Indian Country Today
Ask any Native uncle or Native auntie and they’ll tell you about a legendary rez ball game where so-and-so did the unbelievable.
I’m that Native uncle and I’m going to tell you about the unbelievable. It happened 25 years ago this week, and I was there.
Talking hoops in Indian Country is right up there with grandma’s frybread, the weather and what tribal council needs to do when it comes to Native talking points.
This is my first column as ICT’s managing editor and it’s called “Howah,” a common term amongst us Ojibwe when we learn about the amazing, or even the unbelievable. This occasional column will highlight moments of significance amongst our Native relatives through Native eyes.
Rewind to a Minnesota winter in 1997 for my first “Howah,” years before we had smartphones or social media apps in our pockets to document happenings in real time. Few of us had computers or reliable dial-up internet in those days.
A Red Lake Ojibwe point guard named Gerald Kingbird, a 16-year-old high school sophomore, scored 37 points on this Friday night in St. Paul, Minnesota. His Red Lake Warriors scored 113 points in a state tournament semifinal game. It wasn’t enough. Red Lake needed five more points. The Wabasso Rabbits scored 117 in its overtime win over Red Lake at the old St. Paul Civic Center in front of thousands of fans and on a game broadcasted live across the state.
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I had a front row seat for the game. I was a ninth grader and team manager. I seent it.
Kingbird, now 41, a teacher at Red Lake Elementary School and a middle school basketball coach, remembers the game well, and the success of that season.
Kingbird, in an interview with Indian Country Today, said, “A lot of people didn’t expect much out of Red Lake that year, and we wanted to come in and prove everybody wrong.”
Red Lake sure did.
Watch: Gerald Kingbird chats from Redby, Minnesota with Dalton Walker about the legendary basketball game
The Red Lake/Wabasso game was one for the record books and some of the records still stand 25 years later. Red Lake showed the rest of Minnesota what rez ball was all about, and Wabasso, a rural town in southern Minnesota named after waabooz, the Ojibwe for rabbit, more than matched it.
“The feeling I get when I watch it, it gives me the chills. It’s something that is going to be there for a long time,” Kingbird said.
Red Lake didn’t score 100 points all season and entered the game with a 24-1 record. The closest the team got to 100 was 91. Wabasso was built to run. The team scored 100 or more seven times with a 22-4 record. And those were the days of the 8-minute quarters, and of course, no shot clocks. Add four minutes for overtime, Red Lake and Wabasso combined to score 230 points in 36 minutes of play.
Wabasso led, 81-62, heading into the fourth quarter and both teams hit 105 before the end of regulation. Kingbird scored 13 points in 57 seconds, including a game-tying 3 to force overtime. Howah!
Again, no shot clocks. It felt like both teams wanted to score faster than the last basket, and for three quarters, the Rabbits were better at it. Perhaps, realistically, Wabasso would have won comfortably if they just slowed the game down. But Wabasso was built different. If you listened to the game on the radio, you may have thought both teams were from the rez.
The game lives on YouTube, though the quality isn’t the best, but is still worth a watch for any rezball fan. Someone posted the broadcasted game in 2013 and it has almost 34,000 views. Like Kingbird, I still get chills watching it and listening to the announcers go bonkers everytime Red Lake scores.
Watch: Red Lake vs. Wabasso, 1997 Minnesota state tournament
Red Lake, known for years for its basketball talent, was the first all Native team to make the Minnesota state basketball tournament. The program came close in prior years. Before the season, which felt like tradition, many wondered if this year would be the year for state. It was. The rez felt it and so did the civic center. Hundreds from northern Minnesota drove down to the Twin Cities to cheer for Red Lake. Watch the YouTube game and you can often feel the roar of the fans.
If you don’t have time, forward until the middle of the fourth to see Kingbird dazzle and nearly lift his team from a 20-point deficit.
Kingbird said scoring all those points felt like a dream. He said he watches the replay sometimes with his family, usually only the fourth quarter.
The game tipped at 9 p.m. on Friday and the team didn’t leave the arena until after midnight. The scheduling was wonky then. The next day, Wabasso didn’t reach 60 points in the championship game in a two-point loss. The championship game started at 1 p.m.
Few remember that part. Few also remember Red Lake falling in the third place game that Saturday morning.
Most remember Red Lake and Wabasso. Ask any Red Lake uncle or auntie.
Kingbird said he periodically hears about the Wabasso game, and it sometimes comes up at some of the most random times. He has run into a couple former Wabasso players through the years and chatted it up. One joked that they should play 1 on 1 at halftime of Kingbird’s middle school team’s game.
“It's amazing that they still bring it up 25 years later,” Kingbird said. “I’m just thankful I was part of it.”
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