But woe to the
team that takes the tournament lightly. In 1975 the Blue Moon of Sunnyside,
Wash. brought in a bunch of playground heroes and lost by 112 points to the
Renton Roadrunners. Even a team as well stocked as the Scobey Merchants, with
ex-USC standouts Biff Burrell and Clint Chapman and Rick Bullock, an
all-conference center from Texas Tech, could do no better than third place.
No local team has
been entered for several years, which makes sense considering the alternatives
available to would-be players. A Lewistown boy would have to be something of a
masochist to spend his days dribbling in a sweaty gym instead of enjoying the
stupendous beauty outdoors. Surrounded by rolling plains, mountains and
streams, Lewistown is defined by clean air and fresh water. The local drink,
known as a "bourbon ditch," owes its name to the cowboy custom of
dipping mixer straight from the nearest creek. "Homesteaders had a hell of
a time trying to make a go of it here," says Don Morrison, a 54-year
resident. "The place was just too pretty for 'em."
During breaks at
the Civic Center, basketball talk invariably digresses to fishing talk, with
everyone telling stories about his favorite secret trout hole. Big Spring
Creek, however, is no secret. It gushes from the ground eight miles above town
and flows right under Main Street, pure as tap water. Schoolchildren and
workers on lunch breaks frequently take a few minutes to drop a line from the
sidewalk and yank out potbellied rainbows as firm and cold as if they had been
refrigerated. In the fall, of course, if one isn't too busy hiking, horseback
riding or ogling the colors, there is hunting for mule deer, white tails,
grouse and elk.
Lewistown is virtually nonexistent. "What there is comes mostly from
out-of-staters violating fish and game laws," says Bob Knopp, tournament
publicity chairman. Indeed, the tournament at times seems little more than an
opportunity for the citizens to show off their friendliness to strangers.
Asking directions can lead to half-hour chats and dinner invitations.
But the weather
can be hostile. "Seems every winter they find somebody dead in their car in
a snowdrift," says an 80-year-old man out for a Sunday jog. "We get
some blows can put the fear of God in you. Even in March."
And lest the
people of central Montana feel too remote from the times, there are the small
cement and barbed-wire squares laid out in the cow pastures to bring them back
to present-day reality. "Those are the underground Minute-men," says
Glenn Roberts. "They're connected by cables about 150 feet deep and they're
programmed to go up over the Arctic. The government's going to put in new ones
with multiple nuclear warheads pretty soon."
For the most part
the players are not overly concerned with the town, having come strictly for
the court action. "Outside of college or the pros there really isn't much
else," says former Arizona State star Jim Owens, who with the rest of his
Phoenix teammates drove 30 hours through desert, mountains and snow to play in
The culture shock
can be rugged, though, particularly for blacks. "We went to this place
called the Bar 19," says Jerry Fort from Chicago and the University of
Nebraska, "and there were cowboys with real—what do you call those
things—ten-gallon hats. The band was playing country stuff, and all the jukebox
carried was the same thing. We came back to the motel and watched TV."
Most of the
players' scrutiny is focused on the playing area. The gym floor, which is soft
and springy, merits their approval, but the ceiling is low, the stands hold
only 1,400 and there is no room between the crowd and the out-of-bounds line.
Several times during the tournament players following through on layups have
hit the padded doors under one of the baskets and continued out onto the
street. "I bet those doors surprise them," says Bob Knopp. So does the
officiating, which at times can resemble the early work of the Three Stooges.
Fights are common and leaping into the air can be an invitation to have one's
body sent to the lobby to join the souvenir T shirts and hot dogs.
captain of the Nevada-Las Vegas team that lost in the 1976 NCAA Regionals to
Arizona, claims he'll warn his friends back at school about playing in the
tournament. "I've never played in a game that rough," he said after his
first loss. "I've never had a dude stick his fingers all the way up my