It is almost impossible to live today and not have read a book or watched a movie about sports. As engaging as they are, they all follow the same formula: adversity, challenge, a minor setback, and triumph—complete with winners and losers. All these stories, whether fiction or real, are served to us to make us feel good, to inspire hope. “The Game,” while having one foot in fiction and the other in history, follows the age-old David versus Goliath formula. It is not so much good over evil, but the case of a smaller opponent beating a bigger challenger. This is a story about the spirit of fair play, and respect for one’s opponent.
The story begins and ends on the basketball court of a very small reservation school in northeastern Montana, facing off against the cross-border rivals. The Warriors versus the Cowgirls, too fantastic to be made up, and the mascots couldn’t be more fitting. Age-old prejudices facing off against years of hardship and resentment. Feelings of the past from both camps, still very much alive. To add one more twist to the plot, like any civil war, the game pitted family member against family member.
If you have never seen and followed Montana class C basketball, it is an experience that exemplifies the essence of basketball in its purest form. The first quarter of “The Game” was uneventful. Both coaches were feeling each other’s game out. Athletes were learning their opposition. With neither team feeling overly confident or inferior, the quarter ended with no huge advantage. There were a few fouls and a handful of buckets. The quarter ended 10-8, favoring the Warriors.
After a good read on the competition, the second quarter started with a flurry. The Warriors bounced out to a 10-point lead in the beginning of the quarter. A few more fouls were accumulated. Despite the Warriors being unable to substitute players and the Cowgirls having a deep bench, the score at halftime sat at 33-15, an 18-point Warrior advantage.
After halftime, when both teams made the best of a 10-minute rest, all players came out fresh and fighting. The Cowgirls rallied, but they were never able to recover their deficit. The Warriors battled for the 18-point advantage they enjoyed at the half. The third quarter ended with a 16-point Warriors lead and both teams experienced the usual fouls that come with good physical basketball.
The magic in the story lies in the fourth quarter. This is when the two teams and the two coaches distinguished their essence. It was in the fourth quarter where true sportsmanship bubbled to the surface not only in the players, but in their coaches too. The score stood at 43-27. However, the Warriors had no bench and found themselves in foul trouble. Top senior April had accumulated four fouls; Trisha and Jasmine had three; the remainder, including the eighth grader Alleen, had two fouls each. The Cowgirls, having had the advantage of a deep bench, were not in foul trouble.
At the 7:02 mark, Warrior lead scorer and team captain, April, committed her fifth foul and had to take the bench. It is rare to experience what happened next. In class C basketball, when a team has no more substitutes to put in the game (because teams do not always have enough competitive students to field a full team), a team must start five players, but can continue to play with fewer players if others foul out or become injured. Play can always continue with no remaining bench players. The magical thing about class C is that when on defense most coaches with a man advantage will have one man, usually the worst player on the court, stand in bounds by their bench when on defense. When on offense, then the fifth man rejoins the game, until on defense again.
When April left the floor with her fifth foul, the Warriors were unsettled by playing without their captain, and the Cowgirls went on an eight-point run, bringing the score to 43-35 in less than a minute and a half of play. At the 6:32 mark, the Warriors coach called a timeout and implemented a two-two zone. This alignment places two players on the baseline on either side of the key and two players at the top of the key on either side. He was heard telling the girls, “no inside points if they are going to beat us it will be by perimeter shooting only.”
With this Warrior defense and the Cowgirls sportsmanship, the Cowgirls were slowed. The remaining senior, along with eighth grader Alleen, were able to keep pace and keep the advantage at eight points. With 3:50 left on the clock, Trisha fouled out of the game. The Warriors coach kept with his strategy of pressuring the long shots, and quickly implemented a triangle zone defense. Two girls guarded the baseline and Alleen shouldered the defense at the top of the key. The Culbertson coach displayed remarkable sportsmanship and had a representative girl stand by the bench when on defense for each Warrior benched.
That evening we all experienced excellence. With respectful sportsmanship, the spirit of true competition, like cream, could rise to the top. The game would go down as Alleen’s breakout game. With three minutes and fifty seconds left she started five years of remarkable play. With every point scored by the Cowgirls, Alleen responded in kind, and as time dwindled the Cowgirls were able to score but were never able to close the gap. At the buzzer all the spectators who were still sitting on the edge of their seats, rose to applaud a spectacular game of sportsmanship and strategy. Not one spectator, whether Cowgirl or Warrior, left disappointed.
Robert Smith is a student at Fort Peck community College.