(Editor's note: Slim Kimmel was in attendance for the legendary game between Heart Butte and Lame Deer on March 10, 2000. However, he was only an eighth grader, so his memory is supplemented by statistics and details from the Montana Standard's game story. All stats are from the Montana Standard.)
Twenty years later, Mike Chavez can speak candidly.
“Honestly, I didn’t really anticipate coming out with the victory,” the former Heart Butte basketball star laughed.
Chavez had an illustrious basketball career, winning two state championships with Heart Butte and one with Browning before playing collegiately at the University of Montana. He’s been a part of a number of big games, but there’s only one he frequently reminisces about.
Twenty years ago — on March 10, 2000 — Chavez was the centerpiece of one of the most-discussed games in Montana basketball lore. Heart Butte and Lame Deer didn’t just play a great game on that Friday night, they fascinated fans beyond the Butte Civic Center’s standing-room-only crowd of 7,000-plus.
“We knew what kind of stage we were on,” said Chavez, now the athletic director at Northern Cheyenne Tribal School in Busby. “I think that’s why we came out and played the way we did.”
The buzz leading up to the game spanned the entirety of the state for months. Heart Butte was the Hi-Line power with a cast of stars led by Chavez, then a 6-foot-7 sophomore. Lame Deer was the record-setting offense of legendary coach Gordon Real Bird on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in southeastern Montana.
Chavez recalled tracking newspaper box scores throughout the regular season, seeing Lame Deer record jaw-dropping point totals. The Morning Stars surpassed the 130-point mark multiple times and averaged well north of 100 points per game. Tommy McCormick led the scoring attack, but Lame Deer featured a wealth of options, including Dustin Two Moons, Lomar Wandering Medicine, Tolani Tsosie and Gernell Killsnight.
Heart Butte had a dominant anchor in Chavez. He was a larger-than-life star on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and gets much of the credit in the re-telling of history, but C.J. Aims Back was an equally large part of the Warriors’ postseason run that winter. Wayne Racine was a pivotal perimeter piece, and Heart Butte got significant contributions from a handful of others throughout the season.
Froid also boasted a powerful squad that season — and actually claimed the third-place trophy at the state tournament — but was often overshadowed by the Warriors and Morning Stars. Class C basketball fans spent that 1999-2000 season debating the merits of each squad. Lame Deer was small but fast and aggressive. Heart Butte featured a big, physical lineup.
Finally in March, fans got to see the matchup they wanted: No. 1 Lame Deer vs. No. 2 Heart Butte in the Class C state semifinals. Both teams were undefeated with identical 24-0 records after grinding out hard-fought victories in the first round, Lame Deer over Froid and Heart Butte over Noxon.
“Coming into the warmup and hearing the crowd, seeing all the extra chairs put out and all the people that were waiting in line that were telling us they had been waiting there for hours … the atmosphere, it was something we weren’t really prepared for,” recalled Killsnight.
“When I heard a couple thousand (fans) got locked out … the buzz was huge. You just look around and you see people just sitting on the floor because there’s no more seating left,” Chavez said. “We didn’t really need much motivation from the coach or anything. You just had to look in the stands, and that was all the motivation you needed for us.”
“We just came out just ice cold and dug a big hole in the beginning,” Killsnight said. “We thought we were going to just breeze by them or something. It was total opposite. We came out, they were definitely ready for us.”
Heart Butte stormed out of the gates, building a 30-11 lead by the end of the first quarter. Aims Back scored 15 points in the first quarter and 22 in the first half while Lame Deer made just 1 of 13 3-point attempts.
That 19-point margin would have been a safe advantage in any of Heart Butte’s other 23 games up to that point. The Warriors were rarely threatened that season, easily cruising their way through the always-competitive Northern C.
Lame Deer, though, out-scored Heart Butte by 10 points in the second quarter to close within 46-37 at halftime behind Two Moons’ strong play in the first half. He scored a team-high 23 points.
“(Two Moons) was kind of that X-factor during the game,” Chavez said. “He was the one that we really couldn’t guard. He was breaking us down, and he was too fast. We were a lot bigger than Lame Deer. (Wayne Racine) and our guards were all about 6-2. Dustin was shorter, but he was a lot faster, so he was able to split our defense and stuff and get in there and make shots or create for his teammates.”
“To this day, I have yet to see a point guard be as court-savvy as him and to see the court the way he did,” Killsnight said of Two Moons, who passed away in 2006.
Two Moons and the Morning Stars stretched their spurt into the third quarter, pulling within two points multiple times.
“We could’ve been up by 50 points and I would’ve felt that they could come back,” Chavez said. “I knew that the offensive firepower they had. … All year I looked at the newspaper and saw them averaging anywhere from 120, 130 a game. For me, personally, I felt we were never in control.”
Aims Back scored only two points in the second half to finish with 24 for the game, but Chavez went to back to work late in the third quarter to help Heart Butte surge back to a double-digit lead.
Chavez was especially dominant to close the third, helping the Warriors to a 68-54 lead going into the fourth. Chavez finished with 27 points and 14 rebounds.
“(Chavez) was just something else, on another level,” said Killsnight, who, at 6-2, had the unenviable task of trying to guard Chavez. “We actually tried to guard him a couple different ways. We tried to front him in the beginning, and he adapted really well. … We would try to push him out farther and lean on him, make him catch the ball farther out. He would just catch the ball and go to work on us.”
It was the ultimate cat-and-mouse game. Every time Heart Butte would seemingly take control, Lame Deer had an answer. The Warriors often built double-digit leads only to see them evaporate in a blink.
The opening minutes of the fourth quarter followed the same script. McCormick finally busted out of a shooting slump, and the Morning Stars quickly got back within two points and trailed by just one late in the fourth. They could never get over the hump, though, missing multiple opportunities to tie the game or take the lead.
“We were trying to all come together, our teammates on the bench were all locked arms and we were trying to do anything we could to try to get that lead,” said Killsnight, who is now the women’s basketball coach at Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency. “I do really think if we would’ve gotten the lead we probably would’ve gotten a rhythm and wouldn’t have looked back at that point. Just couldn’t get it going and time ran out on us.”
In a game many consider one of Montana’s best, there was only one lead change: when Heart Butte scored the game’s first points. The teams were only tied at 0-0, and the Warriors never trailed en route to an 88-86 victory.
“It was a great game,” said Chavez, who had 35 points and 19 rebounds the next night in Heart Butte's 82-70 win over Gardiner in the state championship. “I’m just happy I was part of it. It’s one of those games that everyone still talks about. Just proud I was part of that game. Even today, everybody wants to talk about — I’ve had the opportunity to play in a lot of big games, but that’s the one game everybody always comes back to, is the Lame Deer game.”