The scene last Thursday night on the basketball court inside Houston High School’s Hiett Gymnasium wasn’t so much about buckets, steals, zones and dunks.

It was more about bucking, squeals, groans and “donks.”

For the first time in decades, donkey basketball returned to Houston, and the result was a classic and inevitable combination of competition, carnage and quality entertainment. Led by manager Jake Schnur, a band of qualified quadrupeds from Dairyland Donkeyball LLC (out of Chippewa Falls, Wis.) hit the hardwood for the big event in front of a packed house of around 500-600 fans.

During the evening’s three-game set, which included two preliminary contests and a championship duel, “players” from teams representing Texas County Memorial Hospital, HHS 2013 Seniors, HHS 2014 Seniors and Law Enforcement and Firefighters (a.k.a. the “Smoking Guns”) also hit the hardwood – literally in many cases. As these helmet-clad hoopsters simultaneously fought to score, defend and survive, a wildly surreal sight unfolded as they attempted to put an undersized ball in the basket while trying to learn as they went how to effectively coax or bully their mounts into cooperation, submission or even simple movement.

Some of Dairyland’s donkeys weren’t at all difficult to deal with and their lucky partners remained relatively unscathed. But boasting names like The Widowmaker, Killer, Hemorrhoid, Rigor Mortis, Super Stupid, Enforcer and Ex-Lax, others were highly trained assassins, programed to carry out a diabolical mission of frustrating, confounding and embarrassing their assigned humans.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison

Potential injury to their two-legged targets was not on their list of concerns, and observing these largely unrideable villains go about their business was priceless from the get-go. But it wasn’t for the faint of heart, as their sharply honed and well-timed moves were usually too much for riders to handle, and riders of both genders and many ages often tumbled forward over ducking donkey heads or sailed airborne over bouncing burro behinds.

And the whole time, Schnur went around the court fueling the frenzied fracas by using a specialized rod to pat, poke and otherwise provoke his long-eared minions into sudden movements their mounts were not expecting and frequently couldn’t control.

Throughout the event, Jason Pounds took a break from his daily persona of small town high school social studies teacher and assumed that of a booming-voiced public address announcer, displaying a commanding presence at the business end of a handheld, cordless microphone (that is, when it wasn’t going dead on him). As the crowd almost continuously roared its approval of the on-the-court commotion, Pounds added color to the already colorful situation with quick-witted quips about mishaps and mistakes, and spontaneous accounts of never before seen activities like “donkey skiing” (as players literally skidded across the floor on the soles of their shoes while valiantly – but fruitlessly – holding onto their mount’s rope in an effort to make it hold still against its naturally stubborn will).

Schnur also had a microphone, but his comments were mostly limited to repeating rules like, “you need to be mounted to pass or shoot” and “sideline players need to back off some.” Other rules were scarce, and his approach to officiating was pretty obvious: No blood, no foul. He even pulled the Beckham card on multiple occasions, randomly kicking the toy ball when it came near him or after chasing it down when it rolled into a no-man’s (or no-donkey’s) land away from the action.

Before the opening scrum, Schnur made it clear that there was “no out of bounds” and that front row occupants needed to “stay alert,” and games for the most part resembled a demolition derby more than basketball. But at one point, the night’s Duke of Disorder blew his whistle to halt play and had Smoking Guns player Jonathan Cook Jr. apologize to The Widowmaker for hitting him in the head with the ball.

Cook’s penalty for the violation included having to kneel down and whisper in the donkey’s ear and then kiss him on his snout. While the ruling may have spurred recurring nightmares in one case, it spawned widespread belly laughter in another.

Back in my days living in northeast Georgia mountains, donkeyball was an annual tradition as a fundraiser for the local parks and recreation department, and year after year games were staged before a capacity crowd as people were drawn by the same attraction that makes them stare at a five-car wreck on a freeway. I played in 2003 and 2004, and as someone with experience in the game (and the subsequent aches and pains) I’d like to address a handful of last week’s survivors.

•Kenzie Scheets: Your diligence in attempting to stay atop your donkey was much appreciated. Two words: Hip pads.

•Kevin Reed: Peppermint oil works wonders on sore joints.

•Taylor Franklin: Now you know.

•Young Jon Cook: Donkey snot is not toxic.

•Calin Smith: Helmets guarantee nothing.

•Belle Knarr: There’s no tackling in donkeyball.

Not that it matters (because the night’s real spectacle was the unbridled struggle between mankind and beast), but the two preliminary games featured two eight-minutes halves. The opening contest was a high-scoring affair, with the Smoking Guns downing the hospital crew 14-12. In game two, the HHS 2014 Seniors squeaked past their 2013 counterparts, 4-2. Then in the eight-minute, single period final, an invisible lid formed over the rims and the Guns earned the community’s donkeyball bragging rights by blanking HHS 2014 2-0, with Houston police officer Brad “Bonesaw” Evans notching the lone bucket.

To their credit, the 2014 squad had plenty of chances in the finale, but on several occasions the crowd collectively groaned as the soon-to-be graduates’ shots went in-and-out or otherwise narrowly missed their mark (some off-balance from terrible angles, others from the center of the key with defenders heading sideways on runaway donkeys).

But when the boot-clad hoofs had stopped pounding, the mayhem had subsided and the process of tending to wounds had begun, it was in reality the donkeys that had triumphed in all three of the evening’s showdowns. That was easy to assess by the expressions on the faces of all four teams’ players, from the opening whistle to the final buzzer of each contest.

It could also be argued that the HHS boosters were big winners on the night, as they raised a bunch of money by hosting the epic event. But I’d say the real victors were the fans, who witnessed a string of memorable moments of the variety that create stories to tell for years.

Interestingly, not one of the well-prepared “poo crews” that accompanied each team had to go into action with their shovels and buckets, as not a single donkey “went” during the action (not even Ex-Lax).

Yep, just another Thursday night in Houston, Mo.

Maybe next up will be celebrity ostrich races. If so, I’ll be in on that, too – watching from the sidelines.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email: ddavison@houstonherald.com.

Texas County Memorial Hospital player Katelyn Roberts protects the ball from Smoking Guns defender Calin Smith during donkeyball action last week inside Houston High School's Hiett Gymnasium.

Texas County Memorial Hospital player Katelyn Roberts protects the ball from Smoking Guns defender Calin Smith during donkeyball action last week inside Houston High School’s Hiett Gymnasium.

Smoking Guns' power forward Jon Cook heads up the middle on a slow break during game one last week's donkeyball tournament in Houston.

Smoking Guns’ power forward Jon Cook heads up the middle on a slow break during game one last week’s donkeyball tournament in Houston.

Smoking Guns' forward Kevin Reed lets out a yell while attempting to advance the ball up the court on the back of his equine partner, Killer.

Smoking Guns’ forward Kevin Reed lets out a yell while attempting to advance the ball up the court on the back of his equine partner, Killer.

Texas County Memorial Hospital players Diana Blackburn, left, and Jennifer Jordan help Jordan's sone John ride a donkey. Between games, kids in the crowd had the opportunity to ride some of the more docile members the Dairyland troop.

Texas County Memorial Hospital players Diana Blackburn, left, and Jennifer Jordan help Jordan’s son John ride a donkey. Between games, kids in the crowd had the opportunity to ride some of the more docile members the Dairyland troop.

Kenzie Scheets, of the HHS 2013 Seniors squad, tries to get her donkeyball partner to participate in donkeyball.

Kenzie Scheets, of the HHS 2013 Seniors squad, tries to get her donkeyball partner to participate in donkeyball.

Taylor "Air" Franklin, of the 2014 HHS Seniors team, takes as page from the Michael Jordan school of tongue use while taking a shot during last week's donkeyball competition in Houston.

Taylor “Air” Franklin, of the 2014 HHS Seniors team, takes as page from the Michael Jordan school of tongue use while taking a shot during last week’s donkeyball competition in Houston.

While trying her best to stay atop her mount, HHS 2014 Seniors power forward Belle Knarr clutches the small ball while Dairyland Donkeyball LLC manager Jake Schnur applies his specialized prodding rod to the donkey's hind section.

While trying her best to stay atop her mount, HHS 2014 Seniors power forward Belle Knarr clutches the small ball while Dairyland Donkeyball LLC manager Jake Schnur applies his specialized prodding rod to the donkey’s hind section.

While trying his best to stay atop his mount, HHS 2014 Seniors center Devin Coulter clutches the small ball while Dairyland Donkeyball LLC manager Jake Schnur applies his specialized prodding rod to the donkey's hind section.

While trying his best to stay atop his mount, HHS 2014 Seniors center Devin Coulter clutches the small ball while Dairyland Donkeyball LLC manager Jake Schnur applies his specialized prodding rod to the donkey’s hind section. (Photos by Jeff McNiell, Houston Herald)

 

 

 

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