Zachary Camel isn’t known for a 40-inch vertical, but he did make one of the largest leaps any Native American basketball player has ever made. After two seasons at Salish Kootenai College, the 20-year-old Flathead tribal member successfully walked on to the University of Montana team this fall.
“You gotta be perfect,” his father and college coach Zack Camel Sr. told him prior to the tryout. Zachary was convincing enough to earn a roster spot under Travis DeCuire, who is coaching the No. 1 team in the Big Sky Conference (9-2, 14-8 overall).
The scenario wouldn’t be much different for another Indian kid, said Camel Jr., who believes his story turns around a perception that tribal colleges cannot lead to greater opportunities. “I definitely have seen that [perception] from Native kids,” Camel told ICTMN. “They don’t get a bunch of offers out of college, so they have to go play at a smaller school. But Indian schools are an advantage for us.”
His father, who has coached 10 National Championship teams, agrees. “It’s a big deal for us,” said Camel Sr., “because it shows a lot of these Indian kids there’s an opportunity: If you put in a lot of work and do the right stuff in school there’s a chance. It’s never happened before.” Camel Sr. says weightlifting and conditioning programs allow his players to compete for that opportunity.
That work helped Zachary get ready, he said. The 6-footer was a force at guard on back-to-back AIHEC championship teams. The tournament serves as March Madness for tribal colleges. At Montana, Camel will vie for playing time at either guard position. “Shooting’s my thing, and good decision-making” Camel says of his strengths. But more lifting is ahead for the redshirt: One of my goals is to get a lot more strength for next season; get a better feel for Division I basketball.”
For those unfamiliar, redshirting is a term slotted for players to gain experience while unofficially maintaining a position on the team.
He entered a basketball program familiar with the Camel last name. Zachary’s uncle, J.R., had a storied career for the Grizzlies, holding the career steals record for more than a decade. “[My uncle] always taught me little things to better my game, ever since I was little,” Zachary said. J.R. serves as Salish Kootenai’s assistant coach. He played alongside his nephew in the largest 3-on-3 tournament in the world this summer, winning the 6-foot-and-under elite division.
J.R. Camel says he was excited and “damn-near overwhelmed,” to hear the news following his nephew’s successful tryout with Montana. “A Native American coming from our college, it helps our program and it helps the University of Montana.” Claiming die-hard Montana fans still recognize him at ballgames, J.R. Camel says he expects the next Camel player to wear No. 22 to receive the same treatment.
The Grizzlies look on track for an NCAA Tournament bid this season. Camel is traveling to most games and practicing full-time. He took advantage of his one shot, and hopes to one day show the University of Montana and other college programs to be optimistic about potential transfers from Indian colleges. The same goes for the athletes who will try to make the most of their one shot. “Just never give up and keep pushing,” Camel says. “That’s all I did.”
Follow ICTMN correspondent Cary Rosenbaum on Twitter: @caryrosenbaum