Ojibwe hoops on the rise: Tribal college provides opportunity via hoops

Editor's note: In the Ojibwe communities of northern Minnesota, basketball is huge. As the popularity of the game continues to grow, basketball presents an increasing number of opportunities for young athletes and the communities they represent. ...

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Pictured is the 2017-18 Leech Lake Tribal College men's basketball team after it won the NIAC Tournament. In the back row (from left) are coach Brady Fairbanks, Joe Strong, Jonathan Staples, Kyle Gordon, Alvin Wind, Nate Howard and David Jones. In the front row are Josh LaDuke and Kevin Hanks. (Submitted photo)
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Editor’s note: In the Ojibwe communities of northern Minnesota, basketball is huge. As the popularity of the game continues to grow, basketball presents an increasing number of opportunities for young athletes and the communities they represent. The following is the final installment of the Pioneer’s three-part series detailing how basketball has provided a path to higher education for Ojibwe peoples in the region.


Like his former Panther teammates and their predecessors, Brady Fairbanks is another Cass Lake-Bena alum who has achieved great things. A former McDonald’s All-American nominee and second team all-state athlete, Fairbanks led the Panthers to the state championship game in 2007, where they lost to Ellsworth on a three-pointer in the final seconds. Like the Red Lake vs. Wabasso game in 1997, the Cass Lake-Bena vs. Ellsworth game is considered to be one of the greatest in state tournament history.

Fairbanks continued his basketball career at Bemidji State, where he was selected to the NSIC all-freshman team. He played three seasons for BSU before transferring to Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., where he led the conference in scoring and rebounding to become Haskell’s first ever NAIA All-American.

Fairbanks is currently the head basketball coach at Leech Lake Tribal College, which began its basketball program during the 2013-14 season. He coached the Lakers to a conference championship that year, earning NIAC Coach of the Year honors.


The Lakers won the conference for a second time this year with a variety of players, including Kevin Hanks, a former Waubun High School star now in his 30s. Hanks played college ball at North Dakota State College of Science before following the Indian basketball tournament circuit across the nation. He enrolled at LLTC this fall to pursue a degree in carpentry, and ended up helping the Lakers win back the conference title.

“We’re not the traditional student, straight out of high school. Many of our players chose a different path or had other obligations, such as family. For them, we are a second chance,” said Fairbanks.

According to Fairbanks, virtually all of his players have returned to basketball after taking care of other commitments. Cass Lake-Bena alum Nate Howard, a former teammate of Fairbanks’, joined the team this year after serving in the military.

Fairbanks sees the basketball program at LLTC as helping these young people to see the value of their hard work. He also believes the program helps them to discover their self-worth, which he says is especially important in Native communities.

The LLTC coach takes a great deal of pride in his players’ academic achievements, as well as their accomplishments on the court. This year’s team, which included players from Cass Lake-Bena High School, Waubun High School, Bemidji High School and Red Lake High School, had the highest grade point average of any team in the program’s history.

Fairbanks mentioned a past player from a local reservation who had dropped out of high school and spent time in prison before joining the team.

“Not only did he make the dean’s list while he was here, he continued his education out of state, and made the dean’s list there, too,” Fairbanks said.

Fairbanks also gave the example of Cassandra Kingbird, a Cass Lake-Bena alum who joined the girls basketball team at the tribal college.


“She got her degree here and kept going. Now, she has her master’s degree,” he said.

Fairbanks hopes that in addition to getting an education and “having the time of their lives,” that he is putting teams on the court that play the game “the right way.”

“You could see it on the high school team this year,” he said. “They won together.”

  Starting with youth LeRoy Fairbanks, the older brother of Brady Fairbanks, felt that not enough basketball instruction was being offered to young basketball players in the Cass Lake area. He saw players developing strong offensive skills, but lacking defensive principles, strength and fundamentals. He also saw the kids from “basketball families” playing at a young age, but many others being left out.

So, six years ago, LeRoy Fairbanks, a member of the Leech Lake Reservation’s Tribal Council, started a youth program that would hopefully “get more players involved, and develop the fundamentals of basketball skills,” so they would be better prepared when school basketball started in junior high.

This winter, the Leech Lakers youth basketball program offered teams, from third grade through sixth grade, for boys and girls and had more than 100 youth involved. Fairbanks feels that it is a “respectful and respected youth program” and one that is “a leader in the area, that other communities can model their programs after.”

The Leech Lakers program does not charge the youth fees, but does do fundraising and collaborates with the Cass Lake-Bena Schools to pay coaches stipends and offer gym space. The youth pay only for their shooting shirts, which are seen every day in the community being worn by the players and their families. The program has had a lot of success and has developed a lot of excitement around basketball.

Dave Northbird, Sr., the unit director of the Cass Lake Boys and Girls Club, sees that excitement in the club’s gym every night and all summer long.


“The kids are here playing ball every night. Last night we had 40 teens here playing basketball,” he said. “A lot of kids mainly work on shooting, but this year’s varsity kids, they were in here in the offseason and in the evenings working together.”

Northbird, himself a 1,000-point scorer for Cass Lake-Bena at a time when such a feat was rare, hopes to develop programming at the club that will focus more on instruction and developing good habits.

Fairbanks wants the Leech Lakers youth program to do the same and wants to develop at a young age the discipline needed to win state championships.

According to Fairbanks, “My hope is that the kids (in the Leech Lakers program) will continue with basketball and that the game will help them to learn discipline and the value of teamwork, that it will help them to develop relationships, and that it will give them the incentive needed to finish school, and ultimately, to get their college education.”

Patrick Haugen is a graduate of Bemidji High School and has been a special education teacher at Cass Lake-Bena for 22 years.

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Pictured is the 2017-18 Leech Lake Tribal College women's basketball team. In the back row (from left) are Sara Seki (holding son Brady), Candace Jacobs, Sunshyne Kingbird, Alyss Mountain and coach Tara Goodsky. In the front row are Heather Strong and Averi Holtusen. (Submitted photo)

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