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Laurel's 1969 championship basketball team

Forty-five years ago, Brick Breeden Fieldhouse became, on one memorable winter evening, the rockin’est place in Montana.

The night was March 15, 1969. The occasion was the state Big 32 boys basketball championship game. It paired undersized but undefeated Laurel against Kalispell, led by 6-11, 255-pound major college prospect Brent Wilson.

Which squad would win? The Locomotives, who despite having no player taller than 6-2 had rolled to a 25-0 record under the tutelage of legendary coach Don Peterson, who later retired with a then-Treasure State record 558 career wins? Or the Braves, Big 32 runners up from the year before whose front line also included 6-7 and 6-4 players?

That tantalizing question drew a record crowd to the Montana State University Fieldhouse, as it was known then. An estimated 10,700 spectators entered the arena that night. At least 500 people were turned away; many sat in the parking lot and listened to the game broadcast on their car radios.

The size of that crowd remains a record for a Montana basketball game at any level — high school, college or professional. The only Brick Breeden gate count that comes close occurred when the fieldhouse was barely a year old. About 10,200 fans attended a Feb. 20, 1958, game between Montana State University and Seattle University, led by future NBA great Elgin Baylor.

Montana sports history was written in another way on that March 1969 night, although few realized it, including me. I was there as a 17-year-old weekend sports clerk for the Billings Gazette, helping a pair of legends, sports editor Norm Clarke and columnist Addison Bragg, mostly as a “go fer.” Go for statistics, go for refreshments. But that role gave me a spot at the press table and a courtside view of what unfolded.

It’s worth noting that I got my break that memorable weekend because I had been hired the previous fall by Clarke, an Eastern Montana boy from Terry like me. I’ll always be thankful to Norm, now a noted columnist in Las Vegas, for taking a green kid under his wing and showing him the ropes of sports writing.

We didn’t know it, nor is it likely that the general public sitting or standing in the fieldhouse knew it, but this was the last Big 32 game ever played. Before the 1969-70 high school basketball season began, the Montana High School Association disbanded the six-year-old league. It brought the state’s largest 32 schools together for regular season and tournament competition. The league consisted of all Class AA and A schools in existence then, including several schools (for example Wolf Point and Glasgow) that have since dropped to Class B.

Playing against schools with enrollments three, four and sometimes even five times greater than theirs, the Class A schools compiled a sterling record in Big 32 tournament play. The smaller schools had already produced two state champions, Libby in 1965 and Wolf Point in 1968 as well as a second-place team (Columbia Falls) in 1966.

Now, could Laurel deliver a third championship for the Class A clubs? The answer, an emphatic “yes,” came about two hours after the opening tip-off. The Locomotives again parlayed a matchup zone defense that was revolutionary for the time, plus the offensive spark of their own major college prospects, Tom Perrigo and Alan Campbell, into victory.

In the end, though, it was another Perrigo, Tom’s cousin, Lee, who cut through Kalispell’s defense with 36 seconds left in overtime for the layup that sealed Laurel’s 57-54 win and a remarkable 26-0 season record.

The attached article, from Gazette microfilm in late February 1969, shows me as a much younger guy who still had some hair. 🙂

Gazette starting lineup for tourneys_BG_022669

If you’d like to sample the excitement from the amazing night 45 years ago, you’re in luck. Click the link below to listen to an MP3 rendition of the first quarter of the game broadcast, which originated at KOOK Radio in Billings (now defunct but, thanks to Major Dan Miller, a permanent memory for those of us who came of age in the late ’60s and early ’70s.) Some anonymous person, likely a parent, recorded the broadcast. It ultimately came to the attention of Alan Campbell, star guard on the ’69 team, who made it available to me. Thanks to Pat Metzger (second cousin of another team member, Mark Metzger), a radio guy, we have a reasonably high quality recording these days. Full broadcast will be available later to people who opt in to my newsletter chronicling the progress of the book. Enjoy!


First quarter broadcast


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Additional game details:

Box score

Championship game summary

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Jamie Larson