It’s been a year since Robin Selvig last paced the hardwood as the Montana Grizzlies’ women’s basketball head coach, but a ripple effect from his career in recruiting Native Americans can still be seen across the country. For his efforts in recruiting Native players, Selvig became one of the few non-Indians to be inducted in the Montana Indian Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008.
Many of his Native players have also earned that honor.
An average of 23 women per year have represented Indian country in the past four seasons in NCAA Division I basketball. In 1990, there were none.
Selvig, who retired after 38 seasons as the ninth-winningest coach in women’s basketball history (865 wins), recruited his first Native player — Malia Kipp, of the Blackfeet Reservation — in 1992.
“I do have a sense of pride” in recruiting Native American players, Selvig told ICMN. “I always felt I really wanted to give the Native people in this state a chance.”
Selvig also cited the 1904 Fort Shaw Indian boarding school girls basketball team who played at the World’s Fair in St. Louis, and went undefeated. “I’ve always been interested in [Native history]. I’ve always read about it and I always wanted to give Native American young ladies a chance.”
Chippewa Cree tribal member LeAnn Montes was one player who got an opportunity back in 1999. That year was ESPN’s first visit to the school regarding its Native recruiting, where an Outside the Lines reportrevealed the sacrifices Montes had to make to follow her basketball dream, including leaving her 2-year-old daughter behind.
The report’s synopsis included: “Many Native Americans are not able to adjust to living away from the reservation and return before receiving their college degrees. Montes says she needs a degree to leave the alcoholism and poverty of her reservation and create a better future for her and her daughter.”
Selvig helped Montana Indians believe their hoop dreams could come true. Tamara Guardipee (Blackfeet) was the next in line from her reservation after Kipp. She told ESPN in 2007 her dream to play college ball was inspired by her predecessor. “(Malia) was kind of a big deal to me,” she said.
Once they were on the team, the Native players became celebrities on the road, Selvig says. “Every place we played, if there was a reservation nearby, little kids would be there,” he says. “I know they took some pride in representing where they were from.”
One of the highlights of Robin Selvig’s career, he says, was watching Kipp receive an eagle feather from the her Blackfeet nation during her senior year. “They brought busloads down from Browning, a couple hundred miles away.”
Including Kipp, who played from 1992-96, he added Simarron Schildt (Blackfeet, 1999-02), Montes (2000-03), Kayla Lambert (Assiniboine Sioux, 2002), Corrie Villegas (Flathead, 2003-04), Dana Conway (Blackfeet, 2004-08), Tam Guardipee (2005-09), Dvera Tolbert (Crow, 2008), and Shanae Gilham (Blackfeet, 2012-16) to rosters that made a combined 10 NCAA Tournament Appearances of the 21 Selvig made in his career. Montana was the powerhouse of the Big Sky Conference with 20-win seasons in 19 of Selvig’s 24 seasons since he began recruiting Native Americans.
Though he’s out of the sport, he still encourages prospective American Indian college basketball players to work hard in school in order to earn clearance into NCAA Division I. “Every lady has to have the NCAA core class requirements and that’s a thing on the reservations and the schools — all the background has to be done or you can’t take them to Division I basketball.”
Robin Selvig believes Native youth have enormous potential, and points to his former players and Louisville basketball standouts Shoni and Jude Schimmel as athletes to look up to. “The reality now is the young kids on the reservations can not only say they want to be a Lady Griz or play at Louisville, they can become that.”