It is a moment I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
It isn’t often you see a crowd cheer for officials in unison. Usually it’s a 50/50 reaction to anything that an official is involved in once they step on the court.
But Saturday night at the Four Seasons Arena was different.
With the comments on a possible separate tournament for Native American basketball teams of a Billings Radio personality fresh on everyone’s minds the Northern C Tournament the setup couldn’t have been more perfect.
It was Saturday night late in February at the Four Seasons Arena in Great Falls and the Heart Butte Warriors had just battled a very tough Belt squad and won the Consolation game of the Northern C Tournament. Heart Butte is a Native American team.
The crowd on hand for the last session of the tournament had been there for hours, in fact they had been stationed shoulder to shoulder in the lobby of the Four Seasons Arena an hour and a half before the tipoff of the Consolation game waiting to get in.
Fans of Heart Butte, Belt, Box Elder and Hays-Lodgepole all jostled their way into the building to try and find a good seat for the long night of basketball ahead. It was a madhouse in the all the best ways. The Dippin’ Dots line extended halfway to Kmart and anyone in the line would tell you it felt even longer than that, the sports writers for every major newspaper in the area loudly banged away on their laptops as they tried to stick to their deadlines, and the cameramen scouted out the locations to best shoot hi-lights for the late news.
Then the music started.
The drumbeats of rich Native American culture echoed through the PA system and moments later the teams hit the floor. The cheers of fans from every acre of Northcentral Montana and even further rose to their feet as Box Elder and Hays-Lodgepole began their warmups for the Northern C Championship game. The screams and cheers of fans filled the ears of everyone in attendance.
Box Elder is a Native American team. Hays-Lodgepole is a Native American team.
But this wasn’t the loudest cheer of the night. That came moments later.
As the Bears and Thunderbirds prepared for their fourth meeting of the season and first since the 9C District Championship a week before another surprise was in store for the basketball fans in the Four Seasons Arena.
With about 14 minutes on the warmup clock, I got goosebumps.
Pat Armstrong Jr., Alvin Yellow Owl III, and Terry Brockie walked out from the officials’ locker room in a line and stepped on the floor for the Northern C Boys Divisional Championship. Donned in their black and white stripes and with the bright lights of the Four Seasons Arena on their shoulders the three men marched to half court.
The arena erupted.
Pat Armstrong Jr. is Native American. Alvin Yellow Owl III is Native American. Terry Brockie is Native American.
Armstrong Jr., Yellow Owl III, and Brockie were a Native American officiating team.
That was when the goosebumps worked their way up my arms and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end.
Amid all the noise and chaos that comes with the preparation for a Divisional Championship game there was more noise coming into this Northern C Divisional tournament partly because of the article written by KCTR’s Paul Mushaben on Tuesday morning.
On Wednesday evening the noise quieted down as players and coaches from Belt, Box Elder, Heart Butte, and Power all locked arms in between their first-round games. It was a show of solidarity by members of teams from non-Native American and Native American communities organized by Box Elder head coach Jeremy MacDonald.
“What we want to do from a Northern C perspective is to show we’ve got Indian teams, we’ve got non-Indian teams, and we’re going to be good sports and we’re going to be together,” said Box Elder boys’ basketball coach Jeremy MacDonald. “And at the end of the day we’re going to shake hands and tell each other, ‘Great game.'”
The pre-game ceremony was intended to generate a “bigger discussion and we start to bring people together instead of making this divide between each other.”
That it did.
The show of solidarity in the Northern C spread across social media like wildfire. Photos of players locked arm in arm at center court of the Four Seasons were tweeted, posted, shared, and viewed all over the globe.
The Bears, Huskies, Pirates, and Warriors made a statement everyone could get behind. And the standing ovation by the large crowd in attendance proved that everyone belongs at the Northern C.
That was the first time I got goosebumps at the Northern C Tournament.
The moments before Box Elder and Hays-Lodgepole’s Championship game Saturday made sure it wasn’t the last.
All tournament long the Native American teams and non-Native American teams played great basketball. There were close contests, an overtime, and more three pointers than you can shake a stick at.
But one of the things that caught my eye, besides Trey Henderson’s dunk in the first minutes of the Championship game that delighted the crowd, was the sportsmanship that every athlete displayed. When players got knocked to the floor it was usually players wearing a different jersey color that were the first to offer a hand to pick the other up.
This was all tournament long.
One of the things I’ve learned at the Northern C is that you can’t beat the basketball. Or the people.
You can’t beat the environment that is created when teams from communities across the area come to the Four Seasons to watch young men and women play basketball with pride.
Pride is something powerful. Playing for your community, your family, your teammates, and yourself is something that can empower and pride was on display during the tournament runs by Box Elder and Hays-Lodgepole.
During Box Elder’s win over Heart Butte in the nightcap of Wednesday’s Northern C Tournament I saw Box Elder’s Tanner Parisian show his pride through his actions.
The 5’8” Parisian carved his way through the Heart Butte defense and tallied 20 points in Box Elder’s 75-51 victory. Before the final horn sounded coach Jeremy MacDonald subbed Parisian out to a nice ovation from the Box Elder faithful.
He ran off the floor and high-fived his teammates, the managers and his coaches. Then he walked behind the Box Elder bench and picked up the discarded Dixie Cups that had found their way underneath the chairs throughout the long day.
That’s what Paul Mushaben didn’t see. But I did. A lot of people did. And they have for as long as Coach Jeremy MacDonald has been bringing his Bears team to the Northern C Divisional.
MacDonald has created a culture at Box Elder that I would put up against anyone else in the country. During last year’s Northern C Divisional Tournament when Box Elder was on their way to a second Class C State Championship in three years the coach held himself accountable for actions he didn’t believe were up to snuff.
So, MacDonald suspended himself for Box Elder’s first game of the Divisional. In life, it’s much easier to talk-the-talk but MacDonald and the Bears continually walk-the-walk.
And walking-the-walk is always more impressive.
And walk they did, in front of a capacity crowd at the Four Seasons, to half court. Both Bears and Thunderbirds, as managers, players, coaches, and officials were announced per tradition in the pregame of the Championship.
As the game was played and three pointers were made the crowd erupted in applause again and again. Timeouts were desperately needed for fans, officials, players, and radio broadcasters to catch their breath.
Before the timeouts ended in the instant Northern C classic heavyweight bout, I kept fading back from the moment. Removing myself what I was doing and thinking, “How lucky am I to be here right now?”
“How could you not love this game? This environment?”
I don’t think I was the only one thinking that as Box Elder and Hays-Lodgepole were all tied up at 61-61 with a minute left to play.
Minutes later the final horn sounded at the Four Seasons Arena and the Hays-Lodgepole Thunderbirds were the Champions of the Northern C after defeating Box Elder 65-61 and it was their turn to be proud.
The Thunderbirds, complete with the dyed hair that late great legend A.J. Long Soldier sported during the Thunderbird State Championship run in 2007, proudly raised their Northern C Divisional trophy above their head as hugs abounded between coaches, players, and families.
That pride is what makes us all the same. To raise a trophy is to raise a community to the highest of heights. Basketball unites us. Like standing arm in arm with one another at center court was a statement of solidarity.
Here in Montana we are all one when it comes to the game of basketball.
That was proven when the capacity crowd at the Four Seasons Arena cheered for the guys wearing black and white stripes before the Northern C Championship game.
I just wish everyone in Montana could’ve seen that and gotten the same goosebumps I did.
For that was a game I’ll never forget.
Sean Ryan broadcasts Class C tournament basketball games for KINX 102.7 FM in Great Falls and will be calling the games for Belt and Roy/Winifred in Belgrade this weekend at the Class C Girls State Tournament.