Wyman Archambault was at the Bismarck Civic Center Friday, watching intently as Bismarck and Century battled to the end for a spot in the Class A boys basketball championship game.
Situations like that — the Demons trailing by two, 2.4 seconds to play, their entire season on the line — take Archambault back.
“Sometimes I sit there and say, ‘They’ve got a lot of time,’” Archambault chuckles to himself. “Two seconds.”
There were four dramatic finishes at this weekend’s Super A tournament. Bismarck’s Taylor Schafer, Century’s Alex Hopkins and Ben Holen, and Fargo Shanley’s A.J. Jacobson all rose to the occasion in late-game situations to lead their teams to victory.
Those moments will become part of the lore of the teams involved. But even those thrillers are unlikely to take on the mythic stature of what Archambault and his Fort Yates teammates achieved 40 years ago in that same building.
There have now been 100 Class A boys basketball champions. Perhaps none were more memorable than the 1973 Fort Yates Warriors, who were honored on the 40th anniversary of their title at the Class A tournament on Saturday.
“Basically we became like local heroes,” recalls Darrell Eaglestaff, the Warriors’ star center.
We’ll get them next year
The 1971 edition of the Fort Yates Warriors was the team that appeared destined for greatness. Led by Bob Eaglestaff, one of the best players in North Dakota history, and Fred Lukens, Fort Yates rolled into the state tournament with a perfect record. But the Warriors were upset by Jamestown in the first round and had to settle for fifth place with a 26-1 mark.
Darrell Eaglestaff, Bob’s younger brother, was a sophomore reserve on the 1971 team. He remembers Fort Yates coach Clark Swisher consoling the
Warriors after the loss to Jamestown.
“He told the seniors to hold their heads up,” Eaglestaff says. “And he told us, ‘We’ll get them next year.’”
But the next year came and went without a title.
“We didn’t make it out of regionals, and Swisher said, ‘We’ll get them next year,’” Eaglestaff says.
Come the 1973 tournament, the Warriors were preparing for a game when Eaglestaff shared a thought with guard Jay Taken Alive, a senior classmate.
“We were putting on our shoes,” Eaglestaff recalls. “I said, ‘Hey, Jay, there are no next years.’”
There wasn’t much to indicate the 1972-73 Warriors were bound for greatness. Fort Yates was solid but unspectacular during the regular season, going 13-8.
The Warriors’ first notable victory came in the regional semifinals, when they upset Bismarck and their star, Tom Petrick. The Demons had beaten the Warriors twice during the regular season, once on a last-second shot and then by 17 points. Archambault says those setbacks helped prepare Fort Yates for the rematch.
“It seems like when you play a team and you lose, you think more about it,” he explains.
Fort Yates lost the regional final to St. Mary’s though, and with a modest 15-9 record, nobody had the Warriors pegged as likely championship contenders heading into the state tournament.
There was nothing easy about the Warriors’ run to the finals. Fort Yates fell behind Wahpeton 8-2 in the quarterfinals, but rallied for a 54-50 victory. Langdon grabbed a 12-2 lead over the Warriors in the semifinals, but Fort Yates came back to eke out a 63-62 victory.
Those games were the perfect preparation for what the Warriors would face in the championship game.
Minot came into the finals as the top-ranked team in the state. The Magicians were led by all-stater Wayne Whitty, who had scored the game-winning basket in Minot’s championship victory over Jamestown in 1971.
On paper, Minot vs. Fort Yates was a mismatch. Early on, it looked like it would be just that. The Magicians raced out to a 14-0 lead.
Fort Yates guard Anthony Bobtail Bear Sr. — who played basketball using the abbreviated name Tony Bobb — says the Warriors never got rattled.
“That first quarter it just seemed like nobody wanted to score,” Bobtail Bear recalls. “Nothing was dropping. But we held together, and we didn’t panic. Our point guard, Verle Red Tomahawk, kept his poise, and so did we.”
The Warriors cut the deficit to three before the end of the first quarter, but they continued to play catch up the rest of the night. The Magicians doggedly maintained their lead, which stood at 68-60 in the final minute, making a Minot championship seem inevitable.
But these Warriors had no quit. With 42 seconds left, Archambault hit a pair of free throws to pull Fort Yates within six. Then the Warriors unleashed their press.
Fort Yates forced two turnovers in less than 10 seconds, resulting in layups for Bobtail Bear and Red Tomahawk. In virtually no time, the Warriors had pulled to within two points.
“Minot was really shook up,” Eaglestaff said.
Minot missed a pair of free throws with 14 seconds left, opening the door for the Warriors. The Magicians tied up Fort Yates with three seconds left, leaving the Warriors in dire straits. A lane violation on the ensuing jump ball gave the Warriors the ball with two seconds left. They called timeout to set up the play.
“When we had the last shot coming, Swisher said I was going to shoot it,” Archambault says. “Then and there, I didn’t even listen to the play. I just said, ‘Great. Let me make the shot.’”
The ‘miracle shot’
Archambault says when he got on the court, teammate Roger Goudreaux asked him what he was doing, because he was out of position.
It didn’t matter.
The video the Warriors have of the championship game cuts out before the shot. But two or three Magicians were on Archambault — Eaglestaff jokes that the legend grows as time goes by — when he hoisted a turnaround jumper from the top left of the key. The ball went off the glass and in.
“Watching, I thought it was too high,” Bobtail Bear said. “Coming in, it looked pretty high, but it came right through.”
Many people thought the shot appeared to be off-target. Even Archambault wasn’t sure.
“I didn’t know it was going to go in,” Archambault says. “But when it went in, it was something else.”
Archambault’s miracle didn’t win the game though, it only gave the Warriors another chance to win it. And they needed some more luck.
Late in the first overtime, the game was tied at 72. Goudreaux fired up a last-second attempt that was off the mark. Whitty grabbed the rebound and was fouled by Eaglestaff. The Minot star went to the line with no time on the clock. Awarded a one-and-one, Whitty had the chance to close out a Minot championship for the second time in three years.
“My heart sank,” Eaglestaff,” he said. “When I walked to the sideline, Swisher said, ‘It’s OK. Don’t worry, he hasn’t been to the line.’”
Whitty tossed up an airball.
“We had another chance,” Eaglestaff said.
The Warriors didn’t waste it.
In the third overtime, Red Tomahawk gave Standing Rock a lead with a jumper from the free throw-line. With 43 seconds left, Eaglestaff made a pair of free throws to make it a four-point game. Gary Cederstrom answered for Minot, then a hard foul put Bobtail Bear on the line with four seconds to play and a chance to put the game out of reach.
“I missed the first one, and they called timeout to freeze me,” Bobtail Bear said. “That helped me. I really hit the floor hard, and it gave me time to recover.”
In the days before the 3-point shot, Minot had no chance to recover. Whitty scored uncontested as time ran out on the Warriors’ 79-78 victory.
Eaglestaff finished the night with 29 points, Archambault had 17 — and the Warriors had their first Class A championship.
Some of the Warriors have kept in touch over the years. But until Saturday, the last time the team had gathered together was in 2003, when Standing Rock High School retired the number of Bob Eaglestaff.
“It’s really great to see all of them,” Archambault says. “… Some of us live around the reservation. Those of us who live off it, it’s pretty awesome.”
The old Warriors say that championship season still comes up frequently in conversation 40 years later — and that the benefits of playing on that team extended beyond the court.
“It changed our lives,” Archambault says. “It made you push yourself more to get what you wanted in life.”
Archambault has seen plenty of big shots over the years. In 1995, history repeated itself when his son, Russell, made another of the most famous plays in local basketball history. In the Class A semifinals the younger Archambault banked in a half-court shot with under a second to play to give Bismarck a 45-44 victory over Century.
The memories of those plays still bring a smile to Wyman Archambault’s face, all these years later.
“The only thing I really wish is that they would have got the shot (on tape),” Archambault says with a grin. “I told them that will see it again one day — when they make the movie. “