Robert Smith blended into the sea of red that filled Williams Arena Thursday proudly wearing his Red Lake Warriors T-shirt. He sat next to his wife and three of his five children, believing the Warriors could string together something magical like he and his teammates did 20 years ago.
Smith was part of the Warriors’ starting five in arguably the best game in boys’ basketball state tournament history when Red Lake rallied from a 14-point deficit with 75 seconds left in regulation to force overtime against Wabasso in the 1997 Class 1A semifinals. Wabasso survived for the 117-113 victory, but the game became the cornerstone of Red Lake basketball.
“I can’t forget that,” Smith said while watching Red Lake fall behind in its quarterfinal matchup against Minneapolis North Thursday. “We never give up. I feel like we won even if the ‘W’ wasn’t on the board.”
Like the 1997 Warriors, the current team and its fan base never gave up Thursday despite eventually losing 93-46. The fans were chanting "Red Lake" with 1:07 to play trailing by 47 points. That is something Smith and his teammates instilled in the Warriors basketball program.
“I’m glad Red Lake is building this tradition of coming down here,” he said. “It’s a big step coming to state and we’re always proud of our boys no matter how they do. Even with scores like those, you just never give up and keep playing.”
That is what Red Lake did when it trailed Wabasso for three quarters and by 19 points entering the final quarter in the 1997 semifinal. Even when it might have felt impossible to overcome the 14-point deficit it faced with 1:15 remaining in the game, the Warriors preserved and rallied to the tie the game.
Gerald Kingbird scored 13 points in 57 seconds, including a long three-pointer with 17.7 seconds remaining, to even the score 105-105.
Trudy Kingbird, no relation to Gerald, recalled the score, the shot, and the atmosphere in detail on Thursday as if the game was last week.
“I remember there were fans from the four-state region, all Native Americans. Everyone was all excited because it was the first time a Native American team had been to the state tournament in Minnesota,” Trudy said. “[Gerald] was way behind the [three-point] arc and he just shot it and tied the game, 105-105. All the fans were on their feet screaming about 20 minutes straight.
“It was something that probably can’t be matched by high school teams, probably ever. If there was a first-place trophy for fans, Red Lake would have it every time.”
Trudy’s son Andrew Auginash was a reserve for Red Lake in 1997. He didn’t get the opportunity play in the game, but said he will never forget his view of the comeback from the sideline.
The mother and son spent much the drive to Minneapolis this week reminiscing about the historic game and what it meant to the Red Lake community. Auginash said it was a “dream come true” for the fans and the reservation to see the Warriors qualify for state for the first time that season.
“It will always be a special time in our history,” he added. “It was indescribable. Every year around the basketball team we talk about it.
“We never gave up. We were pretty bummed out for a while, but as the game went on we were in disbelief that we’ve come back from 19 points in the fourth quarter. It was the best feeling you could ever have for a high school player.”
Willy Strong, a Red Lake 1972 graduate and former player, missed the semifinal game because of business in Georgia. He received a call from family that night exclaiming he had missed the “best game in the century.” His family recorded the game on VHS, though, and he still owns the tape. He calls the game “The great comeback.”
Ed Strong lived in North Carolina in 1997, but listened to the game live over the phone.
“I was sitting on the stairs listening on the phone to the game,” He said. “My mother had it next to the radio. Anybody would do that if they weren’t able to be at the game.
“All I remember is ‘Kingbird scores. Kingbird scores. Gerald Kingbird was the one making all the baskets at the end. It was rather exciting.”
Gerald was spotted at Williams Arena Thursday. Smith tried to track down his old teammate, but the sea of red was too large to even find one of the program’s stars. Smith said the 1997 team still speaks and reflects regularly on what the Minnesota State High School League lists as one of the Top 5 state tournament games.
“I think the crowd was the most special part about it,” Smith said. “How many people were there and how many people that came from all over to watch.
“I think this is our ninth time down here [at the state tournament] since 1997. I like to think we did [pave the way].”
Watch the complete 1997 semifinal game below. Jump to 1:33:0 in the video to begin watching when Red Lake trailed by 10 with about a minute to play: