The Eskimo Boy was only five or six, but he was the mayor of mischief. In a gymnasium rocking to the chanting and foot-stomping of a whole Arctic community, he had twice stolen the crowd's attention. The high school principal had shooed him off the floor when the boy appeared ready to steal an inbounds pass. A later violation, for running a slalom through the cheerleaders, had drawn the youngster a firm hand on the shoulder and a lecture, from which he sprinted off to roughhouse with a diminutive colleague under the rollout bleachers.
Now he was by himself in a corner behind the stands. Frustrated by a lack of legs to run through, he put his hands on the fire bar of an exit door and gave a tentative shove. Nothing. He pushed again and the door swept open, crashing against an outside wall. The boy recoiled in a 60-mph wind that pinned the door open and sent icy air into the gym.
Even in frigid Kotzebue, a largely Inupiat Eskimo town of 3,705 in northwest Alaska, the residents resent a -60° draft. A tall visitor from the lower 48 hurried to the door, braced himself and leaned into the night. He grabbed the bar and pulled, his pants legs flapping. The wind, hammering at the door, wouldn't let up. The visitor plunged into the horizontal snowfall, reeling like Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush. He grabbed the outer edge of the door with both hands and hauled it closed, a fisherman pulling in a heavy net. The wind whistled exuberantly through the diminishing gap and then fell silent as the door snapped shut. A final swirl of snow dropped softly to the floor.
The visitor, brushing snow off his head and shoulders, imagined that all the occupants of the gymnasium were staring at him and grinning. If so, their attention quickly returned to the game, a spirited tussle between the Harpoonerettes of Tikigaq High and the Bears of Aqqaluk High. Roughly half of Kotzebue had braved the storm and paid $5 to get in, and judging from the din, the fans were getting their money's worth. An Aqqaluk girl took a charge and fell hard to the floor, drawing gasps from the crowd. She popped right up and exchanged high fives with her teammates, winning an ovation.
The little Eskimo boy had scampered under the stands to escape punishment. He was already old enough to accompany the men of his village on seal hunts. In two or three years he would shoot his first caribou. After that he would learn the fundamentals of dribbling, shooting, passing and defense in hopes of bringing a state title back to his home on the shores of the Bering Sea.
"Growing up, all you have here is basketball," said C.J. Wells, a recent Kotzebue High boys' star who was watching the game. "Summer nights, you'll see about 40 guys out behind the rec center, playing for hours—bugs and all."
High on the gym walls are hung large black-and-white portraits of Eskimo elders, men and women, their proud, lined faces framed in fur hoods. Wells's wardrobe, by way of contrast, was straight out of Foot Locker—white Nikes, red nylon sweats and a Chicago Bull cap.
"I don't remember a time," he said, "when basketball wasn't important."
Now, some people will object. If you're going to put a face on Alaska basketball, they'll say, it should be that of Trajan Langdon, the 17-year-old blue-chip guard who plays for East Anchorage High. Langdon is why journalists from the lower 48 have been checking into Anchorage hotels with the regularity of mineral-rights speculators and Sierra Club lobbyists. The 6'4" Langdon is why an assistant coach from the Midwest flew 4,000 miles to watch in silence as the Thunderbirds practiced, and why top coaches such as Bobby Knight, Mike Krzyzewski and Dean Smith have been spotted in library carrels poring over the November 1991 issue of National Geographic, which contains the article "Alaska Highway: Wilderness Escape Route."
But it's hard to imagine anyone less representative of Alaska basketball than Trajan Langdon. His father is a white anthropologist who went to Stanford, and his mother is a black graduate of Notre Dame College, in Belmont, Calif. Langdon takes calculus courses at the University of Alaska—Anchorage and plans to be an engineer. As a player, too, he is an Alaska anomaly—a tall, smooth guard with a style so silky and controlled that Anchorage Daily News sports columnist Lew Freedman once wrote, "Trajan Langdon deserves an audience dressed in tuxedos and long gowns." When he enrolls at Duke University in the fall, Langdon will be one of the first males from Alaska to play for a Top 20 college basketball program. (Some Alaska women are already impact players, most notably Arizona State's Molly Tuter, Loyola Marymount's Amber Magner, and Brit Jacobson, a point guard with All-America potential who has signed with Kansas State.)
Anyway, Anchorage is not Alaska. Anchorage, with nearly half of the state's population of 550,000, is Omaha with mountains and a harbor. Anchorage basketball is indistinguishable from the Nebraska variety.
Venture out to the bush, however—to the frozen North Slope settlements of Barrow and Deadhorse, where polar bears peek in windows and the sun doesn't rise for weeks in winter; or to the 1,700-mile-long archipelago of the Aleutians, which stretch to within a whisker of Siberia; or to the far-flung villages of the Inupiat, Yupik, Athabaskan and Aleut Eskimos, and Tlingit and Haida Indians—and you enter a realm in which basketball transcends obsession and borders on religion. In the Alaska bush, Eskimo girls can dribble behind their backs, middle-school teams travel by airplane, and 50-year-old point guards are village heroes. "Basketball is a narcotic," says Jack Butler, who is the girls' coach in Klawock, a Tlingit village in southeast Alaska, a thousand miles from Anchorage. Superficially, Alaska bush basketball is defined by the state's extremes of weather and its vast roadless expanses. Arctic and interior Alaska—roughly defined as the terrain above the Arctic Circle, from Nome on up to Barrow and down through Fairbanks—make up 7.9% of the entire U.S. land mass. But there aren't enough people in this huge wilderness to populate the smallest borough of New York City. Throw out the greater Fairbanks area (pop. 77,720) and man's presence on the permafrost is that of a small penicillin mold on a 500-pound wheel of cheese.
Travel, therefore, is by bush plane or snowmobile, neither of which would inspire confidence in an Indiana parent, even one under the influence of March Madness. Will Rogers died in Alaska in a bush-plane crash 59 years ago. The nine-seat Navajos and 402s chartered by bush basketball teams are much safer than Rogers's plane, but the Arctic is no more hospitable than before, so the Northwest Arctic Borough School District has a rule: No flying when the temperature drops below -30°. "Mechanical things don't work well in extreme cold," says Andy Baker, of Baker Aviation in Kotzebue. "And if you go down in that kind of weather, you won't survive long enough to be rescued."
The -30° rule, on top of the frequent whiteouts caused by horizontal snowfalls and Arctic fog, makes basketball scheduling iffy at best. Flight delays of two or three days are routine, and game cancellations are commonplace. In January 1989 eight village teams were in Kotzebue for the Class 1A district tournament when the region was assaulted by -60° temperatures and -100° windchills. "The kids were our guests for three weeks," recalls Wolfgang Winter, assistant principal at Kotzebue High. "They slept in the classrooms at night and attended classes in the day, and when the temperature finally got up around minus 30, they all ran outside and frolicked like it was summer."
Perils and delays notwithstanding, Arctic youngsters fly with the nonchalance of NBA veterans. For 1993-94 the Northwest District allocated $40,000 for activities travel by Kotzebue High's 165 students. An additional $8,000 has been raised by the boys' basketball team, who hired themselves out as gofers. "The budgets up here amaze me," says Kotzebue principal Rolla Weber, who previously taught in Oklahoma. "But without planes, there would be no games."
Spectators in the Arctic get to the games by racing across miles of featureless tundra on snow machines. Only a few arrive on dogsleds, which are more and more the province of athletes training for the Iditarod, the annual Anchorage-to-Nome race. "There are Eskimos who still prefer dogs to snow machines," says a spectator at a game in Kotzebue. "In a whiteout dogs can sometimes find their way by instinct or smell. And if you're really lost and desperate"—he shrugs—"well, you can't eat a snow machine."
In the maritimes of southeast Alaska and the Aleutians, basketball travel is considerably less frigid but no less demanding, and it's certainly no cheaper. Winter passengers on the Alaska Marine Highway system are used to seeing well-behaved youngsters in Michael Jordan sweatshirts and Michigan Wolverine hats. They restlessly prowl the big ferries, playing video games, doing homework and littering the floors of the observation lounges with their sleeping bags. "I wouldn't pay a buck to go on a cruise," says travel-weary coach Butler. "You ride in that thing for 16 hours, and you just can't play ball. You get what we call 'ferry feet.' " Jerry Carter of Prince of Wales High recently took his team on a 41-hour voyage to Hoonah, southwest of Juneau. At each fern stop his players pounded up the gangplank and ran for a mile or two, trying to regain their equilibrium. "We played five hours after we landed in Hoonah," says Carter. "One of our players reached down to pick up a ball, and when he straightened up, he was weaving. Believe me, you can't shoot a basketball with sea legs."
Sometimes the appetite suffers as well. In a corridor by the purser's office, the ferry Aurora displays two framed thank-you notes from the principals of high schools in Ketchikan and Metlakatla, both extolling the captain and crew for bringing their teams home safely on stormy seas. "Counting the pep band, we had 30-something kids coming back from Sitka a couple of winters back," says Metlakatla principal Jim King. "It was a terrible storm, and they had to stay in the Wrangell Narrows for a few hours. There were a lot of them who were green and barfing." Another time, on a basketball trip to Haines, the weather was so bad the Metlakatla boys' and girls' teams wound up in Juneau instead, snowed in for a week. "Six thousand dollars, that cost," says King, "and they never got the game in."
Floatplanes carry the kids where ferries can't. The pontoon-footed prop planes subsist in the summer on a diet of hunters and fishermen, but in winter they swoop down on remote lakes and bays to disgorge roundballers and cheerleaders. No team has been lost in a floatplane accident, but one coach notes that "most of our students have at least one friend who has lost a parent in a crash."
To anyone raised in the contiguous states—to anyone, certainly, who has played high school basketball in which a road trip is a 30-minute bus ride, a post-game burger and a ride home the same night—the logistics and expense of bush basketball might seem outlandish. It's equally hard to appreciate, from Canada's undercarriage, the basketball jones that grips Alaska's villages. "Basketball," wrote schoolteacher Nick Jans in Alaska magazine, "is a central facet of contemporary Native culture, as much a part of life as hunting caribou, gathering spruce roots or gillnetting salmon. Among many-teenagers and young adults, fascination with the game seems to verge on obsession."
The school gymnasium has become the focus of community life in the Alaska village. Gyms open for play and exercise as early as 5:30 a.m., and "city-leaguers" and seniors are still playing at midnight. In the Arctic the gymnasiums are a place to escape the cold and fend off cabin fever. In southeast Alaska they provide refuge from the darkness of long winter nights. "The dark here hits you like a wet blanket," says Butler. "These big lighted gyms are almost heliotherapy."
The gyms are by-products of forces that have shaped Alaska since it achieved statehood, in 1959. The discovery of oil near Prudhoe Bay in 1968 and the subsequent construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline made Alaska temporarily rich. Eighty-five percent of the state's unrestricted funds comes from oil taxes and royalties, and the state's $3.2 billion annual budget is pegged to the price of a barrel of North Slope crude. Every Alaska resident of at least a year—man, woman and child—receives a yearly check, which has been as high as $1,000, from the state's Permanent Fund Dividend. The Native American population also benefits, to varying degrees, from a 1971 settlement with the federal government that awarded the Alaska tribes $962.5 million and 44 million acres of land. The money was poured into 13 regional and 200 village corporations controlled by the tribes, which operate canneries, sawmills, oyster farms, taxi companies and other enterprises. As a result Alaska Natives are prosperous—at least compared with most Native Americans in the lower 48—and eager to support sports and other programs that benefit their children.
Another catalyst of Alaska's bush basketball frenzy was the Molly Hootch Consent Decree of 1976. This remarkable court document, named for a 16-year-old Native girl who sued the government to provide a high school in her village, obligates the state to provide a high school for every desirous community with at least eight elementary school students and one high school student. For years Native children had been shipped out to secondary schools, but after Molly Hootch went into effect, high school buildings—and gymnasiums—popped up in towns too small to support a bank or a restaurant. Suddenly the tiniest hamlets could rally around their respective basketball Huskies, Wolves or Harpooners, who might then carry the town colors all the way to Anchorage and the state championships.
The result was Alaska Class 1A—a conglomeration of 94 teams from village schools with enrollments of between five and 50. Typical is the squad from Deering, an Arctic settlement of 60 structures arranged on either side of a half-mile-long dirt road 100 miles northeast of Nome. The basketball court is only 50 feet long, and spectators are restricted to a single bench attached to a wall like a shelf. But the court is plenty big enough for the Deering team, which this year consists of three boys and two girls.
Three years ago another mostly Eskimo school, Selawik, won the girls' 1A title with only five players, finishing with four because of fouls. (Too many fouls in the 1986 girls' championship game pared Koliganek to three players against Klawock. The headline in the next day's edition of The Anchorage Times: 3 VERSUS 5; 3 wins!)
The schools themselves are invariably the most sophisticated structures in settlements that are often little more than clusters of sooty trailers, cabins and metal buildings. But the students are provided with cheerfully decorated classrooms, well-stocked libraries and, in many cases, computers and satellite dishes. Most of the gymnasiums are spacious and equipped with modern scoreboards and glass backboards.
Butler, who used to coach in a Montana school at which uniforms had to last 10 years and the annual quota of basketballs was about four, says the rule in Alaska is, Order what you want. "I give basketballs out like popcorn—$47 a pop," he says. "The balls go all over the island, and the kids put their names on them. It helps keep kids out of trouble."
Keeping kids out of trouble is an obsession with coaches in the Alaska bush. Wayne Hill, a gaunt Minnesotan of 62 with a sardonic sense of humor, pondered that challenge one night in November over a hamburger at the Pizza House, a late-night Kotzebue hangout. "They have no sense of education," he said, cocking his head toward a boisterous group of Native teenagers eating under a red neon window sign. "They're content to stay in the villages. Alcohol is the killer here, as elsewhere. They drink hair spray, aftershave lotion, home brew."
Hill's voice was matter-of-fact. Despite his downbeat comments, he was in an affable mood. His Sclawik High boys' team had just won a first-round Husky Shootout game with Tri-Valley High, a team from far-off Healy, and was now 11-0 on the season.
Before the game, Hill had looked in on his players in the classroom in which they were bedded down for the tournament. Two boys were on the floor in sleeping bags, reading. Three more played poker at a desk. "I've got snuff chewers, caribou killers and fighters," Hill joked, drawing smiles from his players.
"O.K., tonight we've got that while-men-can't-jump team," he went on. "This court is about 700 feet longer than ours, and I told them we're old, we're slow, we're fat...."
A player interrupted: "Did you tell them in your convincing voice?"
"I did," Hill said, "but I don't think they believed me." The banter comes easily to Hill, who taught in rural North Dakota for 25 years before moving with his wife, Mary, a kindergarten teacher, to Selawik, an Inupiat Eskimo village 45 minutes from Kotzebue by bush plane. For 3½ years he has taught sixth grade; Mary plays the piano at the Friends Church in Selawik.
"In each of the last three years we've had two suicides and one homicide," Hill said, chewing on his hamburger. "One suicide was an outstanding basketball player, a kid who would have been a guard on this year's team." After pausing to let his words sink in. Hill went on: "It's not the most desirable place in the world, but I've been happy here. The kids call me Taatta, which means 'grandfather.' They've taught me quite a lot. Their culture is super."
There was no evidence of despair the next night in the warm confines of Kotzebue's 2,000-seat gymnasium. It was the usual kaleidoscope of high school basketball: slickly outfitted boys clapping hands and circling the floor during warmups; cheerleaders waving pom-poms and chanting inanities; nervous spectators shooting three-pointers for prizes at halftime. When Kotzebue junior John Ray Stalker sank a nearly three-quarter-court shot at the buzzer to beat Selawik, fans poured onto the court and mobbed the victors in a scene right out of Hoosiers. Stalker, whose Eskimo name is Agaaq, beamed all night. He said, "It's the happiest day of my life." But Stalker and his teammates are not blind to the ills that surround them. "People you know are always dying," says sophomore guard Sam Hill. "Killing themselves, snow-machine accidents, freezing to death."
"There's nothing to do," adds Chris Blair, a junior who hopes to attend the University of Alaska-Fairbanks on a Native scholarship. "I think that's what starts the alcoholics." So precarious is the hold of discipline and ambition on Eskimo youngsters that their mostly white teachers and administrators often struggle to maintain their influence. One coach, new to the Arctic, worried that his team might fall apart when his star center was hauled in by police and charged with drunk and disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Not sure what team sanction was called for, he phoned the school-district office. "For every offense," he was told, "we usually deduct one minute of game time."
Few who know the bush deny that basketball is a powerful tool in the hands of village educators. Teachers point to Butch Lincoln, the 5'8" two-time all-state point guard who led Kotzebue to a 25-3 record in 1991 and to the Class 3A regional championships in 1990 and '91. Now a redshirt sophomore at Division II University of Alaska—Anchorage, Lincoln is the first Eskimo to attend college on a basketball scholarship. As such, he is a hero to Alaska's Natives, who turned up in large numbers at Anchorage's 7,200-seat Sullivan Arena last winter and raised the roof whenever the tiny freshman made an appearance. "He's a role model for the entire state," says UAA assistant coach Charlie Bruns. "I get 30 calls a year now from Native kids who want to come to UAA. They all want to be like Butch."
The ambition to "be like Butch," unfortunately, can be distorted into an obsession with basketball at the expense of academic and career interests. A recent bush phenomenon is the "town-team junkie," the young man whose self-esteem is tied to his performance in recreational leagues. "We have a whole village full of guys from 19 to 30, and you'd be amazed at their ability," said Selawik's Hill. "They can jump, run, shoot—we even have a guy who can kick his feet within inches of the basket. Ten of these guys from Selawik would just rip those town teams in North Dakota."
Not that they'll ever get the chance. "Many of these city-leaguers, approaching 30, are unemployed, still living at home," writes Jans, a former city-league player himself. "They sleep all day and wait for the gym to open at 9 or 10 p.m., suspended, it seems, in a dream of fast breaks, layups and applause from the crowd. Meanwhile, traditional Inupiaq skills—hunting, sewing skins, making birchbark baskets—quietly fade away."
The town-team phenomenon is strongest in southeast Alaska. Since 1947, squads from the Inner Passage have gathered every March in Juneau for the Gold Medal Tournament, a kind of Final Four for recreational players. They play in three classes: A for the big towns, B for the small towns and C for players 35 and older. Many of the players are Tlingit and Haida. "The Tlingits are a historically aggressive people," says Steve Langdon, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska—Anchorage. "They had armor and everything. Their villages have basketball heritages that go back to the early days of the sport, and if you examine tribal leadership today, you'll find that most of the men played ball together in their youth. They are deep into trophies, which are like potlatch gifts. It is a pot-latch culture; the Tlingits give lots of presents, and status is achieved by how much you give."
The anthropologist's view, it turns out, is also the basketball player's view: Steve Langdon played among the Tlingits on the Craig town team in the '70s. He is also the father of Trajan Langdon, which gives him a unique perspective on Alaska's basketball culture. Steve was tickled recently when a friend told him about a bumper sticker seen in Juneau, the state capital. "In Tlingit lore the Raven is the trickster," Steve Langdon explains, "and this thing said RAVEN CREATED THE WORLD—AND THEN HE CREATED BASKETBALL."
He chuckles. "Talk to Dewey Skan," he says. "He's one of the premier players in Tlingit history."
To talk to Dewey Skan, one must take a three-hour ferry ride from Ketchikan to Prince of Wales Island. Logging roads, many of them barely passable, connect a few tiny hamlets to the island's one paved road, which joins the two-grocery town of Craig (pop. 527) with Klawock, a Tlingit village six miles away. Skan lives with his wife, Sally, a schoolteacher, in a modest house on a hill above the Klawock totem lagoon. The shelves and floors of two rooms are cluttered with plaques and trophies from a lifelong basketball odyssey.
Skan, a commercial fisherman, has dark, bushy eyebrows, a mustache, a Pete Rose haircut and a blunt sense of humor. He still plays C League at 53 and is a member of the Gold Medal Tournament Hall of Fame for his accomplishments both as a player and as a coach for the Klawock Totems and other teams. When he attends a basketball game in the southeast, his entrance is usually noted by the P.A. announcer.
"I never played high school basketball," Skan says. He discovered his prowess as a player at the 1958 Gold Medal Tournament, where he went head-to-head with a former player from Texas A&M. "I scored 29 points, and look what happened? Now I've participated in that thing for 35 years."
He puts on a videotape—an old Gold Medal game between the Totems and Hoonah—and settles on the couch. "The guy who just turned it over, that's my brother Norman. He works for the Ketchikan Pulp Company. That guy coaching Hoonah? He's my first cousin!" Practically everybody in hightops, it turns out, is related to Dewey Skan. In 1979 he turned up in Juneau with his brothers Norman, Rod, Pat, Harvey and Ray on his Gold Medal team. Another brother has coached, and still another—Dewey shakes his head—was a referee.
"We were pretty successful for most of the '80s," he says. "Visitors come to this house, politicians. They say, 'Whose trophies?' I say, 'Whose house?' But we're rebuilding now. We haven't had a major championship for about five years." The Totems, Skan says, are hampered by limited practice time—the crowded gymnasium schedule allows his team only five or 10 workouts to prepare for the Gold Medal—and by rising floatplane and ferry costs. He adds, "We all got old."
Half a mile down the road, at the Fire-weed Lodge, Bob Anderson smiles at the mention of Skan's name. "Dewey has done nothing but play basketball all of his life," he says. "He was shooting three-pointers before there even were three-pointers."
Anderson, like most residents of the bush, wears several hats. A former state trooper, he now owns and runs the lodge, takes summer sportsmen fishing for salmon and halibut, and serves as president of the Klawock school board. When it comes to basketball, he's of two minds. "Basketball is a way of life in these little villages," he says, "and the nice thing is, almost everyone who wants to play gets to play. Very rarely do we have a cut. The sad part is that nobody from these communities is ever going to play pro ball. They get built up as heroes here, and then they go out and realize they aren't ultragreat. And that's hard for them to deal with."
Indeed, Alaska ballplayers have met with little success on the courts of the lower 48. Before Trajan Langdon, the biggest Alaska success story was Muff Butler, a flashy point guard who starred at East Anchorage in the '70s and went on to play at the University of New Orleans. Butch Lincoln, for all his basketball skills, was recruited by no Division I school and averaged only 1.1 points per game as a freshman at UAA.
Consider the example of John Brown, regarded in some circles as the greatest basketball player in Alaska history. Brown led Ketchikan High to four straight state titles in the mid-'60s, when all teams played in one classification. But he played only one season at Seattle University.
"I remember my first game in the Seattle Coliseum," Brown said recently. "The place was huge. The first time I went up with the ball, I saw all those faces behind the baseline, and I think I shot the ball over the backboard. I was really in shock."
Brown, who went on to teach and coach in Ketchikan and now works for an Indian corporation, leaves out one important fact: In high school he was a 6'2", 150-pound center. "Here, 6'2" is tall," he says, and laughs.
To Alaska's young players, therefore, ambition is like the Arctic sun—a source of warmth and hope one day, a vanished friend the next. Kotzebue's Sam Hill, who has hunted caribou in herds as large as a thousand head—and who has also attended basketball camp in Arizona—sees himself going to junior college, playing basketball as long as he can. Beyond that his vision clouds. "I want to live in a small place just like this," he says, "but without all the drinking and problems." Looking wistful, he adds, "There must be a place like that."
In Anchorage, Lincoln isn't so sure. "I've never heard of a place without any problems," he said, "so I'm not going to search for it." He would pursue, he said, something that no member of his family has ever achieved: a four-year college degree. "I don't want to work outside in 60-below weather, like my dad. He was a commercial fisherman and construction worker; he worked on the Slope for a couple of years. He told me to get an 'easy job.' " Would Lincoln ever return to Kotzebue? "Definitely," he said. "I plan to go elsewhere and see new places, but I've come to miss the things that are there—the familiar faces, the friends, the hunting and fishing. I never knew what I had until left."
Even in the Langdons' suburban Anchorage house, where academic books grace the coffee table and houseplants threaten to break through the ceiling, doubts prevail about how far basketball can take an Alaskan. "Trajan's strong now," says Steve, marveling at the changes that months of weight training have wrought on his son's lanky physique. "He's stronger than the guards at Duke. But"—he hesitates—"I don't know if his body can take him any farther." Trajan's mind, on the other hand, can take him wherever he wants to go. Steve worries that the demands of big-time college basketball—even at a distinguished school such as Duke—will numb his son's curiosity and choke off his intellectual development.
"I got him this book to read," the father says. He holds up a copy of Patricia and Peter Adler's Backboards and Blackboards, a case study that examines how a student-athlete is affected by being on a scholarship at a Division I school.
The blizzard continued to rage outside the Kotzebue gym, unnoticed. Inside there was pandemonium. With time expired and the girls of Aqqaluk High ahead 49-47 in the championship game, Point Hope's star player stood alone at the line for three free throws, having been fouled while attempting a desperation three-pointer. Her first effort bounced off the rim, and her shoulders slumped. The Aqqaluk fans shrieked and pounded their feet. Even the little Eskimo boy, sensing the drama, stopped and stared. The girl bounced the ball at the line, lifted her eyes, then her arms, released the ball—and missed again. The shrieks trebled. The girl dropped flat and pounded her fists on the floor in despair.
A few hours later the action had moved down the hall to the school commons, where the Kotzebue kids were entertaining their guests with a dance. The only light in the gymnasium came from the orange and red scoreboard bulbs; the baskets were retracted and locked in place. Popcorn hulls, soda cans and paper bags littered the floor, causing principal Weber to shake his head when he turned on the lights.
A basketball lay near mid court. A teenage boy appeared out of nowhere and bounced it. An instant later another boy appeared—to steal the ball. A second ball came through the door and was dribbled the length of the court by a laughing girl, who dribbled it back again and then dribbled in circles. The first boy dribbled away from his friend and ran straight up the bleachers, dribbling on the seats, to the top. Weber watched. "Maybe I'm making too much of it," he said, "but to dribble a basketball just for the sheer joy of it...."
A dozen more kids spilled into the gym, including two of the Aqqaluk girls. Teams were quickly chosen, and suddenly games were on. The kids dribbled, passed, cut for the basket, called for the ball, set picks and shot...at imaginary baskets. The principal smiled and walked away.