Remembering The Great Alaska Shootout
Kentucky guard Wayne Turner took a solo snowmobile ride in the snowy wilderness, got lost for two-and-a-half hours and had to be rescued by Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion Martin Buser.
Tito Horford of the University of Miami stepped off a jet plane, gazed at the snow-covered mountains and said, “Humans live here?”
They did and do. And they play basketball in Alaska, too.
Misconceptions about Alaska abound among many Americans. Some will declare flat-out Alaska isn’t a state, has 24 hours of darkness everywhere, and is a suburb of Seattle. Young Alaskans who attend college Outside, as they call the Lower 48 states, are quizzed about living in igloos.
For a time, the legendary, beloved, great Great Alaska Shootout bridged knowledge gaps through basketball. When a college team visited over Thanksgiving, players saw that Anchorage, with its 300,000 citizens, was a bigger city than many of their college towns. They were reminded that they could have still have fun in the snow like kids, too, taking a dog-sled ride or snowmobile sojourn.
Steve Kerr, the Golden State Warriors coach, once told me the night before he and his Arizona teammates played for the title they gallivanted through the streets having a snowball fight.
For 40 years, the Shootout was a showpiece of college basketball, holding a special place on the calendar. Fans watched holiday hoops on TV from a few thousand miles away late at night because it was midnight in the East when it was 8 p.m. in Anchorage.
No more. The Shootout died in 2017, killed by the NCAA. Which was only appropriate, since the NCAA originally gave birth to it in 1978. The governing body of intercollegiate athletics giveth and it taketh away.
As someone who wrote about the Shootout for about 20 years, I personally lament its passing. It was as synonymous with Thanksgiving as turkey and stuffing. The event’s death left a hole in the psyche of devoted fans who helped ensure those who journeyed North experienced a unique vacation.
“It’s one of those things that made our program special,” said Rusty Osborne, the University of Alaska men’s basketball coach. “It shined a light on Alaska.”
(Photo credit: Skip Hickey/Alaska-Anchorage Athletics)
Osborne is in his 18th year as head coach and 31st with the Division II program, including his time as an assistant. His first win this year was his 300th.
Alaska-Anchorage was the Shootout host of an eight-team tournament first played at nearby Elmendorf Air Force Base and then in the downtown Sullivan Arena. Its creation sprung from the imagination of the late Bob Rachal, the school’s first coach.
Rachal realized NCAA rules allowed teams traveling to Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico to exempt their appearances from scheduled game limits. Adding three free games was the magic formula to win over the biggest name coaches at the biggest name programs. Another lure -- they got to compete before all other teams opened Dec. 1.
This year, the season opened Nov. 9, another example of how sports seasons continue expanding in length. There are also now so many early-season tournaments fans can’t name them or identify where most take place.
The Shootout consisted of seven Division I teams and host UAA, the small-school outlier in the bunch, making the Seawolves perpetual underdogs. Yet constantly the little guys rose up and smote the Goliaths. UAA won 39 Shootout games, just about one a year.
Everyone came and everyone wanted to come, from Indiana to North Carolina, Duke to North Carolina State, Syracuse to Cincinnati, UConn to Louisville.
Coaches representing the big boys were fond of the atmosphere, even respecting Alaska reporters. I reached Bob Knight by telephone before a Hoosiers Shootout appearance. In the days before cell phones, Dean Smith called back from an airport pay phone. Jim Valvano answered the phone on his desk.
After I wrote a column saying it was risky for teams to underrate Syracuse even when the Orangemen were not ranked and they promptly upset someone, Jim Boeheim told me, “You should have said you were from Syracuse. I would have been nicer to you.”
Coach Mike Krzyzewski juggled complicated scheduling to make certain his All-American guard Trajan Langdon, “The Alaskan Assassin,” now general manager of the New Orleans Pelicans, got the treat of appearing before home fans in Anchorage.
The Shootout belonged to all of Alaska, with many living across the state’s vast 663,000 square miles flying to the big town for their holiday. It was a check-marked date on the calendar, like a birthday.
Players and coaches were feted at a luncheon. Groups of players were parceled out to private homes for Thanksgiving day meals.
“Old-timers and boosters and fans still have relationships with people from North Carolina and UCLA and Duke,” Osborne said. “It was exciting for the whole state. You’d feel a buzz for the whole week.”
Frequently, the Seawolves sneaked up on an overconfident top tier school, and often the victory was described on national TV by premier ESPN broadcaster Dick Vitale. Memories were cemented.
In an era of a later seasonal start, some all-time great players made their debuts in Alaska because as freshmen their teams opened in the Shootout. One such notable was Hall of Famer Tim Duncan. In a 1993 first-round game, Alaska-Anchorage stunned Wake Forest, 70-68. Duncan went scoreless. Jason Kaiser, an Anchorage native, scored 35 points for UAA. Later, Kaiser had a framed copy of the box score hanging on an office wall, relishing the Jason 35, Tim 0 point spread.
(Photo credit: Alaska-Anchorage Athletics)
The demise of the Shootout was gradual. Instead of being the only games played over Thanksgiving, all schools began play earlier, many in competing tournaments.
“The proliferation of the events really hurt us,” Osborne said.
The once-loaded Alaska fields diminished in stature and fewer spectators came out. Long-time Alaska-Anchorage sports information director Nate Sagan said fans didn’t adjust to watching lesser Division I teams.
More recently, UAA has been beset by financial problems mirroring the state’s circumstances. Budget cuts led to slashing of the ski, gymnastics and hockey teams, though fund-raising efforts spearheaded by the public are restoring them to Alaska-Anchorage’s roster of athletics.
For Sagan, Thanksgiving was once just about his busiest work week. Now he has alternative plans.
“I eat,” he said. “Watch football, I guess.”
Sadly, me, too.
Perhaps while savoring their favorite Thanksgiving dishes, one-time players like Turner, Horford and Kerr will briefly recall and relive when they were young men in college making short stopovers in the snows of Alaska.
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