National | Sports

Native Sun News: Montana basketball legend gives back to youth

The following story was written and reported by Clara Caufield, Native Sun News Correspondent. All content © Native Sun News.

Mike Chavez, who is presently boys basketball head coach and assistant girls coach for Northern Cheyenne Tribal Schools, was named MVP at the Montana State Tournaments for the 2000, 2001 and 2002 seasons.

Mike Chavez: Montana basketball legend gives back to Rez kids
By Clara Caufield
Native Sun News Correspondent

BUSBY, Mont. –– In Indian Country, basketball is king and the players who serve that master are often treated like royalty and as local legends.

Several Indian Montana ball players were formally recognized at the “Calling of the Legends” December 2014 at the Crow Tribe sponsored All Indian Shootout Tournament at the Billings Metra Park, an annual pre-season event pitting teams from area Indian schools against one another for coveted trophies and bragging rights.

Each school participating in the tournament selected an honoree. Those so honored included : Charlie Ereaux, Gros Ventre-Assiniboine; Dean Allen, Assiniboine; Garren Goes Ahead, Crow; Oliver Flying, Northern Cheyenne; Gordon Realbird, Jr., Crow; Larry Prettyweasel, Crow; Gordon Realbird, Sr. (deceased), Crow; Elvis Old Bull (deceased), Crow; AJ Long Soldier (deceased), Gros Ventre-Assiniboine; Shawn Shambo (deceased) Gros Ventre-Assiniboine and Mike Chavez, Northern Cheyenne/Crow.

Chavez, age 31 was selected for the honoring by Northern Cheyenne Tribal Schools (NCTS), Busby, Mont. where he is currently head boys and assistant girls basketball coach, giving back to the sport and “Rez” kids who are like he used to be.

He explained that NCTS is still extremely proud of its 1971 Class C State Championship Team.

“We could have selected any of those players,” Chavez noted, “but we settled on Oliver because he was such a force in independent ball and in the community. Flying also recently suffered amputation of a leg, effectively ending his ball career although he was still known to frequent the courts well into his sixties.”

Chavez shared the athletic accomplishments which earned him basketball “legend” status from his peers.

“It didn’t come easy,” he stressed. “It was a lot of time on the court, many hours of practice, often by myself. But I always tell my students that if I could do it – just a regular kid from the Rez- they can do it too.”

When in the 8th grade, basketball kept him sane, Chavez recalls. His Crow father and Cheyenne mother had split up and the young man found himself living with his mother, step father Joseph Still Smoking and siblings in a half-way house in the remote community of Heart Butte on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

“It was in an old gym,” he explained. “There was nothing much to do, so I spent the hours practicing, mostly by myself.”

Those hours paid off when Chavez started high school, playing for Heart Butte, Class C and then Browning, Class A. The 6’7” forward earned an impressive number of high school awards. A varsity starter all four years, he was voted Most Valuable Player (MVP) at the State Tournament for three years (playing for Heart Butte in 2000 and 2001 and for Browning in 2002). He was a key player for three State Champion Teams, Heart Butte twice and Browning once. A four year All-State player, he was also voted the USA Today Montana Player of the Year three years in a row (2000, 2001 and 2002).

After graduation in 2002, Chavez was heavily recruited, accepting a full-ride scholarship at the University of Montana, playing four years for the Montana Grizzlies.

“The first thing recruiters asked for was my transcripts,” says the now high school basketball coach. “I was lucky to have the support to keep good grades, averaging about a 3.0 G.P.A. I remind my players about how important this is.”

Though he obtained a BS degree in anthropology in 2007, college was not a walk in the park for Chavez.

“I messed up early on,” he explained, “but Coach Larry Krystkowiak gave me a second chance as did Coach Wayne Tinkle. They had a great appreciation for Native culture and actively supported me. I did everything they said and it worked out. We’re still friends to this day.”

Krystkowiak went on to coach for the Milwaukee Bucks while Tinkle is now at Oregon State, Pack 12 Conference. Chavez was a Grizzly player in the 2006 NCAA tournament (March Madness) in Salt Lake City where Montana defeated Nevada before losing out to Boston College.

“I never thought I’d get to play on national T.V.” he smiled. While at the U of M, Chavez was selected for the All-Decade Grizzly Team, the result of a fan poll to select the top ten basketball players for the 2000-2010 decade.

After college, Chavez became one of the talented and lucky players to actually make a living playing professional ball. He was one of a few Americans playing for the Latin Pro League in Mexico and turned down the opportunity to play in Denmark. He also played for the CBA, the Great Falls Explorers, a minor league for the NBA, traveling all over the country.

Coach Mike Chavez gets a hug from his niece during a basketball game.

Following that he taught at St. Charles Mission School, Pryor, Mont. for a year and then coached at the Little Big Horn College, Crow Agency, NJCAA Division 1. Then an old friendship with Frank Norunner, NCTS Superintendent led him to Busby. Norunner, Blackfeet tribal member has known Chavez since he was a Browning Indians star.

“Frank suggested that it was time to start something new, to give back and help these Rez kids out.” Chavez said. “That’s how I came to Busby. The students are no different than I was at that age.”

As NCTS coach, Chavez sees young players with raw talent that need discipline with hard work.

“I tell them to play every day," Chavez said. "Put the cell phone down, log out of Facebook. There is no secret to success except lots of hard work and time on the court. I know from personal experience that coaches can make a huge difference in a young person’s life.”

Coach Chavez also stresses: “Grades, grades, grades. I tell my players that a 3.0 – 3.5 GPA is necessary if they want to go on to college. And, I also tell these student-athletes (emphasis on student) that there are people at all the colleges who will help them. They just need to ask for help and believe that these people want to see them be successful.”‘

NCTS principal, Teresa McMakin commented" “He demands a lot of discipline, but the kids all love him. He is very motivational to them.”

Though off to a slow start, Chavez has high expectations for the Busby Eagles this year.

“If we can also keep them working hard in the classroom, we will be a force.” he predicts.

Chavez is the son of the late Pete Chavez, Crow Agency and Maryanne Bighead, Ashland, Mont.

(Clara Caufield can be reached at

Copyright permission Native Sun News

Join the Conversation