Note: The delay in columns posted was due to a death in my family. My wife and I have flown home for a week and a half, and columns will be posted sporadically during that time. After we fly back out to our car in St. Louis, the trip, and presumably the columns if you’ll still have me, will resume as planned.
So we had a stop in Billings, Montana (it’s a long story), and headed out that night for some good, fist-thick Montana steak. If you’ve never had Montana meat in a Montana steakhouse, you really don’t know what you’re missing. Anyway, this happened to be the night of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship, and as we were getting into our steaks, I looked over at the bar, and was surprised to see fifteen or so patrons, many in cowboy hats and boots, all riveted to the screen. I’ve spent a month of my life in Montana, which only deepened my surprise to see so many Montanans interested in the game, since basketball isn’t that popular there, nor are women’s sports.
Unable to resist, we sidled up, noticing the flashy rodeo buckles a few of them sported. The general consensus seemed to be that these men would watch, care about, and bet on pretty much whatever the barkeep at Gusick’s put on for them to watch, and this was the biggest game of the night. A few of them did seem to have a deeper knowledge of the teams, all of them rooting for Tennessee because of a deep respect for Pat Summitt.
Sports in the upper Midwest, or what I’ve always thought of as Badland Country, are an interesting affair. Living in Long Beach, it’s easy to get spoiled by the fact that an NFL team, three MLB teams, two NBA teams, and two hockey teams are all within easy driving distance. If you live in Billings, you’re a full day’s drive from any sports team you might have heard of. In the vacuum are a number of regional minor league teams, with the Billings favorite being a minor league indoor football league, named the Bandits. Other than that, there’s a ton of support for high school and college programs, with team names painted on water towers at the entrance to run-down towns and honest-to-God “Closed- Gone to the game” signs in shop windows. Throw in the raging popularity of rodeos (and if you’ve never been to a rodeo up there, don’t tell me you’ve experienced the full spectrum of American sports), and you’ve got a world very different from ours. But still one where handfuls of hard-working men gather in bars to watch college girls shoot hoops, from time to time.