Eugene Buchanan: Basking in donkey basketball
It was a far cry from Clint Eastwood.
Still, for those of us drifting into the high school gym Sept. 27 for a game of, yes, donkey basketball, we felt we belonged in “High Plains Drifter.”
Like Eastwood trotting through a town lined with gun-toting, gold-toothed outlaws, none of us knew what to expect when high school teacher Kip Rillos tapped us to be on the community team.
The answer came quickly enough, when franchise owner Clifford Cordell II had us sign waivers, then led us outside to an impromptu corral, where real, live flappy-eared donkeys awaited. We were a gullible community squad, a team of teachers, a gaggle of high school girls and two boys teams, one wearing togas and another tighty-whities, neither particularly suited for straddling donkeys.
With a bushy beard and cowboy hat out of Josey Wales, Cordell gave us a quick run-down — “Some of them buck; hop on the middle of their backs, not their rears; if walking behind, stay close to their rumps, so they can’t kick; and any number twos spells a quick time-out for the clean-up crew.”
Then, he explained the rules: You have to be on your donkey to shoot or pass; you can get off to retrieve a ball if you have ahold of your donkey; and he reserves the right to cheat to keep things fair. Then, we marched into the gym, gallant steeds trailing behind us.
Taking on the girls first (not exactly Eastwood-esque), each of us quickly employed a different approach to mounting: the one-legged, hop grovel; the all-in hurdle, often sliding off the far side; even the sack-of-potatoes, sideways stomach lay.
Of course, it all depended on the mule you drew. You had to ask yourself, do you feel lucky? The docile ones were easy. They might not move once on them (right, Eric Nilsson?), but they didn’t mind the mount. The perky ones were another matter.
Just ask Pat Waters from our team. Despite getting heckled for having the smallest, cutest donkey of the bunch, his efforts were like hopping on a Mexican jumping bean. His steed spun in circles, dropped its head and reared its haunches on every attempt. After one too many close calls with the family jewels, he swallowed his pride and subbed-out for Pete Van De Carr, whose lifejacket softened the blows on the hardwood floor. He finally showed Ol’ SmallFry who was boss by getting on just as the buzzer sounded halftime.
Forget any images of Lebron James. When and if you got on, you then had to move the thing, get and hold onto the ball, pass or ride it down court and finally, steady your mount and nerves enough to shoot. Coming off your mount from getting bucked or to retrieve a ball meant either trying to get on again or coerce it into moving, pulling on its reins with all your might. Even with Cordell helping the stranded or bucked, the final score tallied just 4-2 — three total baskets, each prompting hairy-chested, male cheerleaders to streak around the court waving American flags.
Back on the bench nursing our bruises, realizing dying ain’t much of a living, we were crestfallen to learn we had won. It meant we had to play again. After two more rounds — the teachers squaring off against the togas, and the gals against the tight shorts — we met Team Sheet Across Their Chests in the finals, where the torture began anew (landing too far back on the haunches, I got bucked to the floor on one outing). The only one who looked halfway comfortable was student ringer Jarrod Raper, who raised his hand with each buck like he belonged in Romick Arena.
“It felt like I was riding a very pissed off donkey,” he admitted later.
After a few more manure time-outs, the itchy-crotched toga team held on for the win, leaving us to lick our wounds like Eastwood after being dragged across the desert in “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” The whole evening, in fact, shared traits with that title.
The Good: Staged by Dairyland Donkeyball out of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin — which Cordell and his wife began in 2004, keeping a family business tradition alive that dates back to the Great Depression — the event raised a true fistful of dollars: $1,300 at the gate and $670 for Steamboat’s Future Business Leaders of America.
The Bad: Namely, our performance. Save for a buzzer beater when we rode off into the sunset, it was as lackluster as the manure-coated floor afterward. Apart from Raper, you wouldn’t know we all live in a western town like Steamboat.
The Ugly: That would have to be the turd time-outs, causing a visit from the clean-up cavalry. But at least it was led by Rillos, who got us into this mess. Because as Eastwood knows, there’s two kinds of people in this world … those with guns and those who dig (or sweep manure).
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