One Final Win in a Classic Gym

In the midst of another exciting postseason run for Bigfork’s basketball teams, a community and school say goodbye to a 50-year-old gym that is being renovated

By Dillon Tabish
Mason Chapel's pass is tipped as Bigfork's Chase Chappuis and Randy Stultz swarm the ball. Bigfork defeats Troy 68-21 on Feb. 16, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

It was Saturday afternoon — Jan. 6, 1968 — and the community of Bigfork was eagerly awaiting the grand opening of its shiny new high school gymnasium.

Except something was missing: the baskets and backboards.

High school principal Paul Milam, who was also the boys basketball coach, received word that the delivery was running late, causing a mild panic among school administrators who were already anxious about the important ceremony.

Construction of the $232,000 gymnasium addition had started back in April 1967 and crews from Neufeld Builders in Kalispell had completed every corner of the site, including one new classroom, a stage, music room and locker rooms. Front and center, of course, was the glossy hardwood, stretching 84 by 50 feet.

The growing community had closely followed the construction process, and the school district enlisted the work of Brinkman & Lenon, well-known architects and engineers from Kalispell who had also designed the summit house at Big Mountain ski resort and the Logan Pass and St. Mary visitor centers in Glacier National Park.

Excitement swept across the village by the bay. After all, Bigfork was a basketball town and this would be the new home of the reigning Class C District 13 champion Vikings, who went 17-8 overall the previous year and took fourth in the Western Division.

Shortly before the grand opening, the delivery truck finally arrived. Milam scrambled to organize his team of players and they began the last-second installation. The boys huddled at both ends of the court and measured 10 feet from the ground up, helping ensure the crew got it right.

By the time the public streamed into the new facility, the court and its two baskets were seamlessly situated. Call it the team’s first victory.

A week later, on Jan. 13, 1968, the Vikes hosted the first varsity basketball game inside the new gymnasium. The Troy Trojans played spoiler that night, eking out a 52-51 victory over the hometown team. Beforehand, the Bigfork B squad had picked up the first official victory on the new court, defeating the Trojan B squad.

Fifty seasons later, the beloved community-gathering place with a rich and raucous history enjoyed one final victory in its current state. It occurred against a familiar foe.

As fate would have it, the Bigfork Vikings defeated the Troy Trojans 68-21 last week on Feb. 16 in the final basketball game inside the gym before it is fully renovated. The Vikes are rolling into the postseason with another trip to the state tournament in mind, but not before securing a win that will go down in history.

The high school is undergoing a $14 million multi-year makeover that includes expanding the gym, which still has the same cozy confines and darkened hardwood as it did half a century ago. The expansion, which is moving forward this week, will move the court south a few yards and expand the bleachers and sidelines, opening up space in a well-known bandbox of an arena.

“It’s just such an intimate place,” Dave Creamer, a 1995 Bigfork graduate and the school’s activities director, said. “The bleachers are right on top of you. The ceiling is right on top of you. The walls are close. It is a full-sized court but it doesn’t look like it.”

“I would think it’s an intimidating place to play,” he added. “And it’s a fun place to play when it’s your home court.”

Creamer estimates that about 2,300 basketball games were played inside the gymnasium over its lifespan. It has been home to No. 1 ranked boys and girls teams and even an undefeated state championship squad in 2014. It has also housed one of the best and most loyal fan bases in Montana high school sports.

“It is a tight atmosphere and it gets loud in here. Bigfork loves its basketball, and it’s evident most nights,” said Jimmy Epperly, who first started coaching in Bigfork in 2001 and whose son, Anders, is playing on this year’s talented team. “It gets quite loud in here and it’s a lot of fun to coach. And I’m sure it’s a lot of fun for kids to play here.”

Bigfork has consistently put out standout boys and girls basketball teams, as well as volleyball squads, which naturally has led to several memorable games over the years. One recent game that sticks in the minds of locals is last year’s boys showdown with Polson. It was a simple nonconference matchup, but it became an instant classic when Bigfork rallied from 20 points down to win 87-84.

“That was probably the best game I’ve ever seen in here,” Epperly said.

The relatively tight confines of the arena created an echoing, energetic atmosphere that boosted most games above the conventional experience.

Today’s facilities are commonly built to uniform warehouse dimensions, making the last classic gyms stand out like art forms from another era.

“We loved it when I was in high school and we love it now,” Creamer said of the classic gym. “There’s part of me that wishes we could keep it this small and this intimate, but the expansion is a good thing and we definitely need it. It will really enhance the players’ experience and the fans’ experience. We’re excited about the changes that we’re making. But this little gym will be missed.”