The Red Lake Warriors boys basketball team is looking for another state tournament win Friday against Minneapolis North High School. They're buoyed by a loyal fan base that traveled to the Twin Cities by the hundreds and was pulled together by tragedy.
Gary Spears woke up at 5 a.m. Thursday, got in his car and drove 251 miles to Williams Arena in Minneapolis. For Spears, there wasn't a second thought about making the drive down from Red Lake.
"It's a tradition, you know? Strong program and kids love to play. It's in our blood," Spears said.
Spears knows a bit about that. He was on the boys team in 2001 that made the state tournament. He says he grew up idolizing players from the 1997 state tournament team.
"For most kids it's a dream. They watch high school basketball from a young age. That's where I got inspired, watching the older guys. And I worked my butt off to play on the team and was fortunate to play on some great Red Lake teams."
In the afternoon, the boys team played in their third straight state basketball tournament. Watching them were hundreds of Warriors fans packed in one half of the lower bowl of Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota campus, as the team took an early lead.
"The whole reservation is closed right now, we're all here," said Lisa Stately, a corporate trainer with Red Lake Gaming. She says the casino and the tribal college are about the only two things open in town. The school district closed for two days. Almost all of the tribal offices are taking tournament-time off.
Stately watched as the team hung on to its lead to beat Browerville/Eagle Valley 66-52.
"It's a family. Everybody's together — this community. Everybody, everything's put aside. They're playing like a team and as a family. I think the boys see it. They like to make their fans proud and themselves, and they're doing a good job at that."
Despite losing seven seniors from last year, the team went 26-4.
But just before the season started, sophomore Aaron White died after fighting cancer.
It was an emotionally fraught season, for the players and the coach, Roger White, who also is Aaron's father.
"For me it's been an emotional roller coaster. I'm happy, then I'm sad because my son is not here, not part of it. Some days are tougher than others," White said.
Junior guard Rob McClain said the team fed off of Aaron's passion.
"He was a big part of our team. He was the energetic — he was the enthusiasm of the team. And when we lost him, a lot of that went away," McClain said. "But we found that again through basketball and through our friendship."
Coach White says many members of the team spent time with his son toward the end, staying over, visiting at the hospital.
"These boys have really helped me. They've made things fun, and they've made me see things. They're there the reason I got into coaching. My son was the main reason and I wanted to coach him. And these guys have seen that, and they're really respectful."
Red Lake plays the North Polars Friday at noon at Target Center.