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The arrival of today’s arctic blast is just another “back to the future” moment for someone who has been around basketball for 50 years. Half a century, I can hardly believe I’m writing about a tournament that is now as far removed from the present, as it was from 1923 when it happened.
Wind River was still a relatively new school. We still wore green and gold Morton Broncs t-shirts for PE, and our football practice jerseys were the red and gray of the Pavillion Panthers, but we were the Cougars.
Under first-year head coach Jack Draxler we finished second in the Big Horn Basin Conference Tournament behind a very talented Dubois team. The conference championship game, played in the old Quonset hut gym at Basin ended 81-46 in the Rams’ favor, but it sent us to the state tournament after beating our northern nemesis, the Cowley Jaguars in the semi-finals.
Girls’ basketball was a few years away, so the state tournament, held at the University of Wyoming in Laramie was a boys team only affair.
Class C, B, A, and Double-A (as we called the big schools in those days) all competed at either Half Acre Gym or on that horrible, dead spot-laden portable floor in War Memorial Fieldhouse.
In our case, we never got to play on either one.
I suffered a badly dislocated left knee at freshman basketball practice the year before, an injury that ended my hardwood playing career before it started, but I liked the game, was good with numbers, and kept stats and the scorebook.
The 1973 tournament featured an interesting 12-team bracket. The four conference champions all had a first-round bye, and the opening round was single-elimination. If you won, you entered a standard eight-team tournament with a winners and losers bracket, but if you lost, you got on the bus and rode back home.
We were second from the Big Horn Basin and slated to play the third seed from the Texas Trail Conference, the Guernsey-Sunrise Vikings in the evening on the opening Wednesday of the tournament.
As with this year’s nightmare weather, mother nature had something else to say about it.
We left the old Wind River High School at Morton with a strong wind and a few snow flurries moving in.
By the time we reached Muddy Gap, it was a full-fledged storm outside.
Our driver was our athletic director, Chuck Frost.
For those of you who know Chuck, he is one of the calmest people you’ll ever meet. A giant of a man, we used to joke behind his back that he didn’t have a heartbeat, that’s how calm he always appeared.
Coach Draxler on the other hand, was a live wire, a guy wired for 120 volts that was hooked up to 240. He was energetic, could jump out of the gym, and while still in his late 20s, could beat any guy on the team in a game of one-on-one without breaking a sweat.
But Coach Drax was sweating as we approached Rawlins.
There were no convenience stores as we know them now a half-century ago, but there was a mom-and-pop style grocery store diagonal to where the McDonald’s sits in the Windy City.
On the run from Bairoil into Rawlins, we outran the storm.
Coach Draxler told us to hurry up as we hit the restroom and started to buy pop and junk food.
The older guy who owned the store was friendly, striking up a conversation with us.
“Where are you guys from,” he asked a couple of us.
We were all wearing our purple and white letter jackets with the big white WR on the left side.
I couldn’t resist, “Worland Reformatory,” I said.
His mood changed instantly and he yelled, two at a time, the rest of you wait outside.
We could see the storm moving in off the hills west of Rawlins, and Coach Draxler finally came back inside to see what was taking so long.
The owner said he didn’t want us shoplifting him blind, and knew what kind of kids went to the Worland Reformatory.
“We’re Wind River,” Draxler said. “Who told you that?”
The story was relayed to me by teammates inside the store, so I kept a low profile.
The storm hit us again, but Coach Frost broke ahead of it in the big Bluebird bus around the turnoff to Saratoga.
We made it to Laramie, along with Upton and then we sat. Out of 40 teams, 12 C, 12 B, and eight each in A and AA, we were the only two to make it into Laramie before the storm closed the town.
For the next four days, we sat in a crummy motel room with just a couple of TV channels and waited for our three squares at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Coach Frost soon discovered that the bus wouldn’t move unless all 14 of us crowded into the back two rows of seats to add a little weight to the rear wheels.
One day, we drove to War Memorial Fieldhouse to get our team passes, and we experienced a full cookie in a 66 -passenger bus as we did a complete 360-degree spin in the icy parking lot. We loved it. I’m not sure the coaches enjoyed it as much.
By Saturday morning, one of the seniors, Willy Tomec, had won everyone’s money in a continuous poker game we’d been playing every waking moment in those tiny motel rooms.
We were allowed to practice for a couple of hours one day on the Fieldhouse floor but that was it.
On Sunday, (yes, Sunday) we finally played Guernsey-Sunrise at Laramie High School and lost 74-62, ending our season.
We watched that great Dubois team lose the next day to a scraggly-looking, but scrappy bunch of Huntley Cardinals 62-57 in Half Acre Gym. Huntley eventually won the tournament with a win over Glenrock in the title game.
I remember seeing a little girl from Dubois wearing a 1982 blue and gold letter jacket and thinking, “1982, that’ll never happen.”
The next day we followed a snowplow west on Interstate 80, then turned north for home.
Storms come and go. The winter of 1973 was epic, as was the one in 1978, and again in 1983. We’re living through another one now.
Maybe a half-century from now another kid, on one of those buses, stranded in a motel room for a couple of days will write down his experiences. Until then, it’s all on the wheel of time.