The Dream: The Story of the 1978–1979 Peerless Panthers
Publication Date: June 17, 2010
The Dream is the incredibly nostalgic and poignant story about the passing of Peerless High School in Peerless, Montana, which closed its doors forever in June, 2009, and the 1978–79 Peerless Panthers. It also includes the passing of District 1-C, once the most powerful Class C basketball conference in Montana, where three other high schools, Antelope, Outlook and Flaxville, have also closed. It is the story of the end of an era when every year the State Class C basketball tournament in Montana was played in Helena, the most gracious and accommodating host ever for this sensational tournament. But most of all, as is stated in the prologue, “This is a story about a dream, a dream that a group of boys shared to someday play in the State Class C tournament in Montana, then to win the State championship game for their small school. So this is a story about dreams, rivalries, triumph, disappointment, passion, and a love that was shared by a group of boys who never gave up striving for the one thing in their life that mattered most to them: playing in the State Class C basketball tournament in Montana.”
June 17, 2010
5.5 x 8.5 inches
“We were anxious for the tourney to begin, but bad weather (that would be snow) set in and the tournament was delayed until the following week, on Monday. This gave us more time to think about it. The pressure was building. I remember looking at Jon and thinking, ‘This is our junior year in high school and we have yet to even get out of our own District. All of those hours in the gym, all of the practices, all of the one-on-ones we’ve played, all of the hard work…’ We had doubts. Then, after we thought about it, we realized it was very simple: If we were going to get out of our District for the first time in our high school career, we were just going to have to beat the best team in the state to do it! (Hmmm, I seem to recall a Peerless team that had done that before?) Once we accepted what we had to do, it seemed to become easier. At home one night a few days before the tourney, Jon took out a piece of school paper, and with a pen he outlined one word, one very large word, colored it in darkly, and taped it to the wall in our bedroom. The one word written on the page was: WIN. Seems the Panthers were a little hungry… ““The Tension Mounts”, Page 35
“On Sunday, the day after we lost the Divisional championship game to Outlook, the greatest intelligence blunder in the history of District 1-C basketball—perhaps even the history of Class C basketball—occurred. In my mind, the drastic consequences it would have for Flaxville on Monday night would be far more severe than the breakdown in intelligence we had at Pearl Harbor in 1941. To this day, the source of this massive intelligence blunder on the part of the Flaxville Cardinals is unknown. I have my suspicions, but our informant, the agent we had working for us, who I am going to out, would not reveal his source. It was very frustrating that our informant, who was already betraying someone on the other side, could not take it a step further and let us know who his source was. I hate spies with integrity. ““The Great Intelligence Blunder”, Page 55
“On Sunday afternoon at home, I found myself standing at our picture window next to my dad in our living room, just looking out the picture window at the town of Peerless. I don’t remember saying anything to him, or him saying anything to me. We just stood there together, quietly looking out the window, thinking, contemplating. He was on my left. I looked over at him but he didn’t look back at me; he just kept looking out the picture window. He had an ever so slight frown on his brow, very slight. Looking out the window, we could see the new gym up the hill to the left; the old gym was just beyond Uncle Reese’s house, just a little bit to the left if we were looking straight ahead. I honestly can’t remember if I could see the old gym from our picture window or not, but I knew it was there. I know we had to be thinking the same thing: All those cold winter nights going up to play in the old gym with him, to practice and play, Dad teaching us, Jon and me. All the fun we had had, playing basketball together with him coaching us. All the State tournaments we had gone to see with him, since 1975 when Westby won it for the second time, making the annual Holy Basketball Pilgrimage to Helena, the Mecca of Class C Basketball. At Helena we would watch the other teams play and imagine that someday we would be there, with our team, on that court, playing in the State tournament. And now, after all those years, we had a shot. We were close. One more win and we were going to State. The dream was within reach. ““The Picture Window”, Page 58
“On this same, peculiar Monday, February 26, 1979, a total eclipse of the sun would occur over Northeastern Montana, with the heart of the darkness occurring straight above our heads in Peerless. Our science teacher, Pat Haas, had prepared us to look at the eclipse through these pinholes in shoe boxes, or something like that, but I didn’t use it. I just wanted to walk around outside and experience the sensation of being engulfed in almost total darkness in the daytime in Peerless. It is very unusual to experience a total solar eclipse where you live; at any point on the earth’s surface, this phenomena occurs only once almost every 400 years, and it just so happened that this total solar eclipse over Peerless occurred the Monday following the Divisional tournament in Wolf Point. As you have probably gleaned by now, everything I experienced that year was placed into the context of our team’s ride to State. Everything. So my mind was focused exclusively on basketball, and this is why I remember that solar eclipse: I saw it as a metaphor for the shadow that had been cast over our team after the shocking close call we’d had with Opheim on Friday night, and the loss to Flaxville in the Divisional championship game just two days earlier. The dream of a clean sweep through the tournaments was now gone, eclipsed; and worse, there were now doubts about going forward and winning the State championship. I saw the shadow of the total solar eclipse of the sun over Peerless that day as a smudge on our perfection, and the only thing I could think of on that bizarre Monday, as the entire population of Peerless scuttled around the streets in almost total darkness, was that, strangely, approximately 32 miles to the east, the sun was somehow shining brilliantly over the town of Flaxville. ” A Total Eclipse of the Sun”, Page 180
Daryl Gadbow / former “Missoulian” sportswriter and outdoors reporter, now a Missoula freelance writer –
Nostalgic look at small-town sports: The Dream chronicles Class C Peerless squad
For a decade or so after starting my career as a reporter and editor at the Missoulian in 1977, my duties included covering high school and college sports.
In the winter, that meant watching and writing about basketball games, literally hundreds over the years, games involving the Grizzlies and Lady Griz at the University of Montana, and boys and girls high school teams from all over western Montana.
Because of their exciting atmosphere, some of my favorite games to cover were the state high school championship tournaments. I covered state tourneys in all four Montana prep classifications — AA, A, B and C. Of those, my favorites were the tourneys involving the smaller schools in Class B, and the smallest, Class C.
I liked to cover the B and C tourneys because it seemed like the whole town would always turn out to support their teams. And the rivalries between communities would be epic and often longstanding.
One of my most memorable tourneys was the state C championship in 1979.
For 24 years, between 1957 and 1980, the state C basketball tournament was held in Helena at Carroll College. So, it became the mecca of basketball for all of the 90-plus smallest schools in Montana. Earning a berth at state was often a rare occurrence for any particular C team, so it became a major social event and an honor for the entire community.
My assignment in 1979 was to cover the St. Regis Tigers, making their first-ever trip to state. But they were eliminated in a loser-out game on Saturday morning. I stayed to write about the championship between Flaxville and Peerless, two teams from neighboring tiny towns in the extreme northeastern corner of Montana.
It was a classic matchup of contrasting teams and styles of play. Flaxville, the eventual titlist, was an extraordinarily tall squad by Class C standards, led by 6-foot-7 center Kevin Hatfield. In comparison, Peerless was a group of midgets.
Here’s what I wrote about Flaxville in my column for the Missoulian:
“The Cardinals’ deliberate play was punctuated by devastating raw frontline power—the antithesis of Peerless’s free-flowing style.”
Of Peerless, I wrote: “Peerless was a joy to watch, however, at the C tourney – a blur of five miniature, high-speed basketball automatons with radar shooting touches. The precision of the Panthers’ indistinguishable Puckett twins, Jon and Joe, enhanced the refined, almost mechanical image of the team.”
“As you might expect by now,” I continued, “my allegiances were with the smaller Panthers in the championship game, although they were by no means the underdogs, having beaten Flaxville three times during the season.”
I hadn’t thought about that game for many years, until about a month ago, when I got an e-mail from a guy in Germany.
It was from Joe Puckett, one of the twin Peerless stars. He wrote to let me know that he’s written a book about his 1978 and 1979 Peerless teams. I was flattered that he wanted to include the column I wrote for the Missoulian, which he said was his favorite article written about his team and the state tourney. And he e-mailed me an electronic copy of his book, The Dream.
He was motivated to write the book, Puckett says, when Peerless closed its high school, founded in 1932, last year because of a lack of student enrollment. It’s a fate common to many small eastern Montana towns in recent years.
“The story is also,” Puckett writes in the book’s prologue, “about the ending of an era, a passing of a way of life on the Hi-Line in northeastern Montana. It is the passing of what was once the most powerful Class C conference in the entire state of Montana, District 1-C, consisting at the time of the high schools of Peerless, Outlook, Flaxville, Westby, Antelope and Medicine Lake, who during a six-year span, 1975 to 1980, won five out of six State C basketball championships”
In addition, he adds, “Medicine Lake won the State Class B championship in 1975. Westby won the C championship in 1972.
“Between the years 1970-1980, District 1-C won the Eastern Divisional tournament nine out of 11 years. During this time, the district was the most dominant in the entire history of Montana Class C basketball. In two of those years, a team from District 1-C also finished second at state, losing only to the champion from 1-C. Also in 1980, the last year the state tournament was played in Helena, Outlook and Opheim, a former 1-C team, finished 1-2 at state.”
Outlook, in 1980, was led by Doug Selvig, the last of a generation of that famed Montana basketball family who starred there. I covered that tourney for the Missoulian.
Four of those schools—Peerless, Outlook, Flaxville and Antelope—no longer exist.
The Dream is a nostalgic—but often humorous—look at the history and culture of Class C basketball in northeastern Montana, and it captures the passion and tradition of the state C tournament during its 24-year run in Helena. Puckett also tells a poignant story of how high school sports bonds rural Montana communities and families.
Puckett, who went on to play basketball at Montana Tech, works for the U.S. Department of Defense, in Stuttgart, Germany, where he lives with his wife and two daughters.
The Dream, which is 260 pages and loaded with great photos, is available online, for $14.95, from Aubade Publishing at https://aubadepublishing.com. The book will be available Aug. 1 2010 at all Hastings book stores in Montana—in Helena, Butte, Great Falls, Bozeman, Billings and Missoula. Also by Aug. 1, it will be available online at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.
Rocky Erickson / The Northern Montana News Network, seven-time winner of the “Montana Sportscaster of the Year.” –
Back in the 1970s in northeastern Montana, there was a basketball conference that dominated Class C basketball, the District 1-C. Today, only 2 of those 8 schools even exist; the other schools have shut down. But Joe Puckett has written a book about playing basketball in Class C Peerless called The Dream. It is an amazing, amazing story.
A Magical Place and Time for District, Divisional and State (Small School) Basketball
I was never one who understood the intricacies of basketball—professional, collegiate or high school (and younger). But I was drawn into the lives of the Peerless Panthers and rural, small (very small) school (K-12) life through the eyes of the youngsters who had the dream of playing at the State level in Helena, Montana back in the late 70’s. The book was a page turner and a magical charm of a book. Among other things, this marvelous autobiographical sketch transported me more than 30 years back into a place I’ve never been—Northeastern Montana—as no book could, I believe. It held me in exactly the proper level of suspense (re. the exploits of the Panthers, their basketball teams over the years drawn from so tiny a population of students) as the author and his twin brother grew from fifth graders to seniors in high school. Hopefully, the author will write another broader autobiographical sketch of that same place and period, but wherein he attempts to sensitively examine the lives of the others, both in his family and his small school. His style of writing should encourage others to do the same in bringing back to life so many “other” Peerless, Montana-like places throughout America. His was indeed a magical time and place, but I’d wager that there are other such times and places just waiting to be examined in the careful detail offered by Joe Puckett. And for the record, I now know a lot more about the intricacies of basketball than I ever dreamed I could or would. It was a wonderful story of adolescent and teenage growth in basketball and life.
William Puckett –
Joe Puckett creates a “virtual reality” of the game of basketball. He makes the game easy to understand and goes through his entire childhood and teen years game by game. Having grown up in the area I know that basketball and “playing cards” are the two major activities in the winter. On Friday and Saturday nights everyone is at the gym having a hot dog and enjoying the game. Joe came from a school that went years without winning a conference game. He describes how the school and community put Peerless, Montana on the map as a basketball powerhouse. He interjects humor into the book and keeps the reader’s attention. He talks about the struggles and excitement of going to the state championship tournament. He also relates the frustration of losing the state championship game which he had so strived to win. “The Dream” is great movie material. Script writers go to work!
Amazon Reviewer –
Really a trip back to a great time for me.
This book is about basketball in the district in MT that my kids played. Knew some of the stories, really a trip back to a great time for me. I saw the Pucketts play many times!
Amazon Reviewer –
Not just about basketball it is a great lesson on growing up physically and emotionally.
Phenomenal book, not just about basketball it is a great lesson on growing up physically and emotionally. One of very few books I could not put down once I started reading. Everyone I recommended it to that has read it says the same thing.