decades after Don Wetzel became the state’s first native to play Division I ball, at UM from 1967-1971, Camel jogged onto the court in his No. 22 Grizzly maroon jersey and flipped the script.

“It took a lot of mental preparation,” Camel says. “I knew it was going to be tough because I was one of the first Native Americans to play Division I. A lot of eyes were on me. Zach helped a lot, and so did Millie. I got a lot of positive reinforcement from them.”

Camel was named conference freshman of the year runnerup and earned first team Big Sky all-conference as a sophomore and junior. By the end of his junior year, he held the school’s all-time record for steals, later broken by Will Cherry. He majored in Native American Studies and business, following the footsteps of Zack, who earned a business degree and is today accounting manager for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

But after meeting his wife, Malia Kipp-Camel, at the university, J.R. faced a decision with the birth of his daughter, Lee. He chose family, bypassing his senior season.

Camel continued playing whenever and wherever he could, including at an annual New Year’s money tournament in Scobey, where college players on Christmas break square off against some of the state’s other top players. The competition is fierce. Some are pro ballers, including a former Carroll College standout who was back from playing overseas when he squared off against Camel. After Camel dropped 62 points in the game, the Carroll alum put him in touch with an agent, leading to a tryout and roster spot on a professional team in Europe.

Camel played from 2001-2003 for the Mabetex men’s pro team in Prishtina, Yugoslavia. The experience was life-changing, and he has instituted basketball philosophies and workouts at Salish Kootenai that he learned over there. But one thing he’ll never replicate is the atmosphere.

“It would get very rowdy,” he says. “People would be throwing firecrackers and pop onto the floor, lighting flares. They’d throw firecrackers while you were shooting free throws and the ref would say, ‘Just keep shooting.’”

Camel returned to Ronan in 2004 and took a position as assistant coach for the Salish Kootenai men’s team under Zack, the head coach. He took a one-year hiatus to coach his nephew, Zack’s son Zachary, at Arlee High School before returning to the Salish Kootenai sidelines.

Salish Kootenai College men's basketball coach Zachary Conko-Camel talks with his team during a scrimmage at a Bison practice in Pablo.

Salish Kootenai College men’s basketball coach Zachary Conko-Camel talks with his team during a scrimmage at a Bison practice in Pablo.

As much as J.R. loves coaching, he hasn’t given up playing. At 42, he’s as fit as a man half his age. He and Zachary play on a 3-on-3 team that has won the 6-foot-and-under elite championship two straight years at Hoopfest in Spokane, the biggest street 3-on-3 tournament in the world, featuring over 7,000 teams and 225,000 spectators. J.R. was named MVP.

Under Zack, the Salish Kootenai Bison are the most accomplished Native American men’s basketball program in the country. They have won nine American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) titles since 2001 and were favored to win again this year. The women’s program has won six championships.

Zack says J.R. brings more than pedigree to the staff, though he has plenty of that, too: “Anywhere you go in Montana, they know who J.R. is.” He also has life experience that can be distilled into inspiration for the team’s young men.

“We tell them it’s all about moments,” Zack says. “Moments in your life. Moments to do something special. J.R. always says, ‘This is your moment.’”

Zachary Camel picked up a basketball as a baby and grew up idolizing J.R., even though he was too young to watch his uncle play in his prime. He wears the same number – 22 – that J.R. wore at UM, and next season, once his redshirt is over, he’ll get to add to the Camels’ Grizzly legacy.

“If you’re part of our family, you play basketball,” Zachary says. “We don’t ski in the winter. We play basketball.”

After playing three years at Polson, Zachary transferred to Arlee to play one year under J.R. He was named Class C all-state after averaging 10.5 assists per game his senior year, which unofficially broke the all-time Montana High School Association single-season assists record. He also broke the state record for assists in a game with 24.

Following high school, Zachary played for his father for two years at Salish Kootenai, leading the Bison to two national titles before transferring to UM. It’s not lost on J.R. that Zachary is wearing his number for the Grizzlies.

“He has a lot of weight on his shoulders,” J.R. says. “That goes for the whole reservation and everywhere around Montana, because everyone knows him. We get congratulations everywhere we go. We’re all excited and proud.”

Zack is most proud of his son, who is going for his bachelor’s in business and plans to get a master’s degree, for his accomplishments off the court.

“He’s leading his life the way he should be,” Zack says. “He’s alcohol and drug free. He’s doing it the right way.”

To hear Zachary speak, even a casual acquaintance can hear his father’s voice channeled through his own. When friends, native and white alike, go out to party, he stays behind. It’s always been that way.

“I want to be a role model to my siblings and to other kids,” he says. “I don’t want to fall into the things that people say natives do. Living on the reservation, you see a lot.”

The extended Camel family stands for a portrait at Salish Kootenai College on Feb. 3. Front left to right: Lee Camel, Louetta Camel, Zachary Camel, Alicia Camel, Liz Camel and Bill Camel. Back left to right: J.R. Camel, Anthony Camel, Isaac Camel and Zack Conko-Camel.

The extended Camel family stands for a portrait at Salish Kootenai College on Feb. 3. Front left to right: Lee Camel, Louetta Camel, Zachary Camel, Alicia Camel, Liz Camel and Bill Camel. Back left to right: J.R. Camel, Anthony Camel, Isaac Camel and Zack Conko-Camel.

Zachary traveled to Pablo from Missoula on a February evening to watch his father and uncle prepare the Bison for the stretch run of their season. Amid the squeaking shoes and coaches’ shouts, a trio of high schoolers emerged, followed by two more, entering underneath a mounted bison head hanging above a door into the Joe McDonald Health and Activities Center, where the Bison play and practice. Zachary waved at the kids. They were all Camels. They had just finished their respective high school basketball practices and had shown up to practice more while J.R. and Zack coached.

Among the Camels shooting basketballs deep into the night were Zack’s daughter, Alicia, and son, Anthony, a junior and freshman, respectively, at Ronan. They were accompanied by Lee, the eldest daughter of J.R. and a junior at Ronan, and Louetta, a niece and freshman at Ronan.

Lee, Alicia and Louetta are a mighty 3-on-3 powerhouse in their own right, annually winning their division at Polson’s Flathead Lake 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament, while all playing varsity for Ronan. They recently helped the Maidens win the Western B girls divisional tourney, while Anthony is getting consistent minutes on the boys varsity team. It’s typical for a Camel to play varsity as a freshman.

“Sometimes they’ll have practices at 6 a.m. and then they’ll still be here at 8 at night,” said Zack’s wife, Liz, as she alternated between watching her husband coach and her kids shoot. It seemed that Millie was the only Camel missing in the gym that evening. She saves her energy up to attend the games.

“It never stops in this family,” Liz adds. “I have a calendar that’s color coordinated for when all the kids have games.”

J.R. also has two younger daughters, Jaida, 9, and Miquene, 8, who are waiting for their opportunities to carry on the Camel tradition of high school excellence, but for now Lee is doing a pretty good job by herself. A Class B all-state selection and the defending conference scoring champion, Lee was named MVP runner-up at a Lady Griz competition camp last summer out of more than 300 high school players.

“Our goal for her is to play for the Lady Griz,” J.R. says. “She’s a heck of a player.”

On Feb. 18, his 42nd birthday, J.R. piled into a car filled with relatives, including Millie, and headed down to Anaconda to watch Lee lead Ronan to the district championship. Anyone who has ever attended a Montana high school postseason basketball game featuring a reservation team knows that American Indian fans travel through hell and high water to watch their kids play. The Camels can fill out a sizeable chunk of bleachers by themselves.

“We all travel together,” J.R. says. “Being Native Americans, we’re a close family.”

Reflecting on his own path to stardom, J.R. recalled meeting Elvis Old Bull, who he called “a great shooter and a great person.” He got the opportunity to play against Old Bull in a tournament, both men well past their high school glory days – two legends whose journeys started out similar, then took divergent paths, only to intersect at the one place that made sense: on a basketball court.

“I actually still have the little hoop that says, ‘Elvis Who?’” Camel says. “It’s in my closet. I saw it the other day and I was laughing about it.”