LEWISTOWN – Fergus High School activities director Jim Daniels likes to tell the story about when he and former Havre High activities director Dennis Murphy were coaching freshman boys high school basketball teams.
“We brought our teams to the Lewistown Civic Center to play some games, and they were all complaining how small the gym was,” he said. “So, I told them that more NBA players played in this gym than on any other court in all of Montana.”
Daniels laughed and then added: “They looked at it a little differently then."
For the better part of 50 years, the Civic Center was the home of the Western Invitational Tournament, a basketball showcase with modest beginnings that transformed into one of the most prominent amateur events in the United States during its heyday in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s.
Daniels is also the Parks and Recreation director for the city of Lewistown, a position he’s held since 1984, and witnessed many fine tournaments while managing the Civic Center.
“They always talked about it being the best amateur basketball tournament west of the Mississippi and it's unbelievable,” Daniels said. “People came from all the big-time colleges, but it was amazing over the years some of our Montana players from Frontier schools held their own.”
A glance at archived rosters from the tournament reveals hundreds of NBA players and a handful future Naismith Basketball Hall of Famers playing alongside a who’s who of Montana basketball royalty. Names like Nate Archibald, Phil Jackson, Mel Daniels, Dennis Rodman, John Stockton, Mark Eaton, Maurice Cheeks and David Robinson shared the courts with Jack Gillespie, Craig Finberg, Dough Hashley, Bill Pilgeram, Jack O’Connor and Larry Krystkowiak.
But after a 55-year run and venue change from the Civic Center to the Fergus High School Fieldhouse, the tournament came to an end in 2001 following years of declining participation and interest brought on by several contributing factors.
MTN Sports spoke with several prominent figures in the history of the WIT to chronicle the origins, rise, peak, decline and legacy of the Western Invitational Tournament.
The origins of the WIT date back to 1940, when members of the Lewistown city basketball commission raised $200 for a tournament that drew 16 teams from Montana, Wyoming and Canada. After two more successful tournaments in 1941 and 1942, operations were suspended for three years during World War II.
The tournament resumed in 1946 under the sponsorship of the Lewistown Jaycees and came to be known as the Central Montana Jaycee Independent Basketball Tournament, before it was renamed the Western Invitational in the 1950’s.
Gary Barta was the WIT chairman from 1984-1994 and is well-versed in the history of the tournament.
“It started with three or four businesspeople in town and they just kind of cultivated an idea of hosting a basketball tournament,” Barta said. “It started kind of slow with just high school and college kids and it was more of an area thing.”
A 1977 Sports Illustrated article about the tournament, authored by Rick Telander, described the beginnings as “a competition for local men to be held before they had to drive their cattle to the high country.”
Membership in the Jaycees was limited to people between the ages of 18 and 40, which Barta believes contributed to the success and growth of the tournament.
“You always had a younger pool of people with new ideas to help out the tournament,” Barta said. "And throughout the years you could help make sure it got better and better, and there was a real growth in the tournament. Because we weren't stuck in our ways, we made changes to make it better and better.”
The Rise of the Western Invitational Tournament
In the mid 1960’s the level of competition at the WIT started to ramp up.
Barta points to the involvement of the late Glenn Roberts, who joined the Lewistown Jaycees in 1962 and immediately became an active planner and member of the WIT committee.
“Glenn was ‘Mr. WIT’ because he was involved from the mid 1960’s all the way to the 1990’s. He was doing a lot of our public relations, he was connecting with the TV stations and all the print media,” Barta said. “And he really was a good advocate for the WIT and a good advocate for Lewistown, period. During that timeframe we really had a lot of improvement as far as quality of players, the number of teams, and the number of fans here at the Civic Center.”
The tournament eventually expanded to 16 teams and adopted a 28-game, four-day, double-elimination format. It moved from the winter to the spring where it would attract higher-profile college players following the completion of their seasons.
Teams were entered by sponsors, which meant players could come from anywhere provided the sponsor business had the money to cover travel and lodging expenses. The tournament originally drew teams funded primarily by Montana businesses, but as it grew several other sponsors from around the northwest and midwest started entering teams.
Former Great Falls High and Montana State standout Tom Storm started watching the tournament in the early 1960’s and played for the first time in 1967 on a Morrison-3B’s loaded with talent, including several Bobcat teammates and Mel Daniels from the University of New Mexico. At the time, Daniels was the leading scorer and rebounder in the Western Athletic Conference, averaging 21 points and 11.5 rebounds per game as a senior.
“Mel Daniels is like one of the very first people drafted in both the NBA and the ABA,” Storm said. “He ended up going to the ABA and I think he’s the league’s all-time leading rebounder.”
Daniels entered the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.
Morrison-3B’s would go on to win the tournament, defeating Blue Moon Nite Club of Plentywood in the semifinals. The Blue Moon team featured a young post named Phil Jackson. Jackson, of course, is a Deer Lodge native (he ultimately went to high school in Williston, N.D.) who went on to a Hall of Fame career as a player and coach in the NBA, winning two NBA titles with the New York Knicks as a player and leading the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers to 11 league championships as a coach.
But in 1967 he was just a tall kid from North Dakota trying to impress NBA scouts at a basketball tournament.
“That was a feather in our cap to beat that Blue Moon team,” said Storm. “Because pretty much all of them would go pro.”
After that first year, Storm took on a more active role in recruiting players and transitioned to a ‘player-coach’ of many championship winning teams. He partnered with Malta hoops enthusiast Babsie Bishop to put together competitive squads every year.
Bishop was synonymous with Hi-Line hoops and founded the Hi-Line Invitational Tournament in Cut Bank, which later moved to Havre and continues to this day.
“I kept recruiting players from all over the country. You could get them from anywhere if you had the money to fly them in,” Storm said. “And Babsie was the one that helped raise all the money and he helped me get players. And he did a great job doing that. So, we'd get the money and flew them in, and we got players you wouldn’t believe.”
In 1970, Storm’s team included Nate “Tiny” Archibald, another future NBA Hall of Famer player who many consider the best player to ever compete at the WIT.
“We were warming up one game and I had a bunch of my friends in the stands and they're all just going crazy,” Storm said. “They started counting the shots that (Archibald) made in a row from deep. Keep in mind there was no 3-point line back then, and they were only counting the ones that he swished and never touched the rim and he made 21 in row.
“He was so quick; he was like Steph Curry. They played exactly the same and he was just as good as Curry. Archibald is still the only guy that ever led the NBA in scoring and assists in the same year.”
Archibald was the WIT MVP in 1970, averaging 36.5 points per game.
With the influx of talent, the WIT started attracting droves of fans to the Civic Center. The tiny gym holds 2,000 people, but the WIT would regularly draw 13,000 spectators over the entire week – transforming the small town of Lewistown.
“My first impression was coming here as a high school kid,” Barta reminisced. “You think it's going to be a basketball game, but it got rowdy. We would sit in the cheap seats up where the stage was. It was a great thing to come here and watch as a kid, you could get autographs from the players and the players would sign everything. You’d have locals back in town during spring break.”
The players enjoyed the comfy confines and unique atmosphere the Civic Center and Lewistown offered, as well.
“It was unbelievable,” Storm said. “There was so many people from around the area that would come in there and it was just packed to the rafters. The players, when they'd come in and see that gym, they're going, ‘Where are we? What are we doing here?’ But then they’d get comfortable and when the games would start it was unbelievable.”
Even though the early years of the tournament were held before the advent of the 3-point line and before the rise of pace-and-space offense, final scores were eye-popping, regularly topping triple digits.
“The court is regulation high school size, it's 84 feet,” Daniels said. “So, all those great big guys running up and down here are athletic people and they loved it because they could score tons of points here and have great games. This has a suspended floor, so it's a great jumping floor.”
Friday and Saturday nights during the tournament would sometimes see a fire marshal standing at the door to monitor building capacity. But the packed house just added more to the atmosphere of the games.
“They're cooking hamburgers out in one of the side rooms,” Daniels said. “They would allow people back then to smoke in the lobby and you had everybody out here and all excited and the smoke would drift into the gym, and you'd have a little haze.”
In the 1960’s and 70’s Lewistown was about as rural as it gets with a population of about 9,400 people. But for one week out of the year, the town turned into a cultural melting pot where tall African American players with afros from urban areas would mingle with locals in cowboy hats at the now-defunct Gold Bar downtown.
“I think for both the players that come here to a little town and the people here, it was an atmosphere of being in touch with different type of people that came from all kinds of different places,” Barta said. “It was good for us to talk to those people and the players and the people that came with them to get us more orientated. We learned there was more out there besides Lewistown or central Montana.”
Best Tournament West of the Mississippi
Craig Buehler grew up as a diehard hoops fan in Sidney and became enamored with the WIT at an early age.
“My earliest memories go back to when I was a kid because I would see the WIT scores and read the recaps in the newspaper and we'd follow that and go to some games,” he said. “I was a basketball guy forever, so that always interested me.”
After an all-state high school career at Sidney and four years on the Montana State basketball team, Buehler went to law school at Montana and graduated in 1978. He played in his first WIT that spring, when another future Hall of Famer named Maurice Cheeks earned tournament MVP honors. Buehler and his wife moved to Lewistown in 1979. After the departure of their head coach, The Lewistown Boosters asked Buehler to organize and recruit teams for the tournament.
“It was difficult at first, but I made a lot of contacts,” Buehler said. “Putting together those players required that I had to watch some basketball, find out who these guys were, call and talk to their coaches and see if they wanted to come.”
In 1984, Buehler recruited a senior from Gonzaga named John Stockton to come to Lewistown and play for the Boosters-sponsored team.
“I had a contact at Gonzaga and so I was able to get a hold of his coach and he told me John would like to come and play,” Buehler said. “It was interesting that year, actually, I brought in five college kids and all of them went on to play some sort of professional basketball someplace.”
But perhaps the most well-known player in the history of the tournament was recruited by Storm and Babsie Bishop in 1986.
“My teammate Jim Moffitt coached at Paris Junior College in Texas and he scrimmaged Southeast Oklahoma every year because they were pretty close,” Storm said. “And he told me he had a guy named Dennis Rodman there that could really run the court, play defense and rebound.”
Today, Rodman is known just as much for his prowess on the court as he is for his wild lifestyle, colorful hair, substance abuse issues and odd basketball goodwill missions to North Korea. But Storm recalls a polite, soft-spoken kid who treated all with respect and out-hustled everyone on the court.
“He's one of the nicest people I've ever coached in my life,” Storm said. “He had a great heart. But he's a misunderstood individual. He's a great person. He was smart enough to put a dress on and color his hair and he made a lot of money doing that. But he's a great person.”
Rodman put on a show at the Civic Center, averaging 29 points and 20 rebounds per game, helping his Malta Athletics team win the WIT championship. After the tournament, Storm called his friend Marty Blake who was the NBA’s director of scouting at the time and told him not to overlook Rodman.
“I called Marty Blake up afterwards and said, ‘Marty, you have got to take him to your tournament.’ That's when the NBA was just starting their own tournament,” Storm said. “We argued back and forth, and I guess I talked him into it because he took him to Hawaii. Rodman gets MVP in Hawaii.
“There’s a chance Rodman could have fell through the cracks if he hadn’t played in Montana. They didn't have social media in those days. And if he hadn't got to try out somewhere, he never would've got drafted for sure because he was a nobody. So, we may have some small part of the history for Dennis Rodman up here in Montana.”
The WIT gained a reputation nationwide as a serious tournament that provided serious exposure. Through word of mouth, players would flock to Lewistown for decades and soak in the comforts of the small, hospitable town.
“My wife was a teacher here in Lewistown, she taught elementary PE and one of the great things was I would have players go to the school and go into those elementary classes,” Buehler said. “The kids just thought that was the greatest thing. So, it was a good thing for the community that way.”
Nothing Good Lasts Forever
Basketball and the world at large began to change in the mid 1980’s in ways that greatly impacted a small-town tournament like the WIT.
Between 1978 and 1985 the NCAA tournament field expanded from 32 to 64 teams which meant many of the college athletes that would normally play in the WIT were tied up in the postseason.
“It became more and more difficult to get players,” Buehler said. “And there were other tournaments starting around the country, so that was a problem. A tournament in Portsmouth, Virginia started and then there were tournaments in Hawaii and the National AAU tournament, which created some conflicts.
“So, it just became more and more difficult for players to come here, especially since it was a small community rather than those bigger venues where there could play.”
In 1986, the WIT moved from the Civic Center to the much more spacious Fergus High School Fieldhouse. What the event gained in capacity, it lost in atmosphere and prestige.
“We could fit way more than we could have gotten in the old Civic Center,” Storm said. “But it just wasn't the same.”
Top talent would still sometimes make the trip. Hall of Fame center David Robinson came with the US Armed Forces team in 1989 and was named MVP. Robinson was the No. 1 pick in the 1987 NBA draft and was nearing the end of his military duty before signing with the San Antonio Spurs. Thousands of fans came to the WIT to catch a glimpse of the future superstar battling with some of Montana’s best.
Former Montana and current Oregon State head coach Wayne Tinkle played on Storm’s Malta Athletics team and was charged with guarding the All-American from Navy.
“I'll never forget Robinson was coming down hard and he went up and Tinkle was going to block his shot, but Robinson had a good head of steam,” Storm laughed. “And it knocked Tinkle down and he slid about 20 feet all the way on his butt, all the way out of bounds. And it was a constant dust trail. You could just see that trail going out.”
But after Robinson’s trip to Lewistown, nationally recognized stars were few and far between at the WIT for the rest of its history.
“We just had hard times getting the good players because the agents became involved,” Storm said. “And then when the agents started taking hold, they wouldn't let the top players come because they might get hurt or blah, blah, blah. And so that's when it started going downhill.”
A downturn in the economy meant sponsors didn’t have lavish budgets to pay for travel and lodging, and the $4,000 prize for the winner wasn’t enough to cover the expenses of building an all-star team.
After years of declining participation and interest, the tournament committee decided to bring an end to the WIT in 2001.
“It just got tougher and tougher towards the end,” Barta said. “And we got less and less teams. And finally, we had to decide if we were just going to have a minimal thing or say that we've done our job and we went for 55 years.”
Though there is no tournament anymore, the Western Invitational is still a great source of pride for the people who organized it and the community that hosted it.
“For anybody that’s lived here or grew up here there is really a lot of pride,” Barta said. “Some people moved here because of (the tournament). Maybe not specific to the tournament, but they came for the WIT, moved here after seeing the town, seeing the area, seeing there was good hunting and fishing along the way.”
Buehler’s memories of the tournament could fill volumes.
“It was a wonderful thing for me, coming and being able to play with all those players for eight or 10 years that I played here and for the community. I think the community just really supported the tournament,” he said. “The different sponsors gave and they were happy to do it. It was just fun.”
Daniels has made sure anyone who visits the Civic Center today will know about the Western Invitational Tournament and the rich history of basketball in Lewistown. The words ‘Home of the W.I.T.’ are stained on the entrance to the basketball court.
He keeps plaques with every WIT all-star team from 1946-1999 on the walls in one of the rooms at the Civic Center and maintains a trophy case filled with copies of every program from the tournament’s history and photos from every decade.
“There’s so much history in the building for Lewistown, the WIT and just for basketball in Montana,” Daniels said. “So, before some of the people pass on, I thought I needed to get some of this information and memorabilia and find a place to store it.”
So, the next time a young basketball player isn’t impressed by the old gymnasium at the Civic Center, Daniels won’t have to tell them why the place is significant.
He’ll just point. And let history speak for itself.