The rollout of two new books about high school basketball in Montana turned into an appreciation of basketball legend Larry Pretty Weasel here on Wednesday.
Pretty Weasel is widely considered the best Indian high school basketball player in Montana history, and some people call him Montana’s greatest high school basketball player, period. He also is a key character in a new book by a Hardin teammate, Steven E. Dyche, author of “Integrated Basketball at the Little Big Horn: A 1957 Success Story.”
Dyche was at the Billings Public Library to talk about his book, along with Dennis Gaub, author of a book that launched in July, “Win ’Em All,” the story of Laurel’s outmanned but undefeated 1969 high school basketball team.
Gaub also lavished praise on Pretty Weasel, who attended the event but spoke only briefly, in part, he said, because of a recent death in the family.
Dyche went on from Hardin to teach at Billings Senior High School and at the University of Wyoming, Black Hills State University and Appalachian State University. Now retired, he also is the author of “Humor in the Classroom” and lives in North Carolina.
But Pretty Weasel still clearly looms large in his life.
“He was my hero,” Dyche said.
In that 1957 season, he said, Pretty Weasel averaged 26.1 points a game, a remarkable total in an era with no three-point shot and when entire teams sometimes scored no more than 26 points in a game. The next-highest point-per-game average on that team was just 6.9 points, Dyche said, while maintaining that Pretty Weasel was no ball hog.
“Larry put the team on his back and carried us to victory in that 1957 season,” Dyche said. And scoring wasn’t even Pretty Weasel’s strongest point, he said.
“The best part of his game was defense, he said. Although Pretty Weasel stood only 5 feet 10 inches tall, he was an excellent rebounder and a state high jump champion, Dyche said.
Frank Lane of Miles City, who also attended Wednesday’s event and is one of four surviving members of the 1957 Hardin team, said he never saw a better player in his 76 years in Montana.
Pretty Weasel was not only fast but quiet on the court, he said.
“I’m glad this isn’t the old days and you were sneaking up on me,” he said.
Pretty Weasel’s quiet demeanor extended off the court, too, Lane said.
“In Larry Pretty Weasel’s eyes,” he said, “he was not great. He was just doing his job.”
At the height of Pretty Weasel’s career, Lane said, he got so much mail that the high school had to give him his own mailbox. The Montana State University coach said Pretty Weasel was the best player he ever saw except for Elgin Baylor, the Los Angeles Laker great who played college ball at Seattle University.
So many Hardin fans turned out even for road games when Pretty Weasel was playing that at least three Montana schools passed bond issues to build new gyms to handle the crowds, Lane said.
“Honest to God, he was the greatest player to ever put on a pair of trunks in this state,” Lane said.
Pretty Weasel went on to play at Rocky Mountain College and led the nation in field goal percentage before dropping out because of admitted heavy drinking and smoking. He eventually gave up drinking and at 77 says he is “semi-retired.”
The 1957 Hardin team was memorable in other ways, both Dyche and Lane said. It was the first Montana team to have three Indians in the starting lineup—in a town bordering the Crow Indian Reservation and in an era when restaurants had signs banning “dogs and coloreds,” including Indians.
To build team unity, white and Indian players would share pregame meals, Dyche said. Business owners set up a car pool so Indian players would no longer have to hitchhike back to Crow Agency after practice, he said.
In his remarks, Gaub said that basketball had a grip on the Montana imagination in those days that is hard to duplicate today. Other entertainment options were limited, and school loyalty was intense.
Gaub, a former Billings Gazette reporter who now lives in Belgrade, made his own attempt to capture that era with his account of the 1969 Laurel team. No player on the Laurel team stood talker than 6 foot 2, Gaub said, and it had to play against teams from schools more than four times its size. Yet the Laurel team went 26-0, winning the championship in overtime against Kalispell.
That was the last year of the Big 32 tournament, which grouped all Class A and AA teams in a single bracket to determine a champion. Gaub, still a reporter at heart, interviewed nearly all of the members of the team, including one who now lives in Australia and another who was designing a golf course in Dubai.
Much of the credit for the team’s success is ascribed to Coach Don Peterson, whose career spanned five decades but who died too soon to be interviewed for the book. Peterson is characterized as a tactical expert who may have lacked interpersonal skills but relied on Assistant Coach Dean Fiske to work closely to encourage and motivate players.
Gaub attempts to write a smooth narrative of the season while sticking to the facts. In instances where he recreates dialogue, based on the memories of players, he places the quotations in italics.
The book’s 215 pages offer about as thorough an account as anyone could hope for, including a detailed examination of an alleged officiating error that cost Laurel a title the previous year. A brief account is given of each game on the way to the undefeated season, plus an update on where the players are now, and 10 pages of photos.
Gaub is a seasoned writer whose brisk style keeps the book moving, even for nonfans. He is working on another book about Montana high school basketball and said he also is interested in writing about Wayne Estes, an Anaconda and Utah State star who was accidentally electrocuted at the scene of a traffic accident in 1965.
At the time, Estes was expected to be a high draft choice for the National Basketball Association, making him yet another legend in Montana basketball history.