As he walked through the front door, my father-in-law threw an unannounced chest pass to me.
Having no clue that a basketball was heading in my direction, the ball bounced right off my chest, as if I was an unsuspecting teammate of a Magic Johnson no-look pass.
I picked up the ball to see that it had the old-school University of Montana colors and logo on it. It was signed by the entire 1992-93 Grizzly men’s basketball team.
I sat down and examined the ball. I loved it.
Right here it was signed by Chris Spoja. Over there is Shawn Samuelson and Travis DeCuire, who is now the head coach of the team. There is Kirk Walker, a smallish, balding guard who was tough as nails, even though he looked like Paul’s cousin Ira on the sitcom “Mad About You.”
Then, right here, is my favorite. The great Gary Kane, a Butte High legend who lit up the Big Sky Conference from behind the 3-point line as a freshman.
It was so cool to have the autograph of the guy who is, in my opinion, the greatest basketball player in Butte High history.
The ball was a tremendous present, and it wasn’t even my birthday.
I put the ball on my mantel next to the Walter Payton Wheaties box that my junior high football coach Tank Maloughney gave to me. It looked great for the three or four days it was there.
One day I came home to find that my wife put the ball and Wheaties box in the closet. She had to make room for another vase with fake flowers in it. Or maybe it was another frog statue.
Outraged, I put the ball back up. Then my wife took it down. Then I put it back up.
Every guy who has ever been married knows how this battle turned out, and the basketball spent the better part of the last 15 years sitting in a box in my basement.
When Kane was voted into the Butte Sports Hall of Fame early this year, I went looking for the ball. I had to show him the treasure that my wife buried.
I brought the ball with me to the Hall of Fame luncheon last Friday. It kicked off a great Hall of Fame weekend that saw Kane and 13 other individuals join the ranks of Butte’s sports immortals.
Before he took his seat, I showed the ball to Kane. He took it in both hands, and his eyes lit up.
Gary went through each signature, pointing out who signed the ball. He was just like I was when my father-in-law bounced the ball off my chest, except Gary knew each of the players personally.
So, I gave the ball to Gary as a gift to celebrate his induction into the Butte Sports Hall of Fame.
To justify giving away such treasure, I explained how the ball ended up in a box in my basement, and Gary, being a married guy, completely understood.
Luckily, Gary has a workout room in his house, and he plans to put the ball on display there, right next to a ball he got for setting the Grizzlies all-time 3-point record.
Later during the luncheon, another member of the class, Ray Jay Johnson, stood up to say a few words. He held up a plaque that reads “Butte Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2022,” and it was signed by all the members at the lunch.
Much to my surprise, he said he was presenting it to me for my work as executive director of the Hall, a job that was pretty much forced on me a couple of years after the passing of Hall of Fame chairman Pat Kearney.
The plaque was signed by Ray Jay, Bob Given, Ron Collins Sr. Don Douglas, Tom Roberts and Julie (Leary) Nadeau. It was also signed by family members of the late, great John “Hoot” Gibson, including his wife Pat.
Like the ball, the plaque was signed by Gary Kane. Unlike the ball, Ray Jay handed it to me instead of firing a chest pass.
Later on, the plaque was signed by Corey Bolton and family members of class members who could not attend the function.
The plaque was also signed by John Thatcher, the retired coach who was the guest speaker at the lunch. Thatcher, a member of the Class of 2011, said that Given was one of his first sports heroes.
He said watching Given play receiver for the Bulldogs and then the Montana State Bobcats was probably the reason he played receiver in high school and college.
If you are a sports hero to Thatcher, who is one of Butte’s greatest athletes and coaches, then you are really something.
Don Douglas was the quarterback of the state champion 1981 Butte High Bulldogs. He went on to play football at Nebraska and then the University of Montana. Then, he disappeared, leaving a ghost-like legacy of greatness in the Mining City.
I would venture to say there are not a lot of Don Douglas autographs floating around town.
Julie Leary was a great basketball player at Butte Central. She led the Maroons to a win over Butte High in 1987.
While she is now in the Hall of Fame for her hoops, Julie has served as an inspiration the last three decades for another reason. Despite being limited to the use of just her right arm, Julie raised a son, earned a degree at Montana Tech and relearned how to drive.
She has long been one of my heroes.
Yeo was my golf coach at Butte High. He and his wife treated me and my teammates like family.
Hoot Gibson was a name I knew well long before I met the mild-mannered man behind the legend.
I knew of Ray Jay long before I met him, thanks to the great story telling of his pal Steve Schulte.
Silk’s family has long been a friend of mine. That family represented her at the ceremonies because of that pesky pandemic we just cannot seem to shake.
Lefty Orlich hit a home run off Satchel Page at Clark Park, and Banovich helped start the Missoula Marathon, which is even better than New York in my book.
Collins and Roberts are guys who I have known for years from their work as sports officials, though their Hall of Fame story goes well beyond that. Seeing how much the Hall of Fame has always meant to them has always made it more important in my eyes, too.
The Class of 2022 is a special one. It is full of people I idolized, and it is full of people who inspired. It is full of people I call friends.
Now I have a plaque from that class that I will treasure forever.
So, with all due respect to my father-in-law and Kirk Walker, I think I won the trade that day at the luncheon.
I have already cleared off a perfect spot on my mantel for the plaque.
Hopefully my wife doesn’t mind that I put a few of her frog statues down the basement.
— Bill Foley, who has always struggled catching a chest pass, writes a column that appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74. 15 comments
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