For a decade or so after starting my career as a reporter and editor at the Missoulian in 1977, my duties included covering high school and college sports.
In the winter, that meant watching and writing about basketball games, literally hundreds over the years, games involving the Grizzlies and Lady Griz at the University of Montana, and boys and girls high school teams from all over western Montana.
Because of their exciting atmosphere, some of my favorite games to cover were the state high school championship tournaments. I covered state tourneys in all four Montana prep classifications - AA, A, B and C. Of those, my favorites were the tourneys involving the smaller schools in Class B, and the smallest, Class C.
I liked to cover the B and C tourneys because it seemed like the whole town would always turn out to support their teams. And the rivalries between communities would be epic and often longstanding.
One of my most memorable tourneys was the state C championship in 1979.
For 24 years, between 1957 and 1980, the state C basketball tournament was held in Helena at Carroll College. So, it became the mecca of basketball for all of the 90-plus smallest schools in Montana. Earning a berth at state was often a rare occurrence for any particular C team, so it became a major social event and an honor for the entire community.
My assignment in 1979 was to cover the St. Regis Tigers, making their first-ever trip to state. But they were eliminated in a loser-out game on Saturday morning. I stayed to write about the championship between Flaxville and Peerless, two teams from neighboring tiny towns in the extreme northeastern corner of Montana.
It was a classic matchup of contrasting teams and styles of play. Flaxville, the eventual titlist, was an extraordinarily tall squad by Class C standards, led by 6-foot-7 center Kevin Hatfield. In comparison, Peerless was a group of midgets.
Here's what I wrote about Flaxville in my column for the Missoulian:
"The Cardinals' deliberate play was punctuated by devastating raw frontline power - the antithesis of Peerless's free-flowing style."
Of Peerless, I wrote:
"Peerless was a joy to watch, however, at the C tourney - a blur of five miniature, high-speed basketball automatons with radar shooting touches. The precision of the Panthers' indistinguishable Puckett twins, Jon and Joe, enhanced the refined, almost mechanical image of the team."
"As you might expect by now," I continued, "my allegiances were with the smaller Panthers in the championship game, although they were by no means the underdogs, having beaten Flaxville three times during the season."
I hadn't thought about that game for many years, until about a month ago, when I got an e-mail from a guy in Germany.
It was from Joe Puckett, one of the twin Peerless stars. He wrote to let me know that he's written a book about his 1978 and 1979 Peerless teams. I was flattered that he wanted to include the column I wrote for the Missoulian, which he said was his favorite article written about his team and the state tourney. And he e-mailed me an electronic copy of his book, "The Dream."
He was motivated to write the book, Puckett says, when Peerless closed its high school, founded in 1932, last year because of a lack of student enrollment. It's a fate common to many small eastern Montana towns in recent years.
"The story is also," Puckett writes in the book's prologue, "about the ending of an era, a passing of a way of life on the highline in northeastern Montana. It is the passing of what was once the most powerful Class C conference in the entire state of Montana, District 1-C, consisting at the time of the high schools of Peerless, Outlook, Flaxville, Westby, Antelope and Medicine Lake, who during a six-year span, 1975 to 1980, won five out of six State C basketball championships"
In addition, he adds, "Medicine Lake won the State Class B championship in 1975. Westby won the C championship in 1972.
"Between the years 1970-1980, District 1-C won the Eastern Divisional tournament nine out of 11 years. During this time, the district was the most dominant in the entire history of Montana Class C basketball. In two of those years, a team from District 1-C also finished second at state, losing only to the champion from 1-C. Also in 1980, the last year the state tournament was played in Helena, Outlook and Opheim, a former 1-C team, finished 1-2 at state."
Outlook, in 1980, was led by Doug Selvig, the last of a generation of that famed Montana basketball family who starred there. I covered that tourney for the Missoulian.
Four of those schools - Peerless, Outlook, Flaxville and Antelope - no longer exist.
"The Dream" is a nostalgic - but often humorous - look at the history and culture of Class C basketball in northeastern Montana, and it captures the passion and tradition of the state C tournament during its 24-year run in Helena. Puckett also tells a poignant story of how high school sports bonds rural Montana communities and families.
Puckett, who went on to play basketball at Montana Tech, works for the U.S. Department of Defense, in Stuttgart, Germany, where he lives with his wife and two daughters.
"The Dream," which is 260 pages and loaded with great photos, is available online, for $14.95, from Aubade Publishing at aubadepublishing.com. The book will be available Aug. 1 at all Hastings book stores in Montana - in Helena, Butte, Great Falls, Bozeman, Billings and Missoula. Also by Aug. 1, it will be available online at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.
Daryl Gadbow is a former Missoulian sportswriter and outdoors reporter, now a Missoula freelance writer.