MISSOULA — On the 12th day before Christmas, the sourpuss in this sports columnist was smothered by sweet.

Keep in mind I've been doing the same job for 33 years and have settled into Old Man's Land in some ways. I eat the same thing for lunch every day and watch the same movies repeatedly because I have no patience for new fluff.

On Dec. 13 the inaugural Lady Griz School Day was held at Dahlberg Arena. When I first read about it, how 5,000 kids were going to be attending a rare Montana women's basketball weekday matinee, I thought to myself: Zippity-doo-da-day, I'll never find a parking spot with 90 school buses in the way.

But something unexpected came over me that afternoon. It started when I parked my car and noticed there were children without coats jumping up and down and dancing like they were headed to an amusement park.

This wasn't Silverwood and certainly not summer. These kids were simply drinking in the scenery outside the Adams Center, ecstatic about the idea of attending a real-life Montana game.

When you've covered Grizzly athletics for 11 years like me, you have to be careful not to fall into a rut. You tell yourself: It may be just another December pre-conference game, but for someone else it's an indelible memory.

As I settled in to watch the Lady Griz battle Seattle University with notebook in hand, a child walked up behind me, marveling at my dusty old portable computer and prominent court-side seat. The sparkle is his eyes transported me back to my childhood, if only for a moment.

I thought to myself, Speltz, you really are a lucky so-and-so. You would've given up your bike, baseball glove and summer vacation for this job back when you were slaving at that sweaty egg processing plant in college.

The atmosphere at Dahlberg was unlike anything I've experienced — a state championship high school game and a visit from Santa all in one. That skinny grade-schooler in me, the one that grew up in a smaller town and never attended a Division I basketball game until his late 20s, was giggling inside.

All the muddy thoughts I was harboring on a predictably gray Missoula day washed away. Pre-game music echoed across Dahlberg Arena and thousands of kids sang along. Lady Griz players ran on the floor for final warm-ups and wore the kind of grins you just never see before a D-I game.

Even the opposing team seemed quite enamored with the scene.

"I got teared up walking out there, very emotional," said Montana coach Shannon Schweyen, her idea finally coming to fruition in a wildly successful way.

A thought occurred to me as I digested the experience: It's up to me, you, all of us to tend to our athletic treasures. We're all stewards of these games that belong to children.

Days like Dec. 13 remind me why I moved my family to Montana in the summer of 2007. So that I could be at a place where kids get so excited for game time they count down the final 10 seconds before the National Anthem. Count it down as if we were back in 1969 and Apollo 11 was ready for liftoff.

"I will remember it for the rest of my life," Lady Griz junior forward Jace Henderson confessed.

Many deserve credit for making that day special. The teachers and bus drivers and all those at the University of Montana that worked to pull it off. The season ticket holders that gave up their seats. The Griz coaches, like Travis DeCuire and Jason Brown, that felt compelled to be there and brought along players for the kids to meet.

Five days after the event, Schweyen and her team sat down and enjoyed hundreds of letters sent to UM in appreciation of Lady Griz School Day. There were kiddie drawings of the big new scoreboard and Monte and messages directed at favorite athletes and cheerleaders.

Hold on to those letters, ladies.

They're priceless.

Email Bill Speltz at bill.speltz@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @billspeltz.

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