Back to ‘normal’ in Burns with high school hoops


By Grant Lucas
The Bulletin

BURNS — Bob McDonald laughed, maybe even scoffed. Lounged on a fold-up chair near the front entrance of the Burns High gym, McDonald, 77 and a graduate of the school, pointed through the walls of the facility, in the direction of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters, some 30 miles away, where, as of Friday, four holdouts remained in the occupation that began Jan. 2.

For decades, McDonald, a retired rancher, has made his way to this gym to watch Hilanders basketball, and he was there again Friday night. Yet surely nothing has felt “normal” for McDonald and his fellow Burns residents over the past month. With a chortle, he said as much.

“It ain’t normal,” he laughed. “Hell, they’re still down there. What the hell do you mean ‘normal’? That thing will go on for years.”

As he relaxed during halftime of the Burns boys basketball game, though, he agreed how significant it was for him — and the several hundred other fans in attendance Friday night — to come to this gym and enjoy a normal activity in Burns, where the girls team is 21-1 on the season and the boys squad is 19-3. Both are unbeaten in Wapiti League play and among the most highly ranked teams in Class 2A.

“This is probably the only thing that IS normal around here,” said David McDonald, Bob’s 45-year-old son and a funeral director in this remote Eastern Oregon town of some 2,700. “They (the Burns High coaches and players) were pretty upset when they had to move games and cancel games because of all of this going on. It was rough on the kids. They wanted the home-team support, but they couldn’t get it because they had to travel.”

The Harney County School District closed its schools for a week near the start of the occupation, forcing the basketball teams to practice in Riley (about 30 miles west of Burns) and in Crane (about 30 miles east of Burns), while the wrestling team trained in the bus barn near the high school. Less than a week after the occupation began, the school’s girls and boys basketball games, originally scheduled at home against Elgin on Jan. 8, were relocated to John Day, about 70 miles north of Burns.

Eight days later, the Hilanders hosted Imbler. And last week, Grant Union came to town. Heading into this past Friday’s contests against Union, Burns athletic director Paula Toney described the turnout for the last two home games as “more people … than we’ve ever had.”

So it seems, then, a state of normalcy is beginning to return to Burns — at least here at the high school, where the gym has been the site of at least one high-profile community gathering during the occupation.

“I’d like to think so,” said Brandon McMullen, the varsity girls basketball coach. “The one thing that we do is make sure that, when they step on the floor, there’s no difference between yesterday and today as far as what our mentality and our approach is. There are going to be exceptions. The night that the arrests happened, I calmly reminded the girls after practice, I wanted them to go straight home. There was a lot of traffic and a lot of police and law enforcement out, making sure that you didn’t get caught in a situation that was kind of unfortunate. Go straight home and go to your families. But if (coaches) freak out in front of (the players), that’s not doing them any good.”

It is difficult for Toney to hear the questions and concerns of outside observers — that the town of Burns is unsafe or “under siege.” She recalled school administrators from Union High, whose teams were in Burns on Friday, contacting her several times a day throughout the week to ensure the status in Burns was unchanged and that it was still safe for Union’s girls and boys basketball teams to travel four hours from northeastern Oregon for a pair of Wapiti League games in Burns.

“They were concerned about coming, and we have to keep reassuring them that our school is open,” Toney said. “If it were not safe, we wouldn’t be open. We wouldn’t WANT them to come.”

Ted Tiller is amazed at how Burns High students have handled the occupation, which has made headlines nationally for more than a month and has brought more news media to Burns than its residents could ever have imagined. “I think they’re better than adults,” Tiller said of the kids, “when it comes to figuring out what they can control and what they can’t.”

Tiller, 58 and the Harney County assessor, praised how the high schoolers have stuck to what he described as “their business: being good members of the community, going to school, keeping their grades up and working hard.” A member of the Burns High boys basketball state championship team in 1976, Tiller acknowledged that Burns residents may not agree on all issues at hand. But what matters, he said, is what was evident Friday night, beneath the high-arching wood beams of the Burns High gymnasium. Because in this gym, Tiller said, is where “normal” has been sustained throughout the past month.

“I’m tickled in the community, that even though there are maybe those on either side of the fence (about the occupation issue), to my knowledge, when they get here (to the gym), it’s all about the kids,” Tiller said. “That is exactly how it should be.”

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