Editor's note: Sunday would have been the 75th birthday of Anaconda basketball legend Wayne Estes, who died bizarrely and tragically in February 1965 at age 21. 406 Sports editor Jeff Welsch originally wrote this piece in 2015 upon the 50th anniversary of Estes' death, but his is a story Montanans will never forget. The story has been updated.
ANACONDA — To fully comprehend the emotional swing wrought by the most irreconcilably tragic night in Montana sports history, you must first retreat 48 hours to what was, at least for the two central figures, one of the most magical.
It's Feb. 6, 1965, a snowy night along Utah’s Wasatch Front.
Here’s what many Montana old-timers and basketball aficionados already know:
Wayne Vernon Estes, a larger-than-life figure in his native Anaconda even at age 21, had just scored 37 points for Utah State’s basketball team against arch-rival Brigham Young. Estes, the nation’s No. 2 scorer, was 47 points shy of becoming the first Aggie to score 2,000 in a career; earlier that day, the soon-to-be first-team All-American had been told by a Los Angeles Lakers scout that he would be their first pick in the upcoming NBA draft.
Here’s what most don’t know:
Basketball was far from Wayne’s mind in the moments after the game, when he stood on the steps of BYU’s gymnasium and proposed, for the 13th and final time, to his soul mate, a tall and vivacious brunette from Burley, Idaho, named Paula (Bandy) DeJoshua.
Wayne and Paula had spied each other as freshmen at Utah State. They had instant chemistry. Their dates typically consisted of talking into the wee hours in her dorm stairwell or practicing his signature baby hook shot for hours, with Paula serving as his human ball return. When the nights grew long and it was time for him to leave, he’d kiss her and then, while walking away, leap high into the air and click his heels after receiving a long-distance kiss from her through her window.
In the most public of spotlights, just before tip-off of USU’s standing-room-only games, he’d pull up his left sock, just to let her know she was the one out there on the floor with him.
“Truly love at first sight,” Paula told me in 2007 during a lengthy interview for a story I was writing on Wayne for Montana Quarterly magazine.
“A magical story.”
Paula later shared with me how she’d given their relationship one last desperation shot that week, by pouring her heart into a 12-page letter. The note was an instant epiphany for Wayne, who to that point would follow his heart to Paula only to retreat because he was Episcopalian and she was Mormon, and LDS rules prohibited his parents, Joe and Helen, from attending their wedding.
Those tricky waters, Wayne ultimately determined, could be navigated. So, too, could he explain his decision to one of his closest friends, a young Anaconda woman his parents adored and everyone assumed he’d eventually wed – Olympic speed skater Judy Morstein, whose political savvy would one day carry her to Helena, where as Judy Martz she would serve as Montana’s governor from 2001-05.
Wayne tucked Paula’s letter into his pocket, within reach of a fading newspaper obituary he always carried in his wallet eulogizing a young boy whose name also was Wayne Estes. He called and asked her to attend the BYU game, then meet him outside the arena before he returned to campus with his team.
“I’ve made up my mind,” he declared to Paula, who had been so distraught after he called off their Aug. 28, 1964, nuptials that she’d transferred to BYU, 125 miles to the south and a world away from his towering presence in Logan.
“I’ve decided everything’s going to be OK.”
Their future assured, Wayne turned his thoughts back to basketball and what promised to be a historic night in Logan.
• • •
Fifty years ago -- Feb. 8, 1965 – an addictive energy permeated every nook of Utah State’s cramped George Nelson Fieldhouse as an overflow crowd of nearly 5,000 gathered for the Aggies’ game against the University of Denver.
At 21, Wayne, nicknamed “Crisco” for the flab on his mountainous thighs when he was a four-sport star in Anaconda, already was a living legend. Kids adored him, and he always obliged every autograph request. Adults were smitten, too. The USU yearbook editor, Eleanor Olson, told me she kept copious statistics and talked about moving to wherever Wayne landed after college, as much for the man he always was than for the player he’d become.
Forty-eight points was a heady figure, but why not? The 6-foot-6 forward/center was averaging 33 per game; nationally, only Rick Barry of Miami (Florida) was scoring more. Wayne had scored at least 40 points six times, set the University of Montana’s Dahlberg Arena mark with 42 points, and had netted a school-record 52 against Boston College.
Back in Anaconda, Joe and Helen, along with Wayne’s 11-year-old brother, Ron, drove their old Chevy onto a ridge where they could pick up the distant radio signal from Logan, just like they always had for four seasons.
What happened in those next 90 minutes remains the stuff of teary basketball lore.
Wayne, who’d inexplicably lost much of the feeling in both arms, missed badly on his first three shot attempts. He asked to be removed from the game, but coach Ladell Andersen refused, telling his star to keep shooting. And he did. By halftime, despite his numb arms, he had 24 points. Midway through the second half, he reached 40. With 4:44 to go, he scored his 48th point to set the school record of 2,001 (now third in school history).
Andersen called a timeout to substitute for Wayne and allow the crowd an appropriate tribute. Teammates carried Wayne off the floor. Andersen insisted that his humble senior acknowledge the ovation.
After Wayne’s usual postgame ritual of a radio interview and autographs he called Joe and Helen.
He then called Paula, who couldn’t make the trip to Logan.
“Paula, somebody else was putting those balls through the hoop tonight,” she remembers him saying. “It wasn’t me.”
• • •
Shortly afterward, Wayne and two friends drove to a popular pizza place called Fredrico’s for their usual postgame debriefing. Twice they’d passed a routine accident. A speeding car had hit a telephone pole, bending it slightly.
After eating, the friends made a third pass. The police were gone. A power company employee, noticing a drooping power line about 6 feet above a sidewalk, left briefly to retrieve a ladder so that he could reach a switchbox and shut off the current.
This time the boys parked the car and decided to check out the scene.
They started down the sidewalk, led by former point guard Delano Lyons, who was 6-feet-2. Lyons cleared the power line by two inches and then had an instant flash of horror.
“Duck Wayne!” he yelled, turning abruptly and putting a hand up. But it was too late.
His 6-6 friend’s forehead hit the wire. More than 2,300 volts coursed through Wayne’s body, allowing him only enough time to instinctively reach for the wire with his right hand – the shooting hand that had earlier lost all feeling yet still poured in 48 points.
Smoke curled from Wayne’s limbs. Lyons was hurtled across the street by the sheer force, his life likely spared because he had changed into rubber-soled shoes.
Just like that, at 10:55 p.m., less than two hours after what he had described to Paula as “the greatest night of my life”, the most accomplished basketball player Montana has ever produced was gone.
Word spread quickly and grief hung over the Utah State community like a heavy blanket for days. On campus, where flags flew at half-staff, students and faculty wept openly. Businesses closed.
Anaconda, a hardened smelter town, was even more inconsolable. The funeral procession was more than 15 miles long. More than 4,000 people attended two services.
Eventually, those left behind forged ahead, though friends and family closest to Wayne told me they still grieve.
Joe and Helen, who'd let out a chilling scream when she was delivered the news, never recovered; when Helen died in 1995 most said it was from a broken heart. Olson, the yearbook editor who now teaches English at Weber State University, told me that her therapy was to self-publish a book called “Wayne Estes: A Hero’s Legacy”. Morstein, the eventual governor, would reminisce fondly of Wayne up until her own death this past October. Wayne’s brother, Ron, who allowed that Feb. 8, 1965, was “the worst night ever”, still lives in Anaconda, has raised star athletes and played a key role in a commemorative basketball event called The Wayne Estes Memorial Tournament.
Lyons, Olson, Ron Estes and many former teammates attended a ribbon-cutting for the Wayne Estes Center in Logan in 2014.
Andersen, now 88 and living in St. George, Utah, happened upon the surreal scene while driving home that night and identified his star player. He choked up repeatedly when telling me he eventually took some solace in his conviction that he’d see his star player again in the afterlife.
As for Paula, the devastation was so debilitating that 22 years after Wayne’s death she contemplated suicide, until one day, she was sure, he came to her in a Seattle stairwell much like the one where they’d shared so many intimate conversations at USU. He reassured her that he was OK, and that she had a full life to live. She had moved to the Pacific Northwest, tried marriage, divorced, and raised five children; she’d finally found peace in his spiritual presence that day.
Five years later, Wayne came to her one other time, as she sat in an ancient kiva at the sacred Chaco Canyon site in the Four Corners region. You belong here, she says he told her, and so she packed her belongings, found 35 acres in a remote canyon, built a home and found her calling in Navajo education. Paula, now 72, is an artist and gallery owner in Blanding, Utah, where she also teaches online for the state.
“I don’t really pine for (Wayne),” she once told me. “But still what’s so poignant is that everyone who knows me has a deep, abiding conviction that … in the eternal scheme of things we’re going to be together.”
For Paula, and for those who knew Wayne Vernon Estes best, the only way to reconcile the irreconcilable has been to remember those days, especially two wintry February nights along Utah’s Wasatch Front, for what they were until 10:55 p.m. on Feb. 8, 2015.