Basketball superstardom has certainly changed this last hundred years, and not for the better. Kobe Bryant whines about Shaquille O’Neal’s big toe. Meanwhile Kobe’s best defense against rape charges is he thought he was merely partaking in fast, furious, impulsive sex with a teenager he’d only met moments earlier, apparently emulating our previous President. In my new home state of Oregon, it’s a rare week a player of the Portland Jailblazers isn’t arrested. All the pros make millions of dollars, a lot of them make tens of millions, and quite a few, including Kobe and Shaq, make a hundred or more. Nothing wrong with that, but it rather cleaves the crevasse twixt star and this fan when Shaq’s big toe makes more money than I’ll make in my lifetime.
If you’ve grown cynical with superstar behavior, join me in waxing wistful for the good old days of 1904, when basketball’s first team of superstars verily brimmed with infectious innocence and promise. Crowned World Champions that year, Montana’s Fort Shaw players were not only sought out by the president, senators, celebrities and royalty from around the world, but beloved by all of America.
The Fort Shaw players were unlikely superstars. They were Indians. Teenagers of the Female Persuasion. Fresh off the Reservation; Blackfeet, Sioux, Shoshone, Absorkee, Crow, others. In 12 months their star players went from having never seen a basketball to holding the first trophy for a World Championship.
Mr. Fred C. Campbell, Superintendent of Montana’s Fort Shaw Indian School, epitomized America’s turn of the century optimism and drive. One of many federally run schools, Fort Shaw was an old army fort. It housed some 300 Indians and trained them in the ways of white civilization; trades, crafts, arts, literature, dance, science, agriculture.
Campbell decided to personally coach the girls in Naismith’s new game of basketball.
It’s fair to say the girls loved the school while boys did not. The latter ran away constantly, usually to be caught. Local farmers and ranchers did the catching, claiming a bounty of some $20, which was customarily secretly passed along to the boy, who’d send it to his family. An honest and honorable scam if ever there was one.
For their first game the girls rode in horse drawn wagons 40 miles into Great Falls to play a boys team. The girls put on their skirts, bloomers and heavy middy blouses and hit the court. The teenage boys team from Great Falls High School must have blushed with embarrassment facing off against teenage girls. Indian girls at that, each with their long, dark hair tied into two tight braids. Embarrassment quickly turned to humiliation. Final score: 16 to 8. (This when field throws counted for only one, not two points). The girls only improved after that game.
They continued playing local high school teams and shutting them down. Local, in the context of central Montana, meant traveling, 50, 100, 150 miles, either by train or by wagon.
Accounts from the Great Falls Tribune describe the girls as playing with ferocious determination and tenacity, fearless as any of their warrior ancestors. “Shoot, Minnie, Shoot!” was the headline of an article recounting the audience chant whenever Minnie Burton, a Shoshone, would lay her hands on the ball. They were great jumpers, too. This proved helpful in the day when every foul, out of bounds ball, every score, you name it, resulted in a jump ball.
Fred C. Campbell was not a man to rest on his laurels. He used the team’s popularity to arrange games against the men’s teams at the University of Montana in Missoula, and Montana State College in Bozeman. The girls showed marked improvement, racking up scores of 25-1 and 22-0, respectively.
I would like to have seen the faces of those young men at halftime when, presumably while wiping the sweat off their stunned faces, the girls changed clothes and put on a halftime show. They played classical and popular tunes on the mandolin and violin, recreated Indian dances, sang, recited poetry (Hiawatha was a favorite with audiences), staged pantomimes and “Delsartean Attitudes,” a kind of tableaux then popular.
There is a photograph of them wearing white, flowing gowns used for their Greek dances in which they look every bit a host of sweet little angels. These were the undisputed terrors of the basketball court? That intriguing admixture of ferocity and charming innocence would soon win the hearts of the nation.
After having conquered Montana, Campbell arranged for the team, along with the school band and a few dozen other students, to live in tipis at the Indian Exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair. To raise money they put on dozens of shows along the way, displaying their basketball skills and musical and dance achievements. They traveled east to Chicago and then down to St. Louis, charming audience after audience.
The 1904 World’s Fair, dubbed the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, must have been a stunning sight for the girls from lonely reservations and distant Fort Shaw. An entire city of buildings and facades recreated a combined version of Venice, Rome, Athens, Vienna that only America at the turn of the new century could have produced. The girls rode gondolas on wide canals to visit the Palaces of Electricity, Education, Manufacturing, to name a few, each covering eight and 10 acres of exhibits. They rode a 250 foot high Ferris Wheel at night and saw the grounds illuminated with millions of electric light bulbs, easily the brightest place on the planet that summer night.
For no admittance charge they could view premature babies on display in modern electrically warmed glass boxes. If that wasn’t exciting enough they could drop two bits to view a moving and realistic reenactment of the Galveston Flood of 1900 (minus the 6,000 floating corpses). Surely they entered the New York to North Pole Exhibit to board a ship and watch The Big Apple recede as they sailed through snow to the North Pole. Doubtless they ate hot dogs, introduced at that fair. And they were certain not to smoke on Anticigarette Day, under punishment of arrest.
The Fort Shaw contingent was housed in a school building at the Indian Exhibit. Visitors paid 50 cents to enter the grounds and watch them perform. Out of the Fair’s hundreds of entertainers and celebrities, the Fort Shaw girls were the singular delight of St. Louis residents. Visiting dignitaries and royalty insisted on visiting them at the Indian Exhibition.
This being the World’s Fair, site of the best of everything, it was decided a game would be played to determine a world’s champion. After all, the Fair also hosted the third Olympics (featuring a “savage’s shot put event” between a Japanese Aimu and African Pygmy, a contest curiously absent from today’s Olympics).
Joe Stremmel, a recognized authority on the barely decade old game of basketball, had coached Missouri college women’s teams to a string of impressive victories over other challengers. It’s fair to say the Missouri All-Stars he put together was the very best women’s team in the nation. Stremmel was a hardheaded character and took the game seriously. His girls were not Montana farmboys, they were athletes. His athletes.
Stremmel desperately wanted to win the media-hyped first World Championship, especially in his own backyard. But it was not to be. The St. Louis headlines tell the story:
STREMMEL’S LAST STAND! INDIAN MAIDENS FIRST WORLD CHAMPIONS! Senator Cockrell Presents Engraved Silver Trophy, Nine World’s Fair Gold Medals to Jubilant Fort Shaw Girls after Astounding 24-2 Victory.
Having conquered the world, Fred C. Campbell (“The Wizard of the Wild West Woods”?) and the girls returned to Fort Shaw. The latter finished school and lived full lives, many of them becoming nurses and teachers. Their descendants have recently erected a modest monument to the team on the Fort Shaw grounds.
And a hundred years later, when not consulting with his criminal lawyers or cashing ten million dollar checks, Kobe complains about Shaq’s big toe.
Call me old fashioned, but I’d find more inspiration in making the trip to the Montana monument than dropping $150 for a ticket to see Kobe.