Former Griz fan favorite Mike Chavez, right, reaches for a rebound in one of his first games as a minor league basketball player for the Great Falls Explorers. He finished with 10 points in an 87-82 loss.
Somewhere in the back bleachers, maybe 100 feet from the basketball court inside Four Seasons Arena, a child teases the hometown Great Falls Explorers’ mascot. In between the squeek of sneakers, snippets of music from the public address system, and barked instructions from the coaches, the child’s distant giggling is the most distinct sound among approximately 150 ticketholders at an unspectacular basketball game. That’s how quiet it can get during a contest in the fledgling Continental Basketball Association (CBA).
Then Mike Chavez gets up off the bench. The former Griz strips off his warm-ups—a black long-sleeve shirt that doesn’t match his midnight blue and gold uniform—and jogs to the scorer’s table. As the announcer introduces Chavez, the crowd finally seems to take notice of the main event and breaks into a sustained cheer. Some even stand.
Chavez plays just under three minutes. He’s active, as always, with his gangly 6-foot-7 frame, all waving arms and churning legs, hounding after the ball. He looks like he belongs, but he doesn’t score and only grabs one rebound. It’s his only action of the night.
It’s hard to be a star in professional basketball’s minor leagues. Most of the rosters are filled with no-name athletes from small schools—St. Scholastica? Christian Heritage?—with pedigrees even the biggest “SportsCenter” devotee couldn’t track. Potential and drive get most players a shot in the CBA, not name recognition. But Chavez is different.
He grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation and led Heart Butte and Browning to state basketball championships before becoming a fan favorite at the University of Montana. Chavez’s statistics never stood out at UM—he averaged 3.8 points, 2.1 rebounds as a senior last year—but the Dahlberg Arena faithful always appreciated his hustle and determination. He left a legacy as an American Indian role model, one of the few reservation stars who adjusted and met the challenges to become a solid Division I contributor. And now he’s being challenged again, adjusting to life as a professional basketball player.
“I’ve been pretty good at making transitions,” says the soft-spoken Chavez. “You kind of have to be able to adapt, and I’ve always adapted my whole life. I go from a reservation school to a big university in Missoula, from playing in a little Class C school to the NCAA tournament. So, I’ve been in transitions my whole life. I’m confident this is something I can do.”
As a pro player in Great Falls, there’s not much to fill Chavez’s day besides basketball. He lives in a house with three teammates 20 minutes from downtown. He doesn’t have a car or cable television. He usually spends his days working out, practicing and getting ready for the games. There’s plenty of downtime, but there’s also the need for it since CBA teams play as many as five games per week. For home games Chavez usually has family or friends in attendance, but the Explorers still only draw between 150 and 600 fans. Chavez isn’t complaining.
“Everyone wants to play as long as they can,” he says. “For me, there was the possibility of playing professionally overseas, but once this came up I stopped looking into it. This is the perfect fit for me. I’m lucky to be surrounded by people who support me.”
Chavez’s season got off to a rough start. He tweaked his right shoulder and went on injured reserve before the first game. Instead of traveling with the team for a two-week road trip, he stayed in Great Falls to rehab and heal—and play a lot of Playstation 3 with injured teammate and housemate Omar Guinea.
At the same time, the Explorers went through a change in ownership, causing headaches off the court. According to multiple players, some gamechecks never showed up, and new home uniforms never arrived. For the first week Chavez lived in Great Falls, his house didn’t have hot water because the team didn’t pay the bill. It was a lot for a rookie to endure.
“You realize it’s a business,” Chavez says. “Unlike college where you always have people like the [athletic director] telling you what’s what, here you’re on your own. You didn’t know if we were going to be here or not, and then new ownership thankfully comes in.”
Through it all Chavez keeps his focus on basketball. He made his first professional appearance December 4, coming off the bench to score four points, and has seen his minutes steadily increase as he gets back into game shape. His best outing so far came against Rio Grande on Dec. 8, scoring 10 points.
“Mike’s a real nice player,” says Explorers’ coach Scott Wedman, an NBA All-Star in the mid-1970s. “I think, especially on the offensive end, he can do a lot of things. He has good skills for his size and he can play both guard and forward. But he’s a rookie and he’s been injured, so there are some things, especially defensively, where he definitely needs some time to get better.”
But to improve, he’s got to play, and there’s no guaranty he’ll get the time he needs to develop his game. CBA teams constantly shuffle their rosters, cutting players who don’t produce and bringing in new ones on the fly.
“The thing with the minor leagues is you never know day-to-day if you’re going to be here—if you’re going to get cut, if they’re going to bring another guy in,” Chavez says. “It happens fast. They brought 15 guys into training camp and at the end they pulled aside five and said, ‘Thanks, now pack your bags, you gotta go home.’ When they’re told they’re not needed any more, when they get basically fired from the job, they have to go find something else. That’s pretty…that’s tough.”
Chavez doesn’t need any reminders of his uncertain job security, but they’re constant and unavoidable. Just last week, the Explorers released his housemate Guinea after only one game back from injury. Chavez would seem to have a better chance to stick around as the homestate favorite, but he’s not banking on his name alone.
“I feel confident,” says Chavez. “I definitely have no problem with these guys. There are things I need to work at. But at any level, it’s just basketball. I’ll continue to do what I’ve always done—work hard and adapt. That’s all I can do.”