BOZEMAN – When the Bigfork basketball team advanced to the Class B state championship game last weekend in Bozeman, the community of fans knew there was one person who especially needed to be there.
Arnie Aklestad, 84, has been a mainstay at Bigfork basketball games since he moved to town his sophomore year of high school in 1944. He played for the team for two years, and later ran the clock at boys and girls games for 34 years. Even after he passed off those duties, he still attended home games — always sitting in the same spot to root for his favorite squad.
Last week he fell ill and was unable to make the trip to Bozeman to watch the undefeated Bigfork Vikings tip off at the state tournament. But when Bigfork defeated Huntley Project in the semifinals, a group of residents rallied together and made sure Arnie could be there. After Arnie received a ride to Arlee and then Missoula from folks, Zack Anderson had a private jet pick up Bigfork’s pre-eminent fan and get him to Bozeman.
By tip-off of the title game, Arnie was in the stands alongside the Bigfork faithful, watching history be made on the hardwood.
As he put it mildly beforehand, “This game’s a pretty big deal.”
The boys from Bigfork didn’t disappoint, winning the school’s first boys basketball state title 71-62 over Columbus and finishing a perfect season at 26-0.
Last weekend’s championship was a grand celebration for a town that loves basketball but has never reached the sport’s summit before now.
The closest the team ever came was in 1983, when the boys advanced to the Class B state tourney in Shelby. The Vikes played Conrad in a back-and-forth title game that came down to the final seconds. Trailing by one point with 4 seconds remaining, Bigfork sank a fall-away jumpshot, making it 76-75.
The fans stormed the court, thinking the Vikings had won the title. But a referee emerged waving his hands, calling a charging foul on Bigfork and negating the basket and giving Conrad the 75-74 victory. The scorekeeper had let the time run out and the floor was flooded in fans and the game was not resumed, which remains a point of contention for many people today.
The entire affair became a controversial dispute as residents told the team not to accept the second-place trophy. The players decided to graciously take the hardware, sealing their fate as the runner-up team in 1983.
Thirty-one years later, an undercurrent of tension still exists, but after last weekend, the wait is over. Now the team and its town can mark their place among the best in Montana.
“People still talk about it 30 years later. My son and daughter say, does the score ever change? It doesn’t. But you just move on,” said Doug Fraley, a member of the ‘83 Viking team. “But this is great to see (the Bigfork basketball team) here in the championship. This is a great team and this is exciting. They deserve all the praise and attention now.”
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