JR Camel smiles after making a basket for the Montana Grizzlies in 1997. (MTN Sports photo)

(Editor’s note: MTN Sports began recognizing some of the best boys basketball players in Montana history on June 13 with the launch of the #MTTop50. The first six weeks of the series separated players by decade, beginning with athletes from 2010-present that first week and concluding with athletes from the 1960s, ‘50s and earlier. The weeks between featured five players each from the 2000s, 1990s, 1980s and 1970s. Players like Tres Tinkle, who graduated from Missoula Hellgate in 2015 and is currently playing at Oregon State, and Wayne Estes, who starred at Anaconda and Utah State in the 1960s, were not featured in their respective decades. Those players will be profiled in the top 20, regardless of era, which MTN Sports began ranking July 25. You can find a full rundown of the 30 players featured before the top 20 countdown by clicking here.)

Top 20 rankings: No. 20 – Reece Gliko; No. 19 – Brent Wilson; No. 18 – Mike Chavez; No. 17 – Shawn Samuelson. … No. 1 – Aug. 19. 

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No. 16 – JR Camel, St.Ignatius/Missoula Hellgate

Wing players dominated the 1990s – from Scott Hatler to Mike Warhank to Pete Conway – with their fast-paced style of play and ability to score or assist off the drive. JR Camel was perhaps one of the most athletic in the decade and has been praised as having some of the quickest hands in Class AA history.

JR Camel stat sheet

Camel started his high school career at St. Ignatius before moving to Homedale, Idaho. He transferred back to Montana for his senior season at Missoula Hellgate and guided the Knights to a perfect 23-0 record and a Class AA state championship. Camel averaged 23 points per game that season and was recognized as the Montana Gatorade Player of the Year. He competed in the Midland Roundtable Montana-Wyoming all-star series and was named Mr. Basketball for Montana after leading the Treasure State to a sweep over Wyoming.

Camel is considered one of the most successful Native American basketball players in Montana’s history and continued his career at the University of Montana. He was an all-conference selection in 1996-97 and 1997-98. He led the Griz in scoring (11.3ppg in 1996-97 and 11.8ppg in 1997-98) and assists (4.6apg in 1996-97 and 5.9apg in 1997-98) each season. He ranks second in program history in career steals (215) and was named the team’s Outstanding Defensive Player of the Year in 1997-98. He currently ranks eighth all-time in career assists with 365.

JR Camel played overseas for three seasons in then-Yugoslavia.

… on Camel:

Former Missoula Hellgate boys basketball coach Eric Hays: “What I saw with JR – we just unfortunately and fortunately we only had him his senior year in high school – and I’ve never seen a player at the AA level in my years that had as quick of hands as he did. He just had the ability to strip ball-handlers, and then once he was in the open court, he was unstoppable. He had great quickness, he had explosiveness, he could jump out of the gym. He was just a very, very good, instinctive basketball player. And he fit in perfectly with our team in 1993, because they all had great instincts and they were able to do what we call the run-and-jump, man full-court press. He was the catalyst to it. He was a very, very talented high school player.”

“I know it was interesting with his senior year learning about some of the Native American culture and things that they do and the influence they have on every one of their members. It was good to see JR go on and succeed at the collegiate level. I think Malia Kipp, his wife, was a tremendous influence on him, also. And the two of them just kind of fought through a lot of the cultural barriers and have been very successful. It’ll be interesting to see with their children, are they good enough to play at the collegiate level, and if so, how will they do? You got to break down some barriers there. It’s been a very difficult time for the Native Americans to get into, I guess, the white culture and the college and things like that where they can be successful.”

Hamilton High athletic director Darrell Holland: “Most of the people on the list are people who didn’t have a weakness. I’ve seen him pull four or five rebounds down. Here’s a great scorer, passer, assist-leader, whatever, and if his team needed four or five rebounds, he would go in there, mix it up and pull four or five rebounds down in a row. Whatever it took, he seemed to be able to get it done.”

JR Camel smiles after making a basket for the Montana Grizzlies in 1997. (MTN Sports photo)
JR Camel smiles after making a basket for the Montana Grizzlies in 1997. (MTN Sports photo)