The Wyoming version of March Madness happened earlier this month, when high school hoopsters from towns large and small meet in Casper at the state basketball tournament to tussle for 307 braggin’ rights.
State is an unofficial holiday in the Cowboy State….if your team earns its way there. In towns across Wyoming, businesses close for the weekend and fans caravan across the Big Empty to follow their teams to the tournament.
Drink enough coffee in any diner in Wyoming and, sooner or later, you’ll hear a cowboy or a plumber or a trucker wax nostalgic about the last second bucket he made to win state thirty years ago.
Something incredibly special happened this year when the Douglas Bearcats and the Rawlins Outlaws met in the 3A championship game. It was a tight game from the tip-off, back and forth between two great teams.
It all came down to the last shot, like any great basketball game. When two evenly-matched, highly-motivated teams go head to head, it is often the intangibles that decide the outcome. Call it luck, serendipity, the rotation of the earth or whatever – an entire high school athletic career can end on one last buzzer-beating shot for all the marbles.
Douglas, down by a point with a couple of seconds to go, took that shot for the win and it didn’t go in.
The Outlaws won the game 40-39 and erupted in celebration, high-fiving and hugging in front of their bench. The Bearcats slumped in disappointment, slowly walked off the court. That’s a typical scene at State…one team exhilarated, one dejected.
A Douglas player was so exhausted by his effort and crushed by the missed shot and the loss that he collapsed on the floor, unable to join his teammates. He was alone in that private hell that engulfs a defeated athlete after his heart has been ripped out by a loss like that.
Not really alone, though. One Outlaw, before he joined his team in celebration, trotted over to the stricken Bearcat and knelt by him, He put his arm over his fallen opponent and leaned down to whisper encouragement to him.
He then helped the Douglas player to his feet and they embraced for several seconds before shaking hands and joining their teams.
Ashton Barto is #14 for the Outlaws, and has known the player from Douglas since they met on a middle school basketball court. During the intervening years, the two athletes met one another often on the hardwood, in front of their parents and fans.
Ashton’s dad, Buddy, was in the stands for the championship game, and had been on the court the last time that the Outlaws won state in “97. Nobody would have thought one whittle less of #14 if he had run to hug his dad after the final buzzer, or thrown his fists in the air as he ran to celebrate winning State with the rest of the Outlaws. In fact, that is what we expect of winners these days.
But this young Outlaw did neither. Instead, he ran to the side of a friend who was heartbroken by loss. And he taught us all a lesson.
Ashton’s humble display of…I won’t call it sportsmanship because its something deeper than that, for the purposes of this column, lets call it…Wyoming Values demonstrated to us how we should behave toward one another. It was an eloquent display of “neighboring”.
I hope we are all paying attention.
Thirty years from now, folks will undoubtedly sit around coffeeshops and talk about the glory days of high school basketball; they’ll rehash that missed shot and everything that led up to it. I hope they also talk about Ashton Barto and what he taught us.
(In the interest of transparency/full disclosure, Ashton’s grandma is my first cousin and I am a proud former Outlaw jock. If the reader detects a certain lack of objectivity in this column, I invite the reader to deal with it.)