When he was head coach of the men’s basketball team at Montana Western, Mark Durham only called the newspaper after games the Bulldogs won.
When the Bulldogs lost, stories ran in the paper without a comment from the coach.
Oh, Durham will dispute that claim. He’ll tell you that he also called after losses, but he really didn’t.
Sure, he probably called one night when his underdog Bulldogs lost by three points on the road to a top-5 team. For the most part, though, he only called after wins.
That made being on the other end of those call so much fun because that was the first thing we would bring up.
“Hello Billy, this is coach Durham,” he would loudly proclaim when I answered the phone.
He would say Durham like it was two hyphenated words, too. Like he was Coach Dur-Ham, with the emphasis on Ham.
Durham has a pretty high voice for a man. One of our writers used to refer to him as “Squeaky,” we never told Durham that. Well, until now.
Every time I talked to Durham on the phone, I was reminded of the Seinfeld episode when Elaine couldn’t tell the difference between her friend and her friend’s high-talking boyfriend.
Durham’s voice would get higher when I teased him about only calling after victories, too.
“Coach Dur HAM,” I’d say after hearing his voice on the other end of the phone, “the Bulldogs must have won tonight.”
“Hey, that’s not fair,” Durham would say. “You know I call after every game …”
He’d go on and on before I’d finally say, “Well, coach, how’d you do tonight?”
Durham would get quite and answer almost as if he was embarrassed by what he was about to say.
That phone conversation played out at least 50 times in the years when I worked at the paper and when he was head coach of Bulldogs.
When Bruce Sayler answered his calls, he’d tease him even worse.
Those calls from Durham were always the highlight of the night because Durham is one of the good guys. If you’re a fan of the Bulldogs, a fan of basketball or just a fan of good people, then you are a fan of Durham.
When legendary coach Craig Finberg, then an assistant under Steve Keller on the Montana Western men’s basketball staff, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009, it was Durham, then the Western athletic director, who led the charge to rally support for “Finny.”
A couple of nights after Finny’s diagnosis, the Western men and women played host to Montana Tech at the Straugh Gymnasium in Dillon.
Coach Durham put on a positive face and talked as if he knew for a fact that Finny would beat the horrible disease he had no absolutely chance beating. Nobody beats pancreatic cancer.
Still, fans of both schools were greeted that night by Durham, who actually made that bad news seem not too bad. Durham was so comforting on a night when so many needed to be comforted.
That night, Montana Tech and Montana Western fans stood together to tell Finny how much they loved him and to wish him well as he left town for treatment.
The 50/50 pot, which went toward Finny’s fight, was huge, and the positive sentiment from both sides was out of this world. It was something you just don’t see when two rivals like the Bulldogs and Orediggers get together.
It really was a magical night, and Durham had so much to do with it.
Now, Durham is the one fighting cancer, and he again has an amazingly positive attitude about it. He makes the hell that he is going through seem like he is going to get his teeth cleaned.
Durham is in Arizona, where he recently had surgery on his neck. He has another surgery and possibly radiation treatments ahead of him, and he is hoping to be back in Montana in sometime next month.
“They are talking 85 percent success rate,” Durham told me of his prognosis, “and I would have taken a player shooting that from the free throw line every time.”
This Wednesday, Valentine’s Day, the Orediggers and Bulldogs will again meet in the Straugh Gymnasium. This time, the game is going to be for Durham, who will be watching from the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale.
All proceeds from admissions, concessions and the 50/50 drawing will go to Durham’s fight. The first 400 fans to enter after the gates open at 4:30 p.m. will receive a “Durham Strong” T-Shirt.
If there was ever a time to catch a basketball game, this is it. Western’s women have won nine straight games, and the Bulldog men have won nine of their last 11.
Montana Tech always seems to save its best for the Bulldogs, too. The Orediggers men almost upset the Bulldogs when the teams met in Butte on Feb. 1.
Could there possibly be a better Valentine’s Day date than taking in a basketball game, dining at the concession stand and buying your valentine a bouquet of 50/50 tickets instead of flowers? No way.
Throw in the fact that all the money is going to Durham’s fight, and there’s no way the night can be beat.
If you can’t make the game, a crowd-funding site has been set up. You can also donate to the Mark Durham benefit at any Stockman Bank.
Fighting cancer isn’t cheap, especially when he as to stay so far from home.
Making sure Durham has his two daughters with him as much as possible is also a big part of the fight, and the expense.
Durham needs his daughters there, too. As much as he loves the Bulldogs — and Durham was watching the Western women win their ninth straight game when I messaged with him on Saturday — nothing is more important to him than his girls.
He must have put in 2 billion miles driving around the country to watch them play basketball. He made the 12-hour roundtrip from Dillon to Miles City to watch his daughters play basketball for 2 hours like it was nothing.
Miles Community College, where Durham coached and his daughters went to school, held a fundraiser for Durham on Feb. 3, and coaches from around the country have been sending well wishes.
Every couple of bucks helps. Even $5 can help make a difference in such a big fight.
Plus, it will be nice to know you were part of the team when Durham falls under the 85 percent and boots this cancer to the curb.
If you’re one of the lucky 400 to get a “Durham Strong” T-shirt, make sure to wear it proudly.
Just try not to think about the high talker from Seinfeld when you put it on.
— Bill Foley, who likes to take all of his dates to basketball games, writes a column that appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74