Bill Speltz: With Surreal Thursday still vivid in our memory, we welcome back the Big Sky Conference basketball tourney

BILL SPELTZ Missoulian | Posted: Saturday, March 6, 2021 2:00 pm

MISSOULA — Twelve months after the bottom fell out in Boise, Big Sky Conference tournament basketball is back.

What a strange trip it's been since Surreal Thursday in March of 2020. One minute you're relishing the excitement that comes hours before Montana begins its defense of a men's conference tourney title, the next minute you're scrambling to cancel your hotel room and find a flight home.

It was weird for a lot of folks, from the Big Sky's top officials and Montana athletic director Kent Haslam to men's hoops coach Travis DeCuire and all the devoted traveling fans left stunned on that sunny morning. Seeing so many athletes suffer such a collective heartbreak due to a pandemic we knew little about was a scene that will endure for many of us until the day we die.

"I just remember so vividly the phone call from (UM president) Seth Bodnar last year saying the tournament is done," Haslam told the Missoulian and "I can remember thinking, that can't possibly be the case."

Maybe, in a weird sort of way, it left us all with a greater appreciation of March Madness. Count Haslam among the many excited for the action to start Monday when the Lady Griz battle Sacramento State in a do-or-die duel at 8 p.m. at Idaho Central Arena.

"I get that there's varying opinions on, 'Are you running too much risk trying to get this tournament in now? You could end up having an outbreak within the teams,'" Haslam said. "If we were a multi-bid league, you might think a little different. You wouldn't want to put those top teams at risk and potentially miss the NCAA tournament. But we're a one-bid league. Having a good postseason end to a really odd year is the right thing to do."  

So many tournaments and festivals and cherished events have bit the dust because of COVID-19. Label me a caveman for writing it, but a few of these cancellations have been made, at least partially, out of convenience. Organizers just don't want the headache or risk of embarrassment.

Once and for all — and this goes for colleges and high schools and all involved with sports in western Montana — please know that this sports editor respects everything you do to make life a little bit closer to normal for young people. This past winter I've encountered more than a few high school athletic directors and coaches that have been aloof with the media when their team was forced to quarantine — seemingly not wanting us to know an event was canceled.

But there's really nothing embarrassing about it. Life is messy for ALL of us. It always has been. You're not reckless and your program is not perfect, so stop worrying about trying to be perfect and please just pat yourself on the back for giving the effort.

For Grizzly athletes and coaches, this winter has been a royal pain in the rump in ways you may not even know about.

Granted, any whining at this point falls on deaf ears because it's been hard on all of us and many people have died. But consider how carefree you were in college and how bizarre it would be if you had to be isolated all the time at age 20.

Haslam compares it to "trying to get water to run uphill." And that's not even mentioning the mandatory mental hurdle that comes with having a cotton swab stuffed up into your brain 70 times in one season to get tested. 

Unless you've experienced it, you'll never quite understand. It won't kill you, obviously, but it's no walk in the park. I took the test once before serving as an extra on the TV show "Yellowstone." That was more than enough. If it were twice a week all winter like some of these Grizzly coaches, I fear my cheerful disposition would be put in jeopardy.

Sadly, the hard part of this pandemic is not over yet for Haslam and Montana athletics. As difficult as it's been to cobble together a basketball season in the Big Sky, imagine the challenges of trying to keep things running smoothly and COVID-free this spring for the Montana and Montana State football and track programs.

This pandemic thing can't end soon enough. But while we're waiting, how about a giant salute to all those league officials, athletic directors and coaches working hard to make Big Sky Conference athletics a reality this winter. 

"I really look forward to getting to a spot where I can celebrate with fans again," Haslam shared. "To be among a large group, be down on the court after a really big win, let my son shoot hoops at the basketball arena after the games are over. I mean, all those things that are part of it."

Normalcy will be more enjoyable than ever before. That's my prediction.