'THOSE BOBCATS CAN'T BE BEAT'
The only thing that stood between Donald Ortman and basketball was his terrible modesty. Lank, limby and obviously cut for the game, Don Ortman would gladly play for Panguitch High, he told the coach in 1936, but not if it meant taking off his long pants. The coach, equally inflexible, could not agree ("Long pants?" he shrieked. "Out there on the court? Long pants?"), and Panguitch, Utah had to wait until Don's son Wally grew up before it could fully appreciate the Ortman family.
Nowadays, unabashed by the sight of his bare legs, Wally Ortman wears the conventional blue-and-white briefs of the undefeated Panguitch team and receives vast quantities of Panguitchian appreciation. This includes being a principal conversation topic on U.S. Highway 89 (Main Street) and at the Latter-Day Saints Social Hall and around the corner at Daly's pool and billiard retreat. Rhyming couplets are composed by adoring teenage girls: "The score goes up, that player, golly!/He's real neat, his name is Wally." His younger brothers, Kenny and Dennis, bask in his prominence and beg him to teach them to back-dribble. They consider the time golden when Wally gets with them at the make-do court in the vacant corral across the road. His girl, Barbara, has promised to retrieve the ring and picture she gave to another boy after the Panguitch coach, Bob Davis, a purist, got the team to swear off girls for the season.
Wally's gray-haired mother is still his most devoted fan. She recounts Panguitch basketball lore—like the time the "sore losers" from Marysvale set fire to a neighbor's car—while she struggles with the heavy batter for Wally's favorite boiled-raisin cake or punctiliously launders his uniform. Sometimes she cries to herself as she watches him disappear up the gravel road, walking, bag in hand, to the Panguitch gym on game nights. "It's sad for parents, the way time flies," she says. "We're content and we stay. Where can we go now? But when the children get out of school, they always go. There's nothing here to keep them."
Panguitch, Utah is a blinking amber light at a dogleg on U.S. 89, 170 miles southwest of the nearest big town, Provo, and roughly along what Salt Lake City sensationalists imagine to be the beeline taken by itinerant bank robbers and high rollers heading west for Las Vegas. A brush with such glamorous villains was suspected in Panguitch last winter when the drugstore was robbed, but other than that, Panguitch doesn't qualify as much of a sin town. The local Garfield County News reported some time ago that when a woman in nearby Escalante called to report a robbery, the sheriff (since retired) instructed her to please get the name and address of the crook and he'd be over to make the arrest.
Panguitch ( Ute Indian for "big fish") squats in a water-scarce trough between the Parowan Range on the west and the Panguitch Plateau, a branch of the Wasatch Mountains, on the east. Deer are plentiful in the hills, and no self-respecting Panguitch boy will go a season without getting his buck; venison is, therefore, staple fare in Panguitch. The area is 6,560 feet above a sea most Panguitchians have never seen, and is crisscrossed with irrigation ditches partly filled with snow this time of year. It is a gray land studded with cottonwood, ponderosa pine and native fir, but mostly there is sagebrush, uninspiring, mile after mile. The beauty is in the mountains, where there are vivid streaks of red beneath peaks that seem to have been confected with Reddi-Wip.
Because of the water shortage the population of Panguitch—1,435—has remained almost constant since the turn of the century. The people are interested in outsiders ("I have never seen a Negro," said the mother of one of the basketball players) and inquisitive about their tastes, yet they are at a loss to explain the red in their own mountains. The state's largest sawmill is at Panguitch, and there are alfalfa farms and small cattle ranches that vie for the water, but the lifeblood of the community is a million dollars' worth of tourists and hunters each year. There are 13 modern motels and nine gas stations to snare the traveler within the town limits. In summer the principal attraction is Bryce Canyon, a sort of Grand Canyon in miniature 25 miles to the southeast ( Grand Canyon itself is only 175 miles south). The hunters come by the hundreds in the fall. The sign outside town discriminates only against "peddlers and hawkers" (licenses required) and "noisy mufflers and cutouts." Panguitch cafe food is hearty and the hospitality is, too, despite regiments of big-city parking meters. (This winter a second-string Panguitch High basketball player called Whips is famous for his fancy dribbling and fakes between and around the meters.)
The town's religious preference is Mormon, by 95%—which makes it a challenge for a visitor to achieve a social cup of coffee. The town's passion is basketball, and it is a challenge for anybody to talk about anything else. Bill Coltrine, a high school sportswriter for the
Salt Lake City Tribune
, stopped in Panguitch while vacationing last summer and was assailed by a delegation of townspeople eager to stuff him with details on the great team Coach Bob Davis was going to have. "But friends, this is July," protested Coltrine. "Nobody talks basketball in July."
"We do!" chorused the delegates.
The Panguitch team had won its 16th straight and appeared well on its way to the state Class B championship when Photographer Rich Clarkson and I checked into the New Western Motel down the street from the school the other day. We had driven the 71 miles from Cedar City, the nearest airport town. "You'll find people in this part of the country are very friendly," said the proprietor of the New Western, a native named Clarence Cameron. "Now, you'll be in rooms 15 and 16. But before you unpack, let me tell you about our basketball team. They've won 16 straight. Could be better than that '57 bunch that won the state championship. And that was an exciting team. Never knew what they were going to do.