Some prefer to think of us as morons or jerks or shills. Whatever the case, it's all true.
How else can you explain our failures in attempting to rank the best boys basketball players ever to come out of Montana? Of course our brains weren't working properly when we trimmed the list of thousands of candidates to a mere #MTTop50 back in 2016, which we re-published this spring when the coronavirus pandemic canceled all sporting events. Perhaps we just couldn't hide our inherent biases, because it's obvious we had personal agendas against the great players who weren't included.
No, it couldn't possibly be that rankings are subjective, that the criteria to determine which players are the "best" varies from era to era and athlete to athlete, or that people can watch the same game and read the same stats and still come away with diverging opinions. The game certainly hasn't changed since it became a Montana High School Association-sanctioned sport in 1911, and memories of historic players definitely haven't faded or been embellished over time.
Sports debates aren't at all contentious or controversial and rarely spark lively discussion. The games are simple, the results black and white. Player A is better than Player B just as Team A is better than Team B. There's no room for disagreement. If opinions or rankings differ, there's only one possible conclusion: One person is wrong.
We readily admit the #MTTop50 is not a perfect list, because we never intended it to be. They're not definitive rankings, because definitive rankings don't exist. There are always going to be dissenting opinions, and that's the beauty of sports debates. There are no right answers.
Only wrong ones.
When we compiled the #MTTop50, we not only pored over the MHSA record books (as flawed as they may be), the histories of all of our in-state college programs, numerous Halls of Fame and as much historical data as we could find, we also talked with dozens of coaches, players and historians from the sport's different eras. Shockingly, there was only one thing everybody with whom we spoke agreed: Mike Lewis was a more dominant high school player than Wayne Estes.
We started the process of ranking players the same way nearly every other Montana basketball fan probably would: Estes was No. 1, now let's fill out the next 49. Then we talked to a source who coached during the Estes/Lewis era, and he said Lewis, not Estes, was the best player ever to come out of Montana. That assertion caught our attention, but we mostly filed it away as an outlier.
But then it happened again. Another source from that same time frame said Lewis was the superior player. And then another source. And another source. Ultimately, we heard the position enough that we bumped Lewis up to No. 1 and Estes to No. 2. And wouldn't you know it? Not a single person among the experts we talked to during the entirety of the project disagreed with that ranking. Not one. That is, until we published the rankings.
In fact, our top six was nearly unanimous: Lewis, Estes, Larry Krystkowiak, Ed Kalafat, Elvis Old Bull and Larry Pretty Weasel. Sure, some said we were "splitting hairs" on a few of those players, and many commented, "It would've been fun to see how Estes continued to develop in the pros." Some mentioned that Tres Tinkle or Josh Huestis could climb into the top five, depending on how their careers ultimately play out. Tinkle, for whatever it's worth, scored 2,233 career points at Oregon State, the most any Montanan has scored at the NCAA Division I level.
Personally, I feel really good about our top 13 or so. The further down the rankings you move, the harder it gets to differentiate between great players -- all of the guys mentioned were or are great players, and there are a lot of great players that didn't get mentioned. Our biggest miss, in my opinion, was Craig Finberg. His body of work could've placed him inside our top 20, if not even higher.
Guys like Doug Hashley, Dave Gustafson and Rob Hurley certainly could've been included in the series, too, and the list goes on and on. It's completely subjective. Heck, one of my favorite players in Montana history was Dustin Two Moons, the point guard of the vaunted 1999-2000 Lame Deer squad that averaged more than 100 points per game and lost to Heart Butte in an undefeated showdown in the Class C state semifinals. I still contest that if those two teams played a best-of-5 series, Lame Deer would've come out on top.
But what do I know?
I'm an idiot.