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March 07, 2001|EARL GUSTKEY

Title: "Counting Coup--A True Story of Basketball and Honor on the Little Big Horn"

Author: Larry Colton

Retail Price: 24.95

Publisher: Warner Books

There's a lot to ponder in this season-long look at Montana girls' high school basketball. Colton, a onetime minor league baseball player, spent 15 months on Montana's Crow Indian Reservation, following the Hardin High Lady Bulldogs through their championship season of 1992-'93.

In Hardin--virtually next door to the Custer Battlefield--he spent every practice with the team, saw every game and traveled on the team bus, Bulldog I, on trips of up to 500 miles, often through unspeakable Montana winter weather.

Early on, it seems he's covering a happy mix of white and Crow players, but he later finds subtle racial divides that require almost daily attention from the team's white coach, Linda McClanahan.

The main character is Sharon LaForge, a Crow who proved to be one of the best high school players in Montana, but only after surmounting intense family strife--an alcoholic mother and an absentee father.

She also acquired an abusive boyfriend--the kind who presents her with frequent black eyes--along the way.

It's an excellent read, a book that is more instructive in the failings of the American reservation system and its lost battles with alcohol, drugs, teen pregnancy and fractured families than it is about basketball.

And of course, there are all the wonderful Native American names: Owena Spotted Horse, Kassi Elk Shoulder, Gordon Real Bird, Elvis Old Bull, Larson Medicine Horse, DyAnna Three Irons, Paul Little Light, Jill Comes At Night, Monica Butterfly, Barbara Madman, Carrie Iron Shirt, Elaine Little Plume, Stanley Pretty Horse, Janine Windy Boy.

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