Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens signals in a play during a game between Billings West and Great Falls last winter. Owens is transferring from the Montana football team to play basketball at Montana State.

BILLINGS — Jesse Owens likes football. But he loves basketball.

It’s a contrast that has led Owens, a former standout athlete at Billings West High School, to trade cleats for sneakers — and the Montana Grizzlies for the Montana State Bobcats.

In a phone interview with on Wednesday, Owens cited his affinity for hoops as the primary reason behind his decision to transfer from the UM football team, where he redshirted as a freshman wide receiver last fall, to the MSU basketball team for an opportunity to walk on to play for coach Danny Sprinkle.

“He’s going to give me a shot to prove what I can do,” said Owens, who completed a physical in Bozeman on Wednesday. “I have to go in there and earn it.”

Owens, a 5-foot-9, 165-pound guard, said he will begin taking classes at Montana State on Monday and expects to start practicing with the team next week.

He won’t, however, be eligible to play until next season — a full calendar year — due to NCAA transfer rules.

“My goal is to go in there, get back into basketball shape and get comfortable playing again,” Owens said. “Go in there and compete every day and help get those guys better for the remainder of this season, and hopefully prove that I can be a valuable piece of the team in the future.”

Sprinkle was on the road Wednesday and not immediately available for comment as the Bobcats get set to play a Big Sky Conference game at Idaho on Thursday. But he did provide quotes through MSU’s sports information office.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am about Jesse Owens,” Sprinkle said. “He contacted us after he departed UM and expressed his desire to play basketball, which is his first love. Jesse has tremendous athletic ability and speed which will benefit him at this level.

“He’s a Montana kid that wanted to stay in the state to play, and getting the best players from here is important to me. In speaking with him, his competitiveness and desire to be great are what stood out to me. I can’t wait to get him in the gym with us and start competing.”

Owens was a standout guard at West. As a senior last year, Owens was third in Class AA in both scoring (17.9 ppg) and assists (5.4 apg) and ranked No. 1 in field goals made with 123. He helped the Golden Bears place third at the state tournament.

He also helped the Treasure State All-Stars to a sweep in the annual Midland Roundtable Montana-Wyoming basketball series in June.

But Owens similarly stood out in football, with 1,126 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns as a senior. He was named all-state at both wide receiver and cornerback while helping West win the 2018 state championship.

Owens played in the Knights of Columbus Badlands Bowl and was also named a co-recipient of Billings’ male athlete of the year award by the Midland Roundtable.

He was recruited to play wide receiver for head coach Bobby Hauck at Montana. By season’s end, he was named the Grizzlies’ offensive scout team player of the year during its annual awards banquet in November.

But Owens admitted he wasn’t completely committed to being a football player.

“When I first made my decision to go play football, they knew I was fighting between playing basketball and football,” he said. “It was cool. It was intense. I just don’t think I had my all into it. I didn’t think I was 110% in. It was too much work to be doing if I wasn’t all the way in.”

“It was good while I was there,” he said, but added that basketball “has always been where my love’s at.”

Owens didn’t have a declared major at Montana, but he said he plans to study health and human performance at Montana State.

As for his goal to become a contributor as a basketball player at the Division I level, Owens said he’s ready for the challenge.

“I think it will be difficult at first,” he said. “Hopefully with my background it will make the transition a little smoother. In high school we always went from football and then two weeks later we’re playing a basketball game. I’m kind of used to those quick transitions like that.

“I hope I can be somebody who can control the ball, get the offense orchestrated, hit shots when needed, push the tempo … I think I can do all that.”

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Email Greg Rachac at or follow him on Twitter at @gregrachac

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