Behold, basketball sneakers are fighting with mukluks to get a foothold in Alaska, where night games sometimes start at 3 o'clock in the afternoon and the Top 20 is treated with deference and respect. Last week the Great Alaska Shootout in Anchorage brought together five distinguished members of various preseason Top 20 polls—Missouri, Arkansas, Georgetown, Louisiana State and North Carolina. They went north to Alaska to seek their place in the midnight sun and to moil for a little ratings gold. Some moiled pretty well. Some found out their moiling needed oiling. But when this eccentric tournament came down to its final pulsating moments, North Carolina moiled best of all.
If there was anything even more improbable than the sight of that many outstanding teams willing to risk their high rankings so early in the year, it was the fact that they had left the "Lower 48" to do it. And yet there was a kind of obscure logic involved in bringing so dazzling a field together. The tournament began two years ago, largely as a result of a rule that permits teams to play in Hawaii and Alaska and not count those excursions against the NCAA's 27-game limit. The prospect of playing three "free" games against good competition, with most of the expenses covered by the host school, was so inviting that in its very first year the tournament attracted such powerhouses as North Carolina State, Indiana and Louisville.
The tournament was the invention of University of Alaska-Anchorage Coach Bob Rachel, but he wasn't around long enough to see it past the initial planning stage. Rachel was an idea man and a promoter, but he occasionally had trouble with mundane things like rules. In 1978, after the NCAA put the Seawolves, a Division II team, on two-year probation, the school fired Rachel and gave serious thought to dropping the tournament before it had even started. "We had contracts with four schools already signed," says Gary Bliss, Rachel's successor, "and I thought we should go ahead with it. But there was no way we were prepared to host a tournament. The first year was chaos. The public didn't really feel we could pull it off. People would hear the names we were talking about bringing in, and they'd think it was another scam. The credibility of our program was zero."
In that first year the tournament—then known as the Seawolf Classic—played to crowds of fewer than 2,000 people and lost $12,000. North Carolina State defeated Louisville in the championship game, but the Wolfpack went on to finish in a tie for last place in the Atlantic Coast Conference race that year. Indiana lost two of its three games to finish seventh in the eight-team field, but eventually won the NIT. So as a long-range barometer, the tournament may not mean very much.
But the Alaska state legislature was so smitten with the idea that in 1979 it set aside a fund to cover the debts, which eventually mounted to $18,000. This year the state did even better than that. The legislature voted a special appropriation of $115,000 to pay for the Shootout and another $85,000 for a women's tournament next spring. "There is a tremendous excess of wealth in Alaska," says Alaska-Anchorage Athletic Director Gene Templeton. "This year the state has about $6 billion it must figure out what to do with. I think the legislature's feeling is that the tournament is an important community service, and it deserves the money. After all, what else do you do with $6 billion?"
Well, for one thing, you can invite one of the most glittering collections of college basketball teams this side of the Final Four and then sit back and watch them outshine the northern lights. "The tournament is a way for us to carry the message of the Alaskan way of life back to the Lower 48," says Templeton. "People think Alaska is ice and snow and polar bears, but there's quite a bit of sophistication here."
Alaskan sophistication does not yet include much appreciation for basketball, but then the same could be said for places like Phoenix, which have been exposed to the game for years. "The people here seem starved for this kind of entertainment," said LSU Coach Dale Brown, "but if you listen to the crowd you get the feeling they don't know what they're getting." Crowd? What crowd? Tiny Buckner Fieldhouse on the Fort Richardson Army base was not exactly overrun with fans. "This may be the only place in the world where teams of this caliber could play to empty bleachers in a 4,000-seat arena," says J.R. Baldwin, an expatriate Texan now writing for The Anchorage Times. "Alaskans are doers, not seers. People who come to live up here are either looking for a fresh start or they're running from something." Last week they seemed to be running from the Great Alaska Shootout, and in fairly large numbers. The average attendance was 3,500 per session.
Because the games didn't begin until Friday, there was plenty of opportunity for teams from venues as different as Fayetteville, Ark. and Hamilton, N.Y., home of the Colgate Red Raiders, to see Alaska and rub noses, or rather elbows, with some of America's last frontiersmen. When Derek Smith journeyed to Anchorage two years ago with the Louisville Cardinals, he participated in such cross-cultural activities as snowmobiling, dogsledding, ice fishing and bobsledding. "One night we went out looking for hamburgers, and I ended up in a striptease joint called the Booby Trap," recalls Smith. "I hope it's not closed; I'm looking forward to going back."
Billy Tubbs would like to go back, too. Tubbs, now the coach at Oklahoma, took his Lamar University teams to Alaska the past two years, and he also remembers it as culture, culture, culture. "Our players did some sightseeing," says Tubbs. "They went to see some glaciers, things like that. In Alaska you awaken at 9 a.m., and it's dark outside and there's a live football game on TV. Then it gets dark again about 3. Happy hour comes very early for the people up there."
All eight teams in this year's field, which included the host school, Colgate and Nicholls State of Thibodaux, La., had assembled in Anchorage by Wednesday night. The players and coaches were invited to have Thanksgiving dinner in the homes of local families, but only the men of Arkansas and Colgate were wise enough to accept the offer. "We try to let the kids take advantage of the activities that are available to them when we go someplace unusual like this," said Razorback Coach Eddie Sutton. "I think some coaches get too uptight about the games and don't let their players enjoy themselves."
The Hogs had a variety of Thanksgiving Day experiences. Reserve Forward Greg Skulman, a predental student, had dinner with Anchorage dentist Darrel Kester. Before the meal Kester took Skulman and Gary Shutt of the Arkansas sports information office up for a spin in his plane, which he parks on a frozen lake behind his house. One member of the Arkansas party was having dinner with yet another local family when he smelled something peculiar and realized a joint was being circulated around the room (marijuana is decriminalized for home consumption only in Alaska). Oh, well, each of us must give thanks in his own way.
Arkansas Center Scott Hastings and Guard U.S. Reed joined three players from the Alaska-Anchorage team at the home of Bob and Fay Vogt. That afternoon Reed suffered the tournament's first documented Alaska-related injury. While chasing a hockey puck in a pair of tasteful beige street shoes on a neighborhood rink, U. fell unceremoniously on his S. At dinner Reed sampled roast moose meat and pronounced it "good."
Reed complained that his back was still sore before Friday's first-round game between the Razorbacks and Missouri, but if it was bothering him he kept it a closely guarded secret. Missouri would have been a fairly significant favorite if you were going by just about any preseason poll in the country, but the Tigers were destroyed by Reed and his running mate at guard, sophomore Darrell Walker. With Walker savaging the Missouri guards defensively and Hastings hitting his first six shots, the Razorbacks built a lead of 19-2. When Reed took a breakaway in for a 360-degree spinning slam the lead was 28-4, and by out-rebounding Missouri 16-2 in the first 13 minutes Arkansas extended its advantage to 31 points, 40-9. Reed and Walker also pioneered the flying tomahawk high-five from the tuck position, possibly the first real breakthrough in handslapping in the last several years. Missouri made a run at the Hogs in the second half as Guard Jon Sundvold poured in 18 points, but the Tigers still lost 81-73.
Carolina had been unimpressive while disposing of Alaska-Anchorage 69-50 in the opener. There had been more intensity in the pregame activity, when Tar Heels Coach Dean Smith complained about the ball being too new, moaned because he had been given the standard two vans to get to the arena—not three as he had requested—and griped because his team's warmup time was cut from 20 minutes to 17. "Prima donnas," huffed one tourney official.
While all that was going on, the LSU players and coaches were roaming the shores of the massive Cook Inlet in a bus, visiting a glacier here, a ski area there. At one point the players all poured out of the bus and had an impromptu snowball fight. When the driver signaled them to get back on board by sounding his air horn, the horn became stuck and bled all the air in the bus brakes. To allow the air pressure to build back up again, the driver had to turn off the engine, which was all right until it began to get cold. Every time the driver turned the engine back on, the horn blared and down went the air pressure. The Tigers found themselves shivering in their seats and conjuring up ghastly newspaper headlines such as BASKETBALL TEAM HONKED TO DEATH and, of course, BEEP BEEP DEEP DEEP SLEEP SLEEP. (Where is Robert Service when you really need him?) Just in the nick of time, along came Irma and Emery Shaw to the rescue. Irma and Emery had just the right tool to fix the balky horn, and Irma told everyone that she and her husband were from Jackson, Miss, and that she had attended LSU herself a long time ago. That made everyone feel a lot better. LSU had less trouble that night with Colgate, winning 79-61.
A lot of people said it wasn't right to have a bunch of sacrificial lambs like Colgate, Alaska-Anchorage and the Nicholls State Colonels—who were lambs led to slaughter at the hands of Georgetown in the first round, 80-58—but the lambs, to be candid, didn't seem to mind lying down with the lions. Jerry Sanders, the coach at Nicholls State, seemed downright ecstatic about its chance to be waxed by a team as good as the Hoyas. "We consider this a learning experience;" said the Colonels' Sanders.
North Carolina made it into the finals by exposing some glaring deficiencies in Georgetown's inside game and out-muscling the Hoyas 83-71. The Georgetown starting front line of Eric Smith, Ed Spriggs, and Mike Hancock was no match for Carolina's Al Wood (19 points), James Worthy (17 points, 13 rebounds) and freshman Center Sam Perkins (11 points, six rebounds). The Hoyas were badly out-rebounded, 42-24, and when Worthy came thundering to the offensive boards on his gimpy right ankle, Georgetown had no one strong enough to fend him off.
Arkansas started off quickly against LSU in the second semifinal game, and once again the Razorbacks got the desired result, opening a 23-11 margin midway through the first half. With LSU's Durand Macklin having his second successive miserable night—he sat out almost the entire second half—it was left to freshman Leonard Mitchell to haul the Tigers' lumpy carcass back into the game. Mitchell finished with 19 points, but he wasn't enough to get LSU over the hump when it closed to three points with only 1:28 left in the game. Hastings, who was his usual impeccable self with 25 points on 9-of-11 shooting, acknowledged that the Hogs were living high on physically superior teams. "We get each other up, and we really like to play together," Hastings said. "That's why we're beating these teams."
Togetherness may have gotten the Razorbacks into the championship game, but it wasn't enough against a team as gifted and as deep as North Carolina. The Tar Heels came into the tournament full of questions about themselves, and went home knowing the answer: James Worthy. The sophomore forward missed most of last season with a broken bone in his right ankle and had been unable to practice more than two days in a row this fall before he would start limping. The weather in Alaska chilled the metal screws in his ankle, he said, and tendinitis in the same leg bothered him, too. But somehow ol' James just hobbled himself and the Heels to the championship, 64-58, and Smith just sat on the bench and smiled. He knew all along those Heels were good.
Arkansas opened in a man-to-man defense, but Worthy hit three of his first four shots and Carolina jumped off to a 14-4 lead six minutes into the game, forcing Arkansas into a zone. "I bet our assistants we wouldn't last 10 minutes in a man-to-man," said Sutton later, "and we didn't."
"The key to us is James," said Carolina's Wood, who had 14 points and 10 rebounds in the final game. "He's not 100% yet, maybe 80%. This tournament just shows how good he is." Worthy scored 16 points and grabbed seven rebounds against Arkansas, but just as important as those numbers were his four steals and his defensive presence inside.
Arkansas had jumped back on top at the half, 27-26, by smothering Worthy in its zone, but when Hastings picked up his fourth and fifth fouls within seven seconds and went to the bench with 10:23 to play, the Hogs were sunk. Hastings scored 20 points against North Carolina and was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player.
"For a young team," said Smith, "it's important to win against good teams like the ones here. Our players came up here not knowing what to expect. But now this team has won something and has established its own identity."
Unless Carolina's performance in Alaska turns out to be a case of mistaken identity, the Tar Heels may just be one of those teams that can do it all.