Southern hostility? March Madness brings Alabama rivalries, comaraderie to the Inland Northwest

Mar. 21—The arrival of the Auburn University Tigers and the University of Alabama Crimson Tide in the Lilac City played out like something out of an old Western.

The basketball team, cheer squad and band for the Crimson Tide walked into the long lobby of the Davenport Grand to find their bitter rivals, the Tiger posse, walking in at the opposite end.

"We came all this way just to run into them right there," said Brady Mitchell, a junior tuba player for the Million Dollar Band, Alabama's marching band.

The standoff ended before the Iron Bowl rivals slung some iron of their own, as a hotel employee showed them to their accommodations. Auburn and Alabama won't run into each other on the court during their time in Spokane, but the teams will have to spend their nights knowing that only a single floor is separating them from each other.

"We only have one floor between us," Mitchell said. "Without it, it'd be mayhem."

Auburn and Alabama are part of a group of three Alabama schools, all within a 160-mile radius, that traveled more than 2,000 miles this week for the first few rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Their fans, teams and spirit squads have brought their rivalries and camaraderie with them on their trek out West.

"Bananas, innit?" said Andrew Kennedy, head basketball coach at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The Crimson Tide's sister school in Birmingham — which, like their dragon mascot, Blaze — slithered into the tournament by winning the American Athletic Conference Tournament championship, and an automatic bid. The Blazers hope to ride that success into late March, and prove they can contend with their flashier in-state companions.

Chris Donohoo, sporting some UAB gear, walked into the Spokane International Airport Thursday with his younger son. His older son, 22-year-old Ryan Donohoo, is a walk-on player at University of Alabama at Birmingham.

It's his first time in Spokane, he said, and he's excited.

"I've heard everything about Gonzaga," Donohoo said. "But I'm a longtime fan of the Blazers."

Donohoo is a Birmingham alum, and to watch his son play for his alma mater is "everything."

Blazers forward Yaxel Lendeborg, hot off his 19th double-double of the season in the conference championship, said he hopes the fans making the trip to cheer on their respective Alabama schools brings some Southern cordiality with them.

"I always see those Alabama fans cooking together to cheer one another on," Lendeborg said. "I just hope those fans that are here early for the other teams can cheer us on as well, and we can do the same for them."

Tigers forward Jaylin Williams said he's been focused on his team, so hasn't given much thought to the other Alabamans in town.

"But it is special for, like, the state in general," Williams said. "Because you got a lot of fans that are Auburn fans, Alabama fan and people that went to UAB, and so there are fans of all three. So it's special to have all three of these teams in the tournament, and we're just going to see who advances the longest."

Married couple Jason and Leslie Ham traveled from their home in Birmingham to support their Auburn Tigers. They said they've enjoyed Spokane so far, especially Riverfront Park and the Centennial Trail.

"Actually, the first game we played this year was in Sioux Falls, and we were talking earlier about how your waterfall is much better than theirs," Jason Ham said.

Jason Ham said they try to catch as many games as they can every season, no matter where they play. They had just returned last week from their trip to Nashville, Tennessee, where the Tigers won the Southeastern Conference championship, when they started looking for flights to Spokane.

Getting here was tougher than they would have liked. The couple couldn't find a direct flight, so they flew into Pasco via Denver and drove two hours north Wednesday night. They haven't had any hostile interactions with Tide fans since they arrived, and it helps the two teams won't have to play each other, Jason Ham said.

"There are a few at the hotel we're staying at, however, so you never know," Leslie Ham said.

Spirit Lake resident Jorden Smith, donned in a red sweatshirt with a big Alabama "A" on the front, brought her son and his friend to watch the teams' open practices at the Arena on Thursday.

The chance to watch the Crimson Tide practice was a full-circle moment for her. Smith spent her early childhood in Spokane before her family moved to Alabama, where she spent the next few decades, met her husband and started a family. She said they moved to Spirit Lake just a few years ago.

"We got three Alabama schools here in Spokane," Smith said. "We just had to get here. We could not miss this opportunity."

For Mitchell, the trip to Spokane was a bucket list item. He was a member of the Million Dollar Band when they performed in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2021 and traveled with the band to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, earlier this year to watch the Tide take on the Michigan Wolverines. He's played the tuba in all four corners of the country.

Mitchell said he's enjoyed his time in Spokane, comparing it to the picturesque Smoky Mountain town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. It hasn't cooled off his distaste for the Auburn Tigers, however.

"Auburn is our little brother; we own them in everything," Mitchell said, before waxing poetic about the Tide's last-minute miracle win over the Tigers during their last football game.

Trash talk aside, Mitchell said he's glad the two teams won't be meeting during the first few rounds of the tournament.

"They're a really good team," Mitchell said. "I'll at least give that to 'em."

Reporter Alexandra Duggan contributed to this article.