The hundreds of people who packed the gymnasium cheered with each basket. They giggled when a player fell of a donkey, or if the animal decided it would run away from the basket. Cheerleaders lined both baselines. Spectators munched on cookies and slices of pizza.
The donkey basketball tournament might have been controversial, but few people seemed to care. Hundreds turned out for the event at Graham-Kapowsin High School, which raised money for the Bethel School District Foundation.
"This is an excellent time," Debbie Waynick said. "Such a good time."
Waynick, a teacher at Cedar Crest Junior High in Spanaway, had never before played donkey basketball, in which players ride the animals around the court. She finished scoreless but earned a few style points: She caught a rebound, but her donkey started to walk away from the basket, so she flipped the ball over her head. It spun around the rim and fell out, but the shot drew cheers from the crowd.
"It was an awesome, awesome time," said Jim Warnke, a fourth-grade teacher at Elk Plain Elementary School. "The donkeys handled it very well. I see nothing wrong with it – but everyone’s entitled to their opinions."
Three women, though, weren’t happy with the event – and they protested outside the gates to the school.
They worried people attending the donkey basketball games would see the event as harmless fun, and they had concerns about the animals’ welfare.
"We’re out here for the animals. This is just exploitation," said Marilyn Wilfong of Graham. "Why don’t we go back to having bear wrestling or pit-bull dogfights?"
"Yeah – donkeys don’t play basketball," agreed Kathy Woods of Spanaway before turning to an oncoming car and yelling, "This is cruelty to animals!"
The event had raised the ire of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which said such activities hurt and confuse the donkeys. PETA also disputed organizers’ claims that donkeys can carry up to 225 pounds, the weight limit for participation in Saturday’s event. Organization spokeswoman Desiree Acholla told The News Tribune last week the animals can only bear about 100 pounds.
But Bruce Wick, the owner of the Chelan County-based company that supplied the donkeys, said he’s never seen an animal injured in the 28 years he has run tournaments.
The three protestors weren’t representing PETA; "We’re just people who love animals and who think there are better ways to raise money," Wilfong said.
Wilfong said she has consistently voted for bond measures to fund the Bethel School District, but donkey basketball has ended her support.
"You’re right," said Kim Richardson of Graham. "Never again."
Brenda Bachelor, a 35-year-old Graham woman who attended the game with her family, disagreed with the protestors.
"I believe Jesus rode on a donkey, so that means a donkey can hold a person," she said. "I didn’t see any problems."
And Devin Bales, a Graham-Kapowsin junior, thought the animals enjoyed themselves. They were, he said, really the ones in control. If they didn’t want to walk toward the basket, they stood in place – no matter how much coaxing the rider gave.
"I saw one sign that said ‘Donkeys don’t play basketball,’" he said. "Well, they did tonight."