Counting Coup

Larry Colton

Warner Books

454 pp., $17.00

By Al Mattei


If you have read Gary Smith's Sports Illustrated article "Shadow of a Nation," about a famous high school boys' basketball team from a Montana reservation, or read "A Season on the Brink," or watched the movie Hoop Dreams, you know what is going to happen in Larry Colton's book Counting Coup, in which he spends an entire season with the girls' basketball team at Hardin High School in Montana.

Sharon LaForge, star of the Hardin basketball team, is the book's focus. And, despite the great skills, courage, and teambuilding attitude she has, she appears destined to fall into the maze of traps set before her.

LaForge was the daughter of a teenage mother, who eventually becomes her absentee mother and torturer. She appears at some of Sharon's important games inebriated, staying only until she needs to get more alcohol. The embarassment threw Sharon to such a degree that her volleyball team once blew seven match points in the state championship game after one visit.

The father is also absent from her life, insinuating himself into it only on Parents' Night. The only time Sharon's father and mother are even in the same building is to see her final high-school basketball game, sitting at opposite sides of a nearly empty gym in Billings, seeing Sharon play the state tournament's third-place game.

Colton paints a picture of a town where Crow tribespeople have moved over the border of the reservation (the "rez," as townspeople call it) into town in droves since the shuttering of a carpet factory in the mid-70s. As such, there is discomfort amongst the Caucasians in town who believe that Indians (Colton discards the term "Native American") already have it made in terms of land ownership and government benefits.

The town of Hardin spans two worlds -- literally and figuratively. It is not located within the boundaries of Crow Nation; it stands conveniently over the border where merchants can help perpetuate the stereotype of the alcoholic Indian through free enterprise.

The societal fabric of the town -- the entire region -- is textured with intrigue and conflict. The homecoming queen's father is hated by many Indians because he has repossessed many of their cars for nonpayment. The mother of another player is the collections agent for the local utility.

Contradictions are everywhere; in a setting of extreme poverty, Danetta Fallsdown -- the woman who acts the main character's foster mother -- spends lavishly and drives a Lincoln, all the while borrowing money from others. In a setting of natural beauty, litter and abandoned cars are everywhere. And in a place where education is seen as a way out, tribal leaders continuously rail against the policies of the reservation's innovative community college, eventually firing the institution's founder.

Whites distrust Indians, and vice versa. Race is everywhere as a problem, even to the extreme degree that Fallsdown, when justifying her decision on a car brand, she not only says that Indians are too dumb distinguish a Mercedes from a Chrysler, but that she won't drive a Cadillac, spouting off a pejorative term used to describe African Americans.

It is a complicated, disunified tapestry that only seems to unify for one thing: high school sports, especially the game of basketball.

Like the Japanese samurai culture has adopted baseball, Indians have embraced basketball as something of a proxy for warfare, where a small war party matches up against another, with a winner and loser at day's end.

Throughout, Colton lets us meet members of the team, parents, tribal leaders, and a head coach with Maalox moments. "Coach Mac," as she is called, feels the pressure of the Crow Nation upon her shoulders, to the point where Colton worries about her state of health. He does, however, bring an unexpected star twist to the entire proceeding when he brings in Bobby Knight and John Havlicek for one of the team's practices.

Colton's insertion into the story can be disquieting; his first impressions of Sharon ("languid, fluid, sexy") aren't exactly what you want to hear from a middle-aged, former major-league baseball pitcher on a free-lance assignment. He also loans money to Fallsdown, gets smuggled into a private tribal council meeting, endures an hour in a sweat lodge, and is adopted into the tribe.

Knowing the depth of Colton's involvement, you can almost call this book autobiographical (if not a bit self-indulgent). However, Colton's story and message is universal, whether the athletes are track runners from East Chicago, Ind., football players from the southeastern quadrant of the District of Columbia, basketball players from Camden, N.J., or baseball players from east Los Angeles. Sport as a way out of a dead-end life is a lot easier with an education.

But on "the rez," it is a lot more difficult to succeed in a place where the expectations are so astronomically low. It is a region where people cannot be bothered to answer the doorbell of their own homes, patrons at the local diner are obliged to pour their own coffee before having orders taken by the waitstaff, and where broken-down cars are left to rust in people's yards.

Sharon's own car is a symbol of this: at the start of the tale, it is a newly-minted present from Fallsdown. By the end of the book the car sits in disrepair, the background for her two children at play in the yard.

The car awaits repair, and so does Sharon's life. It is anyone's guess whether Sharon can get away from the cycle, which is the pervasive downbeat to this story.

Colton's writing credits do not equal Smith's by any stretch of the imagination. However, he does a more than credible job of bringing to life a season of girls' basketball in a setting of racial insensitivity, crushing poverty, alcoholism, teenage pregnancy, hopelessness, and indifference.

In other words, he makes us care.