The bandbox gym at Anchorage West High School, capacity 4,000, was filled to overflowing for the first time since one evening last winter when West High beat East High 69-58 for the state Region IV championship—and that was about as big a basketball game as Alaska had ever seen. But on this particular Saturday night in November the guys on the court were certainly not high-schoolers. These were pros and this was opening night. Their flashy uniforms, their size, strength and amazing grace were unlike anything ever seen in Alaska.
The crowd was screaming at the ferocious high-speed dunks the visiting Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Barons were throwing down through the south basket as they warmed up for the scheduled 7:30 tip-off. Suddenly, 6'10" Joe Newman soared in to ram one. On the way down, the ball struck the front of the rim with such force that the fan-shaped glass backboard shattered into a thousand pieces. There was a long "oooooh" from the crowd, followed by a stunned silence. Hardly anyone present had ever seen a backboard shatter like that.
At the other end of the court, the hometown Northern Knights were also warming up. After a few routine layups and some careful dunks, Ron Davis, a 6'7" rookie forward from Washington State, caught the rim on a slammer and there was another sudden crash, another shower of glass. Both backboards now were in pieces on the floor.
Rick Smith, the Knights' 33-year-old president, was beside himself. He had already made an emergency trip to a nearby gas station to find a replacement fuse for the 24-second clock. There was a contingency plan for one broken backboard, but not for two. Even so, it was announced that two new boards were on the way.
February 27, 1978
On the floor, high school gymnasts tumbled themselves dizzy while 4,021 fans waited patiently. As the "short delay" became an hour, the Knights offered refunds. Hardly a soul in the $9 and $6 seats budged. There was no booing, no stamping of feet, no yelling of obscenities. In the end, about 100 people did decide to leave, but only 50 of them asked for their money back. The rest said things like, "Are you kidding? Two shattered backboards? I've gotten my money's worth already." Meanwhile some of the fans who had been turned away because of the sellout and were listening to the proceedings on the radio hurried back to the gym, and the 100 deserters were quickly replaced.
Two hours and 15 minutes later the game began, once again with 4,021 spectators, who considered the wait well worth it. As far as anyone knows, they were witnesses to the first professional sports event, aside from boxing matches and two 1965 NBA exhibitions, in the history of Alaska. After Alaska had waited 92 years to become a state, and 18½ more to get its first professional sports franchise, who besides the 100 who left was going to let a two-hour delay stand in the way of being in on history?
With two new backboards in place (one was removed from a neighboring junior high school, the other discovered in a storeroom) and a strict "no dunking" rule in effect, the Anchorage Northern Knights, led by Davis' 30 points and 17 rebounds, beat the Wilkes-Barre Barons 117-112 on opening night in the Eastern Basketball Association.
The Eastern Basketball Association? Ludicrous, you say? That is exactly what the owners from the nine other clubs in the 32-year-old circuit thought when the idea was first presented to them. A league that was founded in Pennsylvania, and with teams in Wilkes-Barre, Lancaster and Allentown, Long Island (Commack), Brooklyn, Providence, Jersey Shore (Asbury Park), Quincy (Mass.), Washington, D.C.—and Anchorage?
But in an insane sort of way, maybe the arrangement is not so ludicrous. "After all," says Smith, "few people realize that Alaska contains not only the northernmost point in the United States, Point Barrow, but also the westernmost and the easternmost." There is no disputing him. Just a few miles west of Amatignak Island in the Aleutians (179° 10' west longitude), across the 180th meridian, is Pochnoi Point, 179° 46' east.
Smith knows his trivia. More to the point, he knows success. In the face of the initial skepticism, born of what seemed the fundamental folly of joining a league whose nearest member is almost 5,000 miles away, and having had to put up with cracks like "Do you have an igloo big enough to play in?" Smith now is enjoying all the laughs. The Northern Knights have proved that selling professional basketball to Alaskans is not nearly as difficult as selling them, say, refrigerators. If they like the product, they will buy it. And after the first three months of the EBA season, the Knights have an 18-5 record and are in first place in the Western Division—which was created this season—2½ games ahead of Wilkes-Barre. The Alaskans also boast an average attendance of 2,400, more than twice as big as next-best Quincy (950), and 1,650 better than the league average of 750. There is, of course, a perfectly rational explanation.
In his recent book on modern-day Alaska, Coming Into the Country, John McPhee takes a rather harsh but accurate view of Anchorage, a city that has grown like a weed since oil was discovered in 1968 in Prudhoe Bay, some 700 miles to the north, and construction began on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in 1974. Writes McPhee: "Almost all Americans would recognize Anchorage, because Anchorage is that part of any city where the city has burst its seams and extruded Colonel Sanders.... It has come in on the wind, an American spore. A large cookie cutter brought down on EI Paso could lift something like Anchorage into the air. Anchorage is the northern rim of Trenton, the center of Oxnard, the ocean-blind precincts of Daytona Beach. It is condensed, instant Albuquerque."
While other outsiders have found much to admire about Anchorage—the warmth of its people, its proximity to dazzling mountains, glaciers and bountiful waters, and the vast wilderness that begins just a couple of miles out of town—the seam-splitting urgency mentioned by McPhee is inevitably what gave birth to professional sports. Since 1968, the city's population has nearly doubled, to 200,000, and by 1988 is projected to reach 260,000, slightly smaller than the city of Wichita, Kans. The average citizen is 24.2 years old, earns close to $25,000 annually and has precious little to spend it on, save for food and drink. Anchorage has one of the five highest-grossing McDonald's in the world. Most bars stay open, and busy, until 5 a.m. seven days a week, and all the liquor stores remain open on Sundays. A local maxim goes: "Anything stays open in Anchorage if it pays."
But what the people of Anchorage are starved for is entertainment, especially in winter, when the combination of cold temperatures—15° F. on the average—and short daylight hours—the sun does not rise until well after 9 a.m. and sets by 3 p.m.—makes for the Alaskan malady known as cabin fever. A professional repertory theater is in its second season, but "name" entertainment is scarce because West High School, which has the city's largest sports facility, also has the largest auditorium, 4,000 seats, and it is booked for school and civic events almost around the clock. Big-name rock groups, big-name entertainers, major symphony orchestras and ballet companies often find themselves technically in Anchorage but only because its airport serves as a refueling point on routes to the Orient and The Lower 48. Loren Lounsbury, former president of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, is one of the chief proponents of a plan to build a civic center that would accommodate the performing arts, conventions and sports events. "People here are hungry for what they had outside," he says.
That same thought occurred to Rick Smith about two years ago. He began discussing getting a pro team for Anchorage with Mike Shupe, a friend since their high school days at West and now the owner of an enormously successful bicycle shop in which Smith is employed as general manager. Shupe also owns an expanding snow machine (Alaskans never say "snowmobile") distributorship. They convinced each other that pro sport in Anchorage was an idea whose time had come.
For advice they went to Jack Brushert, the 30-year-old general manager of the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, an amateur baseball team that has successfully recruited some of the country's best college players and since 1969 has turned a profit. The summertime beauty of the land, the promise of high-paying jobs, first-rate competition in the Alaska League—which plays 48 games and consists of the Fairbanks Goldpanners, Kenai Oilers and Palmer Valley Green Giants, in addition to the Glacier Pilots—and an almost guaranteed trip to the annual National Baseball Congress Tournament in Wichita, has over the years attracted collegians such as Tom Seaver, Chris Chambliss, Bump Wills, Dave Winfield, Graig Nettles, Randy Jones and Rick Monday. Brushert also flies in three visiting teams each year, picking up all expenses, to play 10 to 15 games among the four league members. The Pilots always sell out their 440 box seats at $110 per, and draw an average crowd of 1,700.
Brushert told Smith and Shupe that if baseball was this successful in Anchorage, then pro basketball could not miss. Basketball has traditionally been the most popular sport in the state, even bigger than ice hockey, which suffers, among other things, from a shortage of suitable rinks. Brushert said that a pro basketball team would have to operate like his baseball team: make terms of employment sweet enough to attract the best coach and players possible, and most important, be prepared to pick up all the expenses of visiting teams, at least in the early stages. "But all this is contingent on having a winning team," Brushert told them. "People here are willing to take a chance on anything or they wouldn't have come to Alaska in the first place. But they won't support a loser."
Smith certainly qualifies as one willing to take a chance. He was working his way up the ladder at Union Oil a few years ago when he decided that "the corporate thing was not my style." Counting on his fingers, he says, "I bet I have 10 friends my age who have become millionaires here in the last five years." So last summer he decided he would have a go at becoming Alaska's first professional sports baron. He went about Anchorage collecting investors for his basketball scheme, winding up with 75 in all, ranging from the very wealthy, like his friend Shupe, to "just plain folks" who pitched in as little as $500. The list includes students, a chef on the pipeline, a commercial artist, a couple of bar and restaurant owners, and a drilling mud salesman. Soon he had a $40,000 nut and, along with Brushert, who had agreed to become the Northern Knights' general manager, set out to find a league.
They considered the projected Rocky Mountain League. But when it looked as though the RML was going nowhere—it never got off the ground—they reached EBA Commissioner Steven Kauffman through a kind of transcontinental grapevine. They called a friend who was a Seattle sporting-goods dealer, who called Frank Wagner, the general manager of the EBA Allentown Jets, who called Kauffman.
"I told Frank I didn't understand," recalls Kauffman. "Did they have a team up there and want to arrange an exhibition or something? But to play in our league? I didn't see how that was feasible. But I said I was going to San Francisco in August and if they were serious they should fly me to Seattle and come down for a meeting. In San Francisco I got a call and was told there was a ticket to Seattle waiting at the airport. I was shocked. I realized maybe they were serious."
In Seattle, Kauffman learned from Smith and Brushert about the Glacier Pilots, the Anchorage market and the startup money that had already been raised. He began to see the publicity value a team in Alaska would have for the EBA, which, with an enlarged talent pool since the ABA folded, had been trying to upgrade its image from that of a nickel-and-dime Pennsylvania mill-town circuit—which is mostly what it had been—to something on the order of baseball's Triple-A leagues.
At the EBA meeting in Philadelphia in mid-September, Kauffman presented the idea to the team owners. When the jokes died down, the Northern Knights were voted in as members.
According to their arrangement with the league, the Knights play 21 of their 31 games—including the first 16—at home. They agreed to pay all expenses for each team (and two referees) to make one visit to Anchorage for a two-or three-game series, with the Western Division clubs in for the longer stay. In return, when the Knights made their one 10-game road trip in February, their housing and per diem ($15 per person) would be picked up by the host club. What this means for Smith and his 75 investors is an outlay of either $17,000 or $21,000 for each of nine home series, $25,000 for the road trip, $32,000 in entry fee and security to the EBA, plus the team payroll, which at $60,000 is the highest in the league. Including promotion, office costs and incidentals, the season budget will come to around $300,000. While that sum is about what the New York Knicks pay the likes of Spencer Haywood for one year, it dwarfs the operating costs of any other EBA team. The Long Island Ducks, also a first-year club, will run this season on $110,000. The budget of the Allentown Jets, now in their 20th year in the league, is a paltry $30,000 to $35,000.
To anyone living, say, east of the Yukon Territory, the very idea of paying $9 to see a bunch of relative unknowns play an EBA game—where a typical score is 146-140, where there may be more dunks than dribbles, and where "defense" mainly happens when an opponent pulls up to shoot an ABA-style, 25-foot three-pointer—passeth all understanding. A courtside seat at Brooklyn's Roosevelt Hall goes for $4, and Brooklynites are turning out at the underwhelming rate of 250 a night to watch the Dodgers play.
"Money has a whole different meaning up here," says sportswriter Bill Wilson of the Anchorage Daily News. "People will pay for anything." When a ham-and-eggs breakfast can cost $3.50, a steak $15, a record album $7.50, who will carp about paying $9 to see pro basketball, even if it is minor league basketball? And so the Knights' average crowd of 2,400 brings the fledgling team very near its break-even point.
Smith figures that only limitations at the concession stand will keep the Knights from turning a profit this year. While stocking caps, Knights T shirts, buttons and pennants sell briskly, one problem is that West High's antiquated electrical wiring is insufficient. It was the popcorn machine that caused the 24-second clock to blow, so now the team sells the prebagged stuff. Likewise, there is not enough power to run a coffee machine. But the main problem is a state law forbidding beer to be sold in schools. "If we could sell beer, our attendance would increase and that would mean an additional $20,000 in revenue," says Smith.
As Brushert warned, red ink would probably be flowing if the Knights had not turned out to be winners. The man who made Anchorage a winner is 36-year-old Bill Klucas, who previously served three years as assistant coach to Bill Musselman at Ashland College and two more under him at the University of Minnesota. In between those jobs he coached the Ohio State freshmen, and on Jan. 25, 1972, the dark night of the bloody Ohio State-Minnesota brawl, Klucas watched the debacle with mixed emotions, because he had coached the principals on each side. After two unspectacular years as head coach of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Klucas found himself in S‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Paulo, Brazil, coaching the Palmeiras pro team to an overall 49-5 record. He expected his next job to be in the NBA. "I thought, 'Oh man, 49-5. My phone will be ringing itself off the hook when I get back to the States,' " he says. "It rang. You know what I heard? 'Hey, where the hell have you been?' " Klucas began last season as coach of the EBA Hartford team, but quit when his paychecks came up short. He wound up scouting for the Houston Rockets and Buffalo Braves.
It was Kauffman who recommended Klucas to Smith and Brushert as the right man to coach the Northern Knights. "You know," Klucas says, "I remember lying on the beach in Rio thinking, 'Heck, it could be worse. I could be in Alaska.' " The Knights offered him $2,000 a month, an apartment and a car—a king's ransom by EBA standards. "I'm as mercenary as the next guy," Klucas says. "Don't get me wrong, I'll do anything to win. It's the only way to get to the NBA. If they pay me to take five midgets to Siberia, I'll take five midgets to Siberia."
He has no midgets on the Knights, and for the time being the coach is sold on Anchorage. The Knights, however, are split on the issue. One evening a few weeks ago, several of them gathered to bid farewell to Al Fleming, a 6'7" forward two years out of Arizona who at the time was the Knights' leading re-bounder (16.8) and No. 2 scorer (21.3) and had just been signed by the Seattle SuperSonics. (There are no formal working agreements between EBA and NBA clubs as there are between major and minor league clubs in baseball. Each EBA team is assigned two or three NBA teams as "affiliates" for the purpose of player distribution, in place of a draft. Thus, a player acquired by Seattle or Phoenix automatically becomes the property of Anchorage, and the "affiliates" are free to make their own deals.)
The feeling that pervaded the two-bedroom apartment shared by Fleming and his former Arizona teammate, Guard Herm (the Germ) Harris, was that Fleming had been tapped to meet the Deity. "Man," said 6'8" Center Roy Jones, who played in Sweden last year after finishing up at Fresno State, "Al gets on a plane and lands in another world."
The sentiment cast an instant wave of cabin fever over those who were not catching the same plane. There were complaints about the isolation of Anchorage, the cold, the promised high-paying outside jobs that had not materialized, and the high cost of living that ate up their $100-per-game salaries, nearly double what most EBA players are paid.
"I won't be able to keep this apartment unless I get another roommate fast," said Harris, a second-round draft choice of Philadelphia last year. "Four-fifty a month. Whew!"
"This season is it for me and Alaska," said Harry Davis, a six-foot guard from Morris Brown College in Atlanta.
"I'm used to walking around in bathing trunks and bare feet," said Harris.
"My old lady asked me did I visit any igloos yet," said Davis.
"A friend in Tucson told me that if you visit an Eskimo, the first thing he does is offer you his wife," said Harris. "That true?"
"I heard that too," said Jones.
"I'm telling you," said Davis. "I just can't make it up here. My first job was scraping plaster off the floors of new apartment buildings. Unfinished buildings. That means no heat. Two days of that and I quit. Six dollars an hour. The union guys putting in the wiring were getting $20. Next I went to work on the loading dock at Sears with Roy for $4.90 an hour. Then we got a raise to $5.20. Then we all got laid off after Christmas."
"We all love basketball," Davis went on, "but I'll tell you. The EBA motto is 'One Step from the Best.' Maybe we're a step from the best but, man, you want to start measuring how long that step is?"
Fleming knows only too well. So does Dean Tolson. While Fleming was ascending to sainthood, joining the ranks of EBA players who managed to make the NBA—Charlie Criss of the Atlanta Hawks is currently the most exalted—Tolson was apparently going the other way. The 26-year-old, 6'8" forward has been cut by the SuperSonics three times, most recently on Nov. 11, during the week that the NBA rosters were reduced from 12 to 11 players. Last year he played in 60 games for the Sonics, averaging six points, and he cannot understand his cruel fate. Now he is one of the Knights' best players, averaging 22 points and 13 rebounds, leading the team in exotic slam-dunks, and is so popular in Anchorage that the club employs him full time to promote games and sell tickets from a mobile booth that makes the rounds of the city's shopping malls. To keep him from going to Europe, he is paid $200 per game. Nevertheless, neither Alaska nor the EBA is his idea of paradise.
"You have to psychologically put yourself on a trip to stay here," he says. "The first day my eyes were watering and my eyebrows froze. The cold makes your knees tight. Coming here from the big time makes you want to give up the game. Let's face it, everybody wants to make the NBA. Everyone is out for himself. In Seattle, if I broke open, Slick Watts would get me the ball. Here, I'm ahead on a fast break, I look back and some turkey is pulling up at the 25-foot line to shoot a three-pointer. Can you blame him? Everybody feels, 'What good am I doing myself by giving him the ball?' "
Not all of the Knights are down on Alaska. Guard Freeman Blade, who last year played for Athletes in Action, got work as a job counselor for the city and plans on making his home in Anchorage. Ron Moore, a forward who doubles as assistant coach, has been teaching in Alaska for six years and has built a beautiful lakeside house in nearby Wasilla. Pat Flanigan, the 6'9", 225-pound country-boy center from Wyoming who replaced Fleming in the starting lineup, will stay as long as he is wanted. He has become the crowd favorite, perhaps because he lumbers around the court like a Kodiak bear. Guard Jeff Tyson, out of Western Michigan, plans to stay on during the summer to do some hunting and fishing, as does Ron Davis, the smooth forward who leads the team in scoring with 28 points a game.
"Kind of surprising for a guy who thought he was going to play in Ohio," Davis says. He was home in Phoenix after being cut by the Atlanta Hawks last fall when he got a phone call from Klucas. "Klucas said he was in Ohio, getting a new team together for the EBA," says Davis. "The money sounded good, and he said he'd send me a plane ticket. Three days before I was supposed to leave he called again to make sure I was still coming. I said sure. I hadn't looked at the ticket. He said, 'Great. I just got up here and Anchorage is really nice. You'll love it.' I said, 'Anchorage? Is there an Anchorage in Ohio?' "
No one who has never been there before can be adequately prepared for a trip to Anchorage. Even the most blasè traveler is compelled to press his nose to the airplane window as he flies in over the snow-covered Chugach Mountains, which are pink and blue under the low sun, and the vast blackness of the frozen Cook Inlet and Knik Arm. When the Dodgers from Brooklyn made this trip for their two-game series with the Knights, they had a nine-hour jet flight from Kennedy Airport. The team's normal mode of conveyance is a station wagon.
"I want to see me some Eskimos, some igloos," announced Forward Bernard Hardin at the airport.
"I been to Hawaii," said Forward Luther Green. "All I know about Alaska is from the movies and television, North to Alaska and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon." What Green did not know is that the Yukon is in Canada. "I told my son this morning—he's a second-grader in Queens—'Daddy's going to Alaska today.' He said, 'That's cool.' And it is. Real cool. Luckily I caught me a sale on long Johns the other day. Three pair for $3.99."
Moving toward the baggage-claim area, Rick Smith, who was there to meet the Dodgers as he does all visiting teams, urged them not to miss the display of Alaskan animals in a nearby corridor.
"Animals," Dodger Coach Harold Tonick said derisively. "Big deal. You ever see some of the animals we got running around Brooklyn?"
But as surely as they stun most visitors from The Lower 48, the tractor-sized moose and the eight-foot-tall snarling Kodiak bear with paws the size of unabridged dictionaries brought various expressions of disbelief from the Brooklynites.
"Man, I thought Kareem was big."
"How fast can those things run?"
"They're quick, but they can't go to their left."
"We used to have a center who looked like that moose."
Passersby at the busy airport, far more accustomed to seeing colossal animals than giant black men, regarded the players with awe.
"Man," drawled one Dodger to another. "People lookin' at you like you from Close Encounters."
On Saturday night at the West High gym, the crowd of 2,653—tough old construction workers, three-piece-suiters, women and children, a sprinkling of blacks, even some honest-to-goodness Eskimos—sat quietly, rather like an audience waiting for a school play to begin. On the court, warmups pretty much boiled down to a slam-dunk exhibition. There was no chance of more broken glass, because the backboards had been fitted with special breakaway rims, held in place by shear pins and cushioned with rubber bushings. The four cheerleaders, who were a bit overly made up, wore white vinyl go-go boots and purple velvet mini-dresses lined with white fur. They were named The Northern Foxes.
When the game began, the crowd came alive, screaming at the officials at the right times, greeting each dunk, behind-the-back pass or blocked shot with a big league "oooh" or "ahhh," sending down a good creative obscenity every now and then. The fans were enjoying themselves and learning the pro game, too.
Tolson got into early foul trouble and the Knights fell behind in the first quarter, obviously missing Fleming. But eventually they got offense from Ron Davis (44 points) and Harris (25 points, 18 assists) and defense from the pivot combination of Flanigan and Jones, who "held" Jim Bostic, the league's third-leading scorer and top rebounder, to 31 points and 17 rebounds, and plenty of help from their most important ally, jet lag, to beat the Dodgers 138-119. The high point of the game occurred when the ungainly Flanigan, tied up on the far side of the court, fired a pinpoint pass right into the hands of his astonished coach, who was seated on the bench.
"I wanted to shoot it," said Klucas, "but I didn't know if it would count for three points or a technical foul." If Klucas is not ready to be an NBA coach in real life, he could certainly play one in a movie. In one night he showed it all: the Heinsohn glower, the Loughery lip, the Fitch wit. Not to mention the obligatory NBA leisure suit.
On Sunday night the crowd was down to 1,841 despite a free T-shirt giveaway, because of the Knights' unfortunate decision to begin Sunday games at 6 p.m.—which has turned out to be either too early or too late. "That could be our only mistake," says Smith modestly. Again the Knights had to come from behind, and this time Tolson exploded for 36 points, including seven slam-dunks. The Knights won, 131-120.
"It's great that basketball has finally crossed the last American frontier," said Tonick before leaving the gym for the airport. "Not to mention the fact that they are carrying our league." In the hungry boomtown of Anchorage, the Northern Knights are the closest thing to the big time. The highly visible players must fight their way to and from their dressing room, and have to deal with autograph hounds and hangers-on all over town. Most of them enjoy at least that part.
"Some of those dudes don't know what they've got here," said Green before boarding the midnight flight for New York. A onetime ABA Net, Green now toils obscurely in his fourth EBA season and works in a youth settlement in Far Rockaway, Queens. "I wouldn't mind living here at all," he said.
As the plane took off into the cold, clear night, the fantastic green lights of aurora borealis danced in the black sky. On the ground, out where the clustered bright city lights of Anchorage abruptly end, there was nothing beyond but infinite darkness in every direction. The city looked like a moon base.