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Flathead hoops legend Brent Wilson dies at 69

by FRITZ NEIGHBOR
Daily Inter Lake | January 21, 2021 9:32 PM

The Flathead Valley lost a giant early Sunday, when Brent Wilson passed away at his home in Yuma, Arizona.

Wilson was 69 and had been battling health issues, including diabetes, for a few years. His wife, Karen, said the cause of death was heart failure.

It is a shock to many who grew up with Wilson or watched the 6-foot-11 center play basketball for the Flathead Braves and beyond. A member of Kalispell’s Legends Wall of Fame, he’s best known for scoring 51 points in the 1970 State AA title game, which Flathead won 80-63 over Helena High. It remains the single-game record for state tournament play in Montana.

Wilson took his talents to Montana State, then after two seasons transferred to and graduated from Colorado State. He played professionally in Sweden for a time, and had a tryout with the 1976 New York Knicks before letting go of his pro aspirations.

At the time of his death he and his wife were running an assisted living home, Ironwood Estate, in Yuma. They had created a similar business in Kirkland, Washington, in 1987 and sold it in 2006.

The concept was fairly novel in 1988, when Wilson spoke to the Missoulian for an article.

“People come live with you. They may be older with Alzheimer’s disease, or fine mentally but confined to a wheelchair,” he said. “Basically the cost is about half that of a nursing home, the people get better care and get to live in a home environment.”

The business fit the personality of Wilson, who was often called a “gentle giant.”

“He would give the shirt off his back for you,” said Ray Eacker, a close friend. “He never uttered a bad word about anybody. Always was kind.

“I spoke with Brent on Dec. 10, for over an hour. A super guy. I miss him terribly. It’s been a tough couple of days.”

Friends often pointed to Wilson’s faith and gentleness and, of course, basketball. Specifically that title game: Flathead had lost consecutive state championships, in what was the Big 32, to Wolf Point in 1968 and Laurel in ‘69.

In 1970 the Big 32 split into Classes AA and A. Flathead again made the title game. Helena, had its own big man in future Dallas Cowboys Hall of Famer Pat Donovan.

Donovan, who stood 6-7, didn’t get enough help on the floor at MSU’s Breeden Field House.

“I thought I had scored in the 20s,” Wilson said in 1988. “Maybe the low 30s but I didn’t think so. I remember it seemed like no one was guarding me.”

“I was at the state championship game, when they won it,” said Jeff Epperly, who was destined to star at Flathead and follow Wilson to MSU for basketball. “Elevated floor at Breeden Field House, there were 10,000 people there. It was an incredible atmosphere.

“He was just spot-on that night. They knew where their bread buttered. All those guys – Sam McCullum, Dan Bain, Roy Beekman, Ed Reeves, Gary Stoick – knew when he was on.”

“Obviously he was huge for the era,” said Greg Bauska, a Flathead graduate and longtime basketball assistant coach in the Valley. “But he really had incredible touch and feel for the game. He was a really good passer. He was a good teammate; it wasn’t all about him.”

His demeanor, some said, may have prevented him from even greater success on the court.

“He could have absolutely ripped the backboards down any time he wanted to,” said Julio Delgado, a guard on the Whitefish squad that won the State A title the same year as Wilson’s biggest game, in 1970. “He was that kind of presence.”

Greg Ellingson, a high school teammate in 1968-69, recalled sitting under the basket during the 1970 title game. Attending MSU on a basketball and track scholarship, he yelled at Wilson to keep shooting because the record – 50 points, by Great Falls’ Cap Fake in 1950 – was in reach.

“I reminded Brent a few times in his life that he owed me some credit,” Ellingson said. “Which he would graciously give, with a big grin on his face.”

Ellingson has another connection: He married Wilson’s ex-wife, the former Cheryl Ross.

That was Wilson’s second marriage; he first married Ruth Wilson, creating a Wilson-Wilson wedding announcement, during college.

It was in 1986 that Wilson, visiting an aunt, attended a church service in Burien, Washington. In the congregation was Karen Jo Quick.

“We praised God through music and dancing,” she said. “He liked to tell the story that God just put it in his heart to pursue me.”

They were married on July 4, 1987.

“He was born on New Year’s Eve,” Karen, who’d been married once before, said. “Don’t you think it would hold true to have our wedding celebration on July 4?”

The couple had basically retired upon the sale of their Kirkland business in 2006, but in 2010 felt the call to help again. Among the first tenants: Brent’s parents, Vange and Lloyd.

Karen Wilson said her husband spoke of an odd dream he’d had the month previous.

“He’d lost his mobility,” she said. “Brent had a dream that Danny Bain and he were walking along, just shooting the breeze. I wonder if that wasn’t something that was getting us ready for this moment.”

Bain passed away at the age of 61. Of the six seniors on that 1970 team only McCullum, who went on to play receiver for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings, survives.

It is a legendary squad, led by a legendary big man.

“I went to every home game, I think, in his whole career,” said Bauska, who graduated from Flathead in 1975. “I spent a lot of time in that gym, watching Brent.

“You’re at that age where your high school stars are your heroes. He was certainly mine. He was a tremendous player.”

“I can remember coming up and before ball games, he’d read the Bible,” said Tracy Walsh, a Flathead assistant at the time. “He was a good one. Probably not as aggressive as you’d like to see – just an easy going kid. That’s a tough one.”