At first glance, the crowd appeared no different from your typical boys' basketball gathering at Minneapolis North. But it didn't take long to notice this was far from normal. The gym was already three-quarters full early in the second half of the JV game that preceded the 1 p.m. matinee between North and Hopkins.
There were plenty of bro-hugs, as there always are, but they seemed to linger longer than usual. Despite the early-arriving patrons, the atmosphere felt subdued, the usual hubbub reduced to a low hum.
A game of this magnitude would normally be expected to draw broad interest, but Saturday, the game was largely an afterthought.
It was a remembrance, a tribute to 15-year-old Deshaun Hill — D-Hill, to those who knew him — the North sophomore athlete who was tragically, inexplicably, gunned down Wednesday while simply walking down a Minneapolis street. He died Thursday.
On the North Side, gun violence is regrettably a significant part of people's lives. The thing that made Hill's death so shocking and created such a resonance within the North community was how out of character it seemed.
Deshaun was respectful and polite, quick with a smile. He made friends easily and was a hard worker in both the classroom and on the athletic field. His aptitude for football led him to become North's starting quarterback last fall.
Some compared Deshaun to former Polars player Tyler Johnson, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Johnson's name is invoked frequently on the North Side as someone who parlayed his natural gifts and an unyielding vision for his future as the gold standard for role models.
Hill tried out for basketball at North in late November but could not overcome the fierce competition to claim a spot on one of the rosters.
Still, a basketball game at North seemed an appropriate place to honor D-Hill. Boys' basketball games at North are the community's equivalent of the old-fashioned church social. It's where friends meet, where laughter is shared, where gossip is passed.
Alex Copeland, a 2008 graduate of North, has attended just two games this season. This was one he refused to miss.
"Especially because of who he was. He was doing the right things. Everybody liked him," Copeland said.
Saturday was billed as "Pack the Gym for D-Hill" day. The gym wound up as packed as it possibly could get, considering there are still COVID-19 restrictions in place.
There were big names in attendance, such as Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Ed Graff, State Sen. Bobby Joe Champion and members of the Polars 2016 and '17 state championship teams, including Johnson.
Polars coach Larry McKenzie spoke to the crowd before the game, relaying a traditional greeting between the Masai peoples of Africa. "When they greet each other, they say 'How are the children?' " McKenzie said. "Right now, our children are hurting."
Protecting their young was the theme for the entire afternoon.
Tevin, who declined to give his last name but calls himself Band Aid, was there representing his organization, the Minnesota Freedom Fighters, whose mission, he said, is to keep children in the community safe.
"I'm here to give the kids support and let them know there are actual people here who support them," he said.
Tevin said he believed the outpouring of support Saturday stemmed from lack of understanding for Hill's death.
"He was a kid that was trying to be bigger than the community, trying to get out of the community. Death is always sad, period, but when they're young and gifted and talented, it hits a little harder," he said.
He was there to help alleviate the pain he was feeling. "It hurts for so many reasons," he said. "It hurts because it's a young child, because he's one of ours, because this keeps happening in our neighborhood, because we don't know how to change it, because this has become the norm in north Minneapolis."
Deshaun's surviving family — his mother, father and three younger sisters — arrived a few minutes after the varsity game had begun. As they made their way to their reserved seats in the middle of bleachers, the game stopped because the fans in attendance rose and gave them a standing ovation.
At halftime, three members of the Polars basketball team who also played with Hill on the football team walked cross-court and presented the family with bouquets of flowers, after which school Principal Mauri Friestleben gave a heartfelt speech and led the crowd in a call-and-response chant that ended each time with the crowd yelling "D-Hill!"
The Polars held off a Hopkins rally to win the game 76-70, but senior guard Rio Sanders wasn't in a mood to celebrate.
"This was the biggest I've ever played in," Sanders said. "He was like a little brother. All week, we've been talking, saying this game was for D-Hill. It was very emotional. It still hurts."