dad at CenturyLink

A young father walks his child up the steps of an empty CenturyLink Arena Thursday afternoon. Just hours after the Big Sky Conference basketball tourney was canceled, the baskets were already removed. The Boise, Idaho, venue drew big crowds of Montana and Montana State fans this week before league officials pulled the plug.  

BOISE, Idaho — Kent Haslam has been around college sports long enough to understand just how much work student-athletes put into chasing a dream.

So when the Big Sky Conference announced Thursday that it was canceling the remainder of its 2020 basketball championships due to coronavirus concerns, Montana's athletic director was among those expressing sincere disappointment.

"I love this time of year with basketball and everything going on," Haslam told "But I completely understand it's the right thing to do.

"We're learning as we go. I'm certainly disappointed and sad for those seniors to have it end so abruptly. But in the grand scheme of things, it's important to be prudent."

Thursday's news was especially hard to take for Montana men's basketball players, coaches and die-hard fans. The Grizzlies were supposed to be shooting for a third straight Big Sky Conference tourney title this week at CenturyLink Arena in Boise. 

Instead, it's over.

"You can definitely sympathize with the players," Montana Lady Griz senior McKenzie Johnston said. "Our (Montana) guys end the regular season dropping from first place last week, so then coming here they wanted to redeem themselves."

It's hard to look on the bright side, believe in the safe thing to do, when you're in your early 20s. Thursday morning had to be especially tough on the Montana State women's basketball team, which earned a trip into the Big Sky tourney final the night before.

Instead of playing Idaho for all the marbles Friday afternoon, they packed up and headed back to Bozeman. No more basketball.  

"For me, I can't imagine being in the championship game and then finding out from a text message your season is over and as a senior you'll never play again," Johnston said. "You're so close being able to crown a champion."

Haslam put this week's unprecedented circumstances in perspective.

"You know, in the end, it's only sports and we'll certainly get through this," he offered.

"Things are changing so quickly." 

Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor and has served as Sunday columnist the past 14 years. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at

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