MISSOULA — Thirty years ago, Gordon Real Bird coached the Lodge Grass boys basketball team to a Class B state championship in Missoula.
Now his son is trying to return the Indians to that same glory in the same town.
“We’ve come a long way,” Lodge Grass coach Gordon Real Bird Jr. said after the Indians shocked Anaconda in the first round of the 2018 state tournament on Thursday. “Lodge Grass hasn’t been on a map for a long time. We used to dominate Class B, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Real Bird Jr. knows all about Lodge Grass’ domination in the late 1980s. He was the starting point guard in the lineup alongside the legendary Elvis Old Bull, a name that carries more significance and mystique than any other in Montana’s basketball lore.
Old Bull is one of the best basketball players Montana has ever produced and led Lodge Grass to state titles in 1988, 1989 and 1990. The 1988 title put Old Bull on the map as he earned his first of three consecutive State B MVP awards.
The Indians haven’t won a championship since.
They’ve had their moments of hope, opportunities and brief flashes of success, including last season when they qualified for the state tournament for the first time since 2012. They played just two games at state, though, losing out in a 9 a.m. Friday matchup with Whitehall.
“From that, it carried over,” Real Bird Jr. said. “I have a real young team. I’m just proud of my boys and looking forward to (Friday) night.”
After Thursday’s 72-66 win over Anaconda in which Mylon Blacksmith made seven 3-pointers on his way to a team-high 27 points, Lodge Grass now meets Shelby in a Friday semifinal matchup at 8 p.m.
The Coyotes, who defeated Lodge Grass rival Colstrip in Thursday’s first round, are making their third consecutive trip to the state tournament. They handed Lodge Grass a humiliating 70-44 loss in last year’s first round.
But — despite just a 15-8 overall record — this year’s Indians seem different. They’re “battle-tested” and “confident coming here,” according to their coach, and the senior leadership of Blacksmith, Elijah Rogers and Ethan Dust demonstrated that composure and stability in Thursday’s win.
After Anaconda rallied to take a 43-42 lead late in the third quarter, it was that trio that steadied the Indians and sparked their own run. Dust did the dirty work, finishing with team-highs of seven rebounds and three blocks. Rogers and Blacksmith drilled huge 3s to close out the third quarter and give Lodge Grass a 50-45 advantage going to the fourth.
That lead would balloon to as many as 14 points midway through the period before Lodge Grass held off Anaconda’s frantic comeback attempt.
“I just told my boys to calm down, calm down, take your time, look for a good pass, penetrate and just take your everyday shot,” said the unflappable Real Bird Jr. “And I think that’s what we did once (Anaconda) got the lead. Once I told them that, they responded to what I was saying.”
“We lost the ball a few times here and there, both of our top players (Blacksmith and Rogers) fouled out, but our freshmen (Colton Collins and Malachi Little Nest) stepped up,” Real Bird Jr. added. “I’m proud of them. We believe, and I told these boys that we deserve to be here. I think that we proved it (Thursday).”