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From the ground up: Red Lake Nation College to launch basketball program

Gerald Kingbird, a former Red Lake High School basketball star, will coach the Red Lake Nation College basketball team in an exhibition game Saturday. The college hopes to launch the team officially next year. John HageMan | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – Gerald Kingbird still remembers his stats.

“I scored 19 points in the fourth quarter,” he says.

That includes 13 points in the final 1:15 of regulation in the 1997 Minnesota State High School basketball semifinals, leading the Red Lake High School Warriors from behind, only to lose in overtime to Wabasso. They were the first all-Native team to reach the state tournament.

The people of Red Lake still remember that team.

On Saturday, Kingbird will help start a new basketball tradition by launching the Red Lake Nation College basketball team as its coach.

 “It’s exciting,” he said.  

Although the game will only be an exhibition and the players may not end up on the college team, it’s meant to generate excitement for the team’s launch, potentially next fall. Until then, they’ll be busy recruiting players.

The college will also be raising funds Saturday for its upcoming expansion project.

In December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Program announced the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe will receive a $21 million loan that will help build a new college and government center – a project that will create a new hub for the community on the shores of Lower Red Lake.

Dan King, the college’s president, said they hope to raise about $10,000 from the game.

Currently the college can hold about 130 students, which will increase to about 525 once the new school is built, King said.

The basketball team, nicknamed the Migizi (Eagles), will play on the court in the current college building, which just received a new floor in the past few months.

Kingbird said having a college basketball team will give players an outlet for their skills once they’re done with high school.

“The younger guys coming out of high school, they might not have anything to do,” Kingbird said. “Maybe this team will get them involved in a college program.”

Once that basketball team is established, King said a women’s team will likely follow. After that, sports will be introduced based on student interest.

King said they’ll be playing in the Northern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, along with schools like Oak Hills Christian College.

Kingbird’s return

The Warriors’ run to the state tournament in 1997 caught the attention of media outlets across the state and nation.

Last year, the St. Paul Pioneer Press named Kingbird one of the 20 greatest players in state tournament history. He was also asked to participate in a ceremony at the 100th anniversary of the state tournament last year.

“It’s kind of a legend,” King said of the 1997 team.

After high school, Kingbird moved on to Bemidji State University, but a full-time job and school kept him from continuing a basketball career, he said. He now works at the Seven Clans Casino in Red Lake.

But Kingbird didn’t stay far away from the game, playing in recreation leagues as well as coaching seventh-grade basketball for the past six years. He was approached by King last year to see if he had any interest in coaching a college team.

King said Kingbird will be a major asset in recruiting players in the coming months. Some of those players, he said, likely saw Kingbird play in high school.

“He’s such a good role model and very humble,” King said. “He has the kind of personality that people gravitate towards.”

And on Saturday, he’ll participate in a three-point competition at halftime.

“A lot of people want to see that,” King said. “They want to see Gerald.”

Going forward

It’s only natural that the college’s first sport will be basketball, the most popular sport in Red Lake.

Ron Lussier said when he started a recreation league in Red Lake eight teams were signed up. Now it’s up to 16.

“I know there are some good players out there,” King said. He added that women make up 65 percent of the current enrollment. King hopes that a basketball team will generate interest from men who wouldn’t otherwise go to college there.

“I think the main issue is that we haven’t had anything to offer them,” King said. “Now…they’ll see people with Red Lake Nation College uniforms and seeing that nice court and say ‘Wow.’”

If You Go

What: Red Lake Nation College exhibition basketball game vs. Turtle Mountain Community College

When: 8 p.m. Saturday. A Red Lake legends game will also be played at 7 p.m.

Where: Red Lake Nation College, 23750 State Highway 1 E.

Price: A $5 donation per person is suggested.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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