Like all high school basketball players, Jeff Ament had visions of playing hoops at the college level. Although his hoop dreams were never realized, it's safe to say things turned out pretty well for the 1981 graduate of Big Sandy High School.
After a standout prep career for the Pioneers and a couple of years as a student at the University of Montana, Ament moved to Seattle and later found himself living out another dream as the bass player for the world-famous rock band Pearl Jam.
When he isn't on tour playing in front of sold-out arenas or in the studio, Ament, who lives in Missoula, remains active in the local sports scene. He plays pick-up basketball games at Peak Health and Wellness and sits courtside at many Griz games. He's also an avid skateboarder and was instrumental in making Missoula's Mobash Skate Park a reality.
Here, Ament discusses, among other things, his career at Big Sandy, Griz hoops, getting Cokes for CBS Sports commentator Billy Packer and Starting Lineup thieves.
Q: What was your high school sports career like as a Big Sandy Pioneer?
A: It was up-and-down. I had some tough years early, but as a senior it kind of all happened for me. I was all-state in football and was one of the leading scorers in Class B in basketball. I love basketball and had high hopes of playing in college, but those dreams were dashed quickly.
Q: What were some of the highlights of your basketball career?
A: We made the state tournament in 1980 when I was a junior and took fourth place. In the first game against Loyola, our two best scorers had fouled out and I was the only shooter left on the court. I hit a shot at the buzzer to send the game into overtime, but we lost.
As a senior I could dunk and did it a lot during warm-ups, but never in a game. At divisionals against Cascade, I got a steal and thought, 'I'm gonna dunk it.' Well, I got too excited and took off from the free-throw line and missed the double-pump layup. Actually, now that I think of it, that was more like a lowlight.
Q: As far as Pearl Jam goes, are you guys sports fans?
A: I think so. Ed (Vedder) and I go to NBA games whenever we can. We've also been to the Final Four in Charlotte and New Orleans. That's about as exciting as it gets for me as far as sports are concerned. In 1994, when Arkansas won the national title, I had awesome seats. It just so happened that Billy Packer's son was a big Pearl Jam fan. At the games, he was a runner for his dad. He told me that if I could get him tickets to the show the next night, I could have his job and his seat at halfcourt. So there I was, right behind Jim Nantz and Billy Packer, watching the game. A couple of times Packer said, 'Go get me a Coke,' just so it looked like I was doing something. That was probably the best fringe benefit of all time, right there.
Q: Before you guys were named Pearl Jam, you were called Mookie Blaylock, who was a former guard for the University of Oklahoma and NBA player. What's the story behind that?
A: Well, when we were recording our first record, we had a per diem of about $10. So when we got lunch at the store across the street, we'd always buy a pack of basketball cards. When we turned in our tape, we didn't have a name for the band yet so we put a Mookie Blaylock card in the case. We were about to go on a tour and still didn't have a name and needed one quickly. We were told it didn't need to be the name that we were going to use forever, just something for the tour. Someone saw the Mookie Blaylock card and said, 'How about Mookie Blaylock?' We decided to go with it and did a 10-show tour with Alice in Chains as Mookie Blaylock. Mookie was cool about it, too - he didn't sue us. I actually got to meet him later on and shoot around a little bit. We also made a Pearl Jam T-shirt with a picture of him on it. I guess we owe Mookie a lot.
Q: You go to a lot of Griz basketball games. What's your favorite part of it?
A: I just love watching these guys play and I really appreciate the purity of the game at the college level. Jordan (Hasquet) is an exciting local kid, Cam (Rundles) is amazing, (Brian) Qvale has a great future. To me, it seems like they really enjoy playing together. I think Wayne (Tinkle) is doing a great job. But the best games I remember seeing were when I went to school here from 1981-83. The place would be just packed. I wish it could get back to that type of atmosphere, like football is now. I guess I just don't really get why basketball hasn't taken off again like that. It's probably the best value in town for the entertainment. The team can do a lot this year and they're fun to watch, and hopefully that will translate into ticket sales.
Q: Who are your favorite all-time Griz basketball players?
A: Oh man, that's a tough one. My man Larry (Krystkowiak) and Wayne (Tinkle) are going to kill me. Those guys are in my top four, no doubt, but I have to go with Micheal Ray Richardson. I saw Micheal Ray play when I was younger. For 10 bucks, we could ride a bus from Big Sandy and come watch the Griz. I'd never seen such a great player. I also love Derrick Pope. That guy was unbelievable.
Q: During Pearl Jam shows, those Starting Lineup sports action figures could be seen decorating the amps on the stage. What ever happened to those?
A: People started stealing them. We tried velcroing them down, all kinds of stuff to keep them, but people would just take them. In 1995 in Florida, someone stole my Michael Jordan and my Magic Johnson at the same show. I was able to replace them, but that was the end of the Starting Lineups on stage. I still have them in my library next to my collection of sports books.
Q: What was your favorite one?
A: I had an Xavier McDaniel that I was pretty proud of. I was a huge fan of the "X-man."
If you weren't in a wildly successful band, would you rather be a pro skater or pro basketball player? That's another tough one. I think a 6-foot pro basketball player.
Best gym in Montana? Chester High. It was easy to dunk there, plus I had a lot of luck against Don Holst there.
Best venue you've played a Pearl Jam show? I'm going to sound like a homer, but I've gotta say Washington-Grizzly Stadium. It was a hometown gig, the weather was great. That was awesome.
What music got you pumped up in high school? I used to make tapes for road trips, and the best one had AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" on one side and the Sex Pistols' "Never Mind the Bullocks" on the other.
What about now? Probably that same AC/DC record. I also like Motorhead, Slayer and Led Zeppelin to skate to.
What did you get for Christmas? I got it for myself, but it's a Caster Chris Strople-signature skateboard. It was the same board I started skating on in 1979, which was the best summer of my life.