By Tim Eberly
Marvin Dale Doney had recently returned from a junior high basketball tournament in Idaho, where he was named the Most Valuable Player. His team had glided through the tournament without a loss.
Like Doney, Nathan Martin, his best friend and teammate, could not get enough of basketball. On that April afternoon in 1998, Martin called Doney to play some hoops on a nearby outdoor court in Hays.
Doney wasn't in the mood.
"I called him 20 minutes before it happened," said Martin, a junior guard on Hays-Lodge Pole boy's basketball team. "I asked him if he wanted to play basketball. He kind of seemed sad, and said, No, I don't feel like it.' "
Shortly after speaking with Martin, Doney took his own life. Four years later, Doney's basketball prowess is still discussed in Hays.
"He used to dominate the men out here," said Ken Morin, an assistant on the Thunderbirds squad. "It was pretty impressive. He was something else. He had a pretty bright basketball future."
Seven players from that undefeated middle school team are on the Hays-Lodge Pole roster, including the entire starting unit. In the Northern C championship Saturday, the Thunderbirds defeated the defending state champion, Heart Butte, 86-73, to secure its first state tournament berth since 1994.
"Right now, we're living in a moment," Hays-Lodge Pole coach Shawn Backbone said today. "We just take it game by game. Whatever team we play, we put all our energy into that game."
Doney, who was affectionately nicknamed "Buddy," would have been a senior on the Thunderbirds team, which is carrying a 19-6 mark into the state tourney Thursday in Butte. His former teammates, especially Martin, have not forgotten that.
Prior to a first-round matchup against Box Elder in the 9C District Tournament in Havre, Martin slipped in a brief request before the pregame prayer.
"I said, Let's just dedicate these games to Buddy because I know he would be here right now,' " said Martin, who was Doney's backup on their junior high team.
Since that declaration, the Thunderbirds have only lost one game and are currently riding a four-game winning streak. Overall, they have won 14 of their last 15 contests.
"They played from the heart right after that," Backbone, 36, said. "We were playing well before, but they just kept turning it up one notch during each tournament."
Three players all of whom played alongside Doney before his death are averaging more than 20 points per game. Senior forwards James Flying and Russell Doney and point guard Shawn Shambo combine for more than 60 points of the Thunderbirds' offensive production each game.
The lightning-fast Martin, meanwhile, leads the team in sneakers ruined. "He's gone through three pairs of shoes this year," Backbone said. "He tears his shoes because he's so quick when he stops and starts."
Two of Doney's half-brothers, Mike and Lance Gray, are starring on the Thunderbirds' freshman and junior varsity teams. Their success, and tales of Doney's childhood talent, begs the question: How good would Hays-Lodge Pole be if Doney were on the squad?
"People still talk about it," Morin said. "They just kind of contemplate how many times they could have gone to state."
Martin, a 5-foot-8 junior guard, has taken Doney's spot in the starting lineup. Several of the players have been writing tributes to Doney on their socks throughout the playoffs. It's during the basketball season, Martin said, that he thinks about his friend most often.
"Just about every game (in the playoffs), the kids would bring it up in the pregame," Morin said. "I guess we all really felt he was with us in spirit."
Backbone never met Doney, but has seen the enlarged photo of the star athlete hanging in the Hays-Lodge Pole school library. He, too, has also heard some stories.
"I've heard of him," he said. "Of all the players on our team, he was one of the best. I heard of his talent, I heard of his everything."