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Neighbor Column: Parker trying to pull rank in hammer ring
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Of Westby, Gene Espeland once told me, "you can't get there from here," and he was almost right. I missed that little right-left combination in Culbertson - not for the first time - and was on my way to Bainville when things didn't look right.

I called Dennis Kittelson, turned around and eventually got there. I was there to help honor Espeland, a 1950 Westby High School graduate, at a retirement celebration following his long and fruitful career as a basketball coach and man. I have to question Kittelson's selection for an MC; Jar Jar Binks is a better public speaker than I am. But I muddled through.

Around 120 people showed up and watched, among other things, a film/slide presentation that covered two state titles, and more grandchildren than great teams. Which is saying a lot.

Afterward, I hit the road. Counting the 780 miles round-trip to and from Westby, I put 1,500 miles on my car last week. A couple side trips to Harlowton, in between a couple days in Missoula, followed. Then I let somebody else drive Saturday, to Bozeman for the Tom Petty concert.

The second stint in Harlo featured another foray onto the fabled Jawbone Creek golf course. As oft happens in Harlo, the wind howled, and my mis-hits were thus amplified. It reminded me of the golf team photo we posed for back in high school: If you look in the 1981 annual, and you can see seven of us leaning slightly to the left, to compensate for the prevailing Easterly winds.

At the end of nine, as if on cue, I ran into Dane Elwood and Rich Kardell, two fellow '81 grads who were the better golfers on our team. We headed out for another nine, along with our coach from back then, Jack Gehring. Rich's game has slipped some. Mine has remained maddeningly, consistently, inconsistent. Dane's game has also remained much the same: He hit a gentle draw time after time, the wind powerless against it.

Well, there is one difference. The powers that be make him wear shoes these days. He used to golf barefoot, which is dicey considering the Jawbone rough - a hodgepodge of weeds, spear grass and prickly pear. Then again, he hit every fairway Friday, just as he did back in 1978-81.

It's been well-documented that Espeland built a friendship with gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, and the venerable coach talked of that after the ceremony. To Espeland's mind Thompson always embellished things a bit, including an article that he wrote for their Air Force base newspaper. It said that in one game Espeland drained several 40-footers, one 97-footer ("breaking all existing records") and that the hotshot would be joining the Boston Celtics upon his discharge.

With that in mind, Espeland takes Thompson's wild tales of drug and alcohol use - as in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" - with a grain of salt.

"I saw him on 'Larry King Live' the other day," Espeland said. "He's gotten married, apparently, and Larry King asked him what he and his wife did on their wedding night. He said, 'We drank, heavily. Then we drove, erratically, home.' "

Espeland laughed. "We were very good friends, and used to write to each other every so often," he said. "But I haven't heard from him in a long time."

He hadn't heard from his first basketball coach, Ole Larson of what was then Northern Montana College, for several decades either. During the presentation on June 29, due to some arranging by Kittelson, a phone set up on the stage at Westby High rang. It was Larson, who now lives in Boone, N.C.

Espeland was surprised - he wasn't sure Larson was alive until a letter from the coach was read aloud at the ceremony - and pleased. It was Larson who got him going on a career that spanned 30 high school seasons and several years in the Continental Basketball Association.

He never played high school basketball, even though he was the tallest kid in school, "and probably in the county." Larson spent his lunch hours taking the raw Espeland down to Have High School and refining his skills.

Espeland ended up in the Air Force, then upon his discharge back at Montana State-Billings, which was then Eastern Montana College. He ended up playing against Northern in what was the Lights' first game that year, and Eastern, playing at home, won handily. But later on the rematch came in Havre, in the first game in Northern's new gym.

Eastern coach Shorty Alterowitz was the dedication speaker; his Yellowjackets then went down to defeat to the Lights. "I do recall that in both games Gene had not lost his great desire to play hard, and how well he ran the floor," Larson wrote. "The game was also one my most cherished wins."

Espeland got Larson's number and promised to call him back. I intend to hit Jawbone a couple more times just so I might, by osmosis or some other means, hit every fairway like Dane does. It didn't work back in high school, but I'm not giving up yet.

Why not? Like Westby, I can get there from here.

Fritz Neighbor is a Gazette sports writer. He can be reached at 657-1396 or fritz@billingsgazette.com

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