SHERIDAN – As members of the Sheridan community packed into the elementary school gym Thursday night, it felt like any other small town basketball game in rural Montana.
Parents showed up to watch their kids excel at an athletic endeavor, while younger siblings ran around in circles burning off a little extra energy, oblivious to the game going on around them. Before the game, spectators helped themselves to a community spaghetti feed.
Usually at this type of event, the home crowd shows up to support their team, urging them on to victory by any means necessary. But Thursday was different. There was no rival team that traveled hours by bus, and everyone in the crowd cheered for everyone on the court, regardless which hoop they were shooting at. Surprisingly, the four 10-minute games showed a final score more reflective of hockey than basketball. And not so surprisingly, it was kind of difficult sink uncontested shots from the free throw line while sitting atop a donkey.
That’s right. Thursday evening’s “donkey” basketball game at Sheridan School was a fundraiser for the Ruby Valley FFA program, and just like it sounds, the four teams representing FFA, FCCLA, Sheridan teachers and the Sheridan Rural Fire Department took to the hardwood straddling asses.
The rules were a little different from the normal MHSA Class C regulations. No out-of-bounds. Players had to remain straddled to shoot, pass and play defense, and all four hoofs must be behind the line for a three-point shot. Aside from that, pretty much anything goes, said Donkey Sports trainer Aaron Shirley of Entiat, Wash.
“If you’ve got a slow donkey, you’ve got a slow donkey,” Shirley said during a pre-game riders briefing. “There is nothing in the world you’re going to do to change that.”
The game itself was a colorful exercise in organized chaos.
Some riders found an instant bond with their animal, steadily plodding their way up and down the court in pursuit of a loose ball. Others were, well, not so lucky. A few struggled to actually mount their donkey; while others seemed to be unable to stay on once they were mounted. Some donkeys seemed completely uninterested in anything having to do with basketball, while others galloped up and down the court as if someone had told them the evening was a qualifier for the Kentucky Derby.
Despite an appearance to the contrary, strategy played a significant role in Thursday’s matchup. Competitors ran down errant passes and ill-aimed shots around the gym by quickly dismounting and leading, dragging or pulling their donkey by the reigns after the ball. Once a team got the ball to an open player near the basket, all eyes watched as shots rained near and not so near the basket.
The Sheridan teachers ultimately made their way through the mini-tournament to win the fourth and final game of the evening, continuing their winning tradition from the previous year.
PE teacher Clint Layng played a critical role in the victories, showing both heart and hustle as he dismounted for a loose ball time after time and herded his ride toward the basket. AG Ed teacher and FFA advisor Rodney Braaten helped seal the victory as time ran down during the last game.
Although the teachers basked in their glorious victory following the game, Braaten was careful not to be overconfident before the game as he indicated what the crowd might expect from the evenings’ entertainment.
“The donkeys are pretty well trained, although if a rider isn’t riding them correctly they do buck people off,” Braaten said. “It gets a little western.”