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Northern Light For Alaskans from Ageklekak to Yakutat, no distance was too far to travel to see Duke guard Trajan Langdon when he returned home for the Shootout in Anchorage

Dec. 07, 1998
Dec. 07, 1998

Table of Contents
Dec. 7, 1998

Faces In The Crowd

Northern Light For Alaskans from Ageklekak to Yakutat, no distance was too far to travel to see Duke guard Trajan Langdon when he returned home for the Shootout in Anchorage

Dusk descended upon the fishing village of Angoon in southeast
Alaska at 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 21 as Demetrius Johnson set off on
the longest odyssey of his life. Johnson, a 16-year-old Tlingit
Indian, had never traveled more than 100 miles from his home
before he embarked on the 11-hour ferry ride through the
Alexander Archipelago to Juneau. After waiting there for two
days, he flew the remaining 600 miles to Anchorage, clutching
his precious ticket to the Great Alaska Shootout. A junior on
the Angoon High basketball team, Demetrius says his wanderlust
was sparked largely by his cousin Stanley, who five years
earlier had procured the autograph of Trajan Langdon and mounted
it on his bedroom wall. The scrap of paper became something
close to a religious icon among the 638 people of Angoon. "Since
Trajan's from Alaska, his success in basketball at Duke has made
him a big hero for me and lots of other people from the state,"
Demetrius says. "I wanted to come to the Alaska Shootout because
this may be the last chance I ever get to see him play in person."

This is an article from the Dec. 7, 1998 issue

Thousands of Alaskans like Demetrius flocked to Anchorage last
week from all over the state, from Ageklekak to Yakutat and from
North Nenana to South Naknek. They came to bask in the glow of
Alaska's shooting star, the 6'3", 195-pound senior guard who
left his hometown of Anchorage for Durham, N.C., four years ago
and was making his long-awaited return to the Shootout as an
All-America.

When Langdon was introduced at Sullivan Arena last Thursday
night, one local swore that the ground shook more than it had
since the great earthquake of 1964. A banner read WELCOME HOME
ALASKAN ASSASSIN. One young female admirer walked behind the
baseline waving wildly and calling Langdon's name, all the while
sharing the moment with a girlfriend on a cellular phone. You'd
have to go to Vegas to find more folks in pursuit of a 21.

In their tournament opener, against Notre Dame, the top-ranked
Blue Devils rolled to a 111-82 victory behind Langdon's 20
points. Langdon is foremost a deadly shooter; he makes up for a
lack of quickness by being a fundamentally sound position
defender and a scorer with a knack for finding open spaces to
launch his shot. Moments after he drained his fourth
three-pointer of the opening half, Jerry Tarkanian, the coach of
Fresno State, Duke's next opponent, turned to a friend and said,
"I feel like a condemned man getting ready to go to the chair."

About the only guy in the arena who appeared unmoved by the
excitement was Langdon. "When Trajan comes home it's like
Beatlemania, but you'd never know it from watching him," says
Louis Wilson, who coached Langdon's AAU teams. "His expression
never changes, whether he's playing in front of 9,000 groupies
at the Shootout or two strangers in a driveway in Hattiesburg,
Mississippi."

A banner headline in the Nov. 19, 1990, edition of the Anchorage
Daily News read LANGDON COMES OF AGE. The story asserted that
Langdon would become the best basketball player ever from Alaska.
At the time Langdon had played three high school games. He was 14
years old.

Of course, when your name is Trajan Shaka Langdon, expectations
run high. On May 13, 1976, Trajan's father, Steve, an
anthropology professor at Alaska-Anchorage, and his wife,
Gladys, named the first of their two children after a Roman
emperor who conquered Dacia in the second century and a Zulu
chieftain who unified southern African tribes into one nation
1,700 years later. Despite his love of sports, Trajan swears
that he never rued his family's decision to live in a giant meat
locker dubbed Icebergia at the time of its purchase from Russia
in 1867. Instead he steadfastly pulled on a parka, knit hat,
mittens and boots to practice his jumper on the playground at
Rogers Park Elementary during every recess, no matter how cold
or snowy the weather was.

But as Trajan began his freshman season at East Anchorage High,
he questioned his future in the sport because Alaska provided
him few role models, only a smattering of local legends with
mostly unfulfilled basketball goals. There was Tony Reed, a
guard at Montana in the mid-1980s; Tony Turner, who tried out
for the Detroit Pistons and played in the CBA from '80 to '82;
and the most highly regarded, Muff Butler, who moved to
Anchorage from the Bronx and scored more than 30 points a game
at East High in the 1977-78 season. Butler played at Northern
Idaho and then New Orleans, but when the NBA didn't come
calling, he returned to Alaska. Throughout Trajan's high school
years he regularly played one-on-one with the 6'1" Butler, who
even in his mid-30s was one of the few people in the entire
587,875 square miles of Alaska who could keep up with the kid.
Butler told Trajan stories of the Lower 48, urged him to
maintain his grades and tried to erase his doubts by repeatedly
insisting, "You stay healthy, and you're a lock for the NBA."

Trajan began to believe in his sophomore season during a
Thanksgiving tournament in Anchorage, when he scored 32 points
against Virginia's powerful Oak Hill Academy and future North
Carolina guard Jeff McInnis. Recruiting guru Bob Gibbons attended
that game and says, "I remember thinking, Wow, this kid's as good
as any sophomore I've ever seen, and he's from Alaska."

A few months later Steve sent first a three-page letter and then
a videotape of the Oak Hill game to Duke, shopping Trajan's
wares in the hope that coach Mike Krzyzewski might be
interested. Meanwhile, Trajan, who didn't know about the sales
pitch to Duke, sold himself during summer camps in the
continental U.S., where he endured silly questions like, "What
country is Alaska in?" and "Do you have a pet penguin?"

Trajan had become the most-sought-after Alaskan athlete ever by
the time Krzyzewski visited Anchorage in the summer of 1993, and
he and Trajan shared an evening stroll backlit by the northern
lights. Says Krzyzewski, "When we saw that amazing light show, I
told Trajan, 'Hey, this is a sign that you've got to come to
Duke.'"

In his final two high school games Trajan scored a total of 79
points and led East to its third straight state title. After the
championship game so many spectators wanted his autograph that
officials organized a formal signing session, seating Trajan at a
table at one end of the gym as hundreds of fans filed by to get
his signature.

Such is the passion that drives Langdon's popularity. At age 16
Trajan was invited to speak at the spring awards banquet at
Craig High in the town of Craig, 750 miles southeast of
Anchorage. He doled out hardware and advice to a group of
teenagers, many of whom were older than he. Before Langdon's
freshman season in college, Andy Lohman, a Duke graduate and the
general manager of Anchorage radio station KKSD, purchased a
special satellite receiver to pull in the Duke Radio Network so
his station could broadcast all the Blue Devils' games to the
49th state. Trajan has begun turning up on Alaskan birth
certificates, including that of the four-year-old son of former
Alaska-Anchorage assistant and current Southern Utah coach Bill
Evans, whose Thunderbirds lost to Cincinnati in the opening
round of the Shootout.

The Great Alaska Shootout and Langdon have grown up together. He
attended the tournament every year from its inception in 1978
until he left for college, ogling the likes of Patrick Ewing,
James Worthy, Danny Manning and Glen Rice. Duke's invitation to
the '95 Shootout was the realization of Langdon's childhood
fantasy, but he injured his left knee that fall and couldn't play
in the tournament. Cheering from the bench in a suit, he watched
his teammates win the Shootout title, an experience he calls "the
most disappointing week of my career."

It was supposed to be Langdon's only appearance at the Shootout,
which at the time, according to NCAA rules, could invite a team
only once every 12 years. So naturally Langdon thought Krzyzewski
was joking when Coach K informed him two years ago that the
eight-team tournament's invitation policy had been modified,
allowing Duke to return this season. When the final 8,700 tickets
to the Duke games in Anchorage were put on sale on Nov. 2, they
sold out in 40 minutes. Wherever Langdon turned up last week he
was greeted by admirers, prompting teammate Elton Brand to joke,
"Man, Tra, you sure have a lot of cousins."

"It's humbling," Langdon says of the hoopla. "Sometimes I've
found myself thinking, What in the world is going on here? I
don't deserve this."

Laminated newspaper photos of Langdon line the walls of the
29-foot-long basketball gym at Aniguiin School in Elim, a remote
Eskimo village deep in the bush about 90 miles southeast of
Nome. Langdon is an idol to most of the 100 students at
Aniguiin, none of whom has seen him play because the one
television station Elim receives rarely shows college basketball
games. Aniguiin's principal, Rod Hoegh, tried to organize a trip
to the Shootout for some of his students, but Elim is accessible
only by small plane, so the logistics of an excursion to
Anchorage proved impossible. Instead, Elim kids followed the
Shootout as best they could on the Internet.

Elim's story is typical of many Alaskan villages, where the
people admire the idea of Langdon without much firsthand
knowledge of him. Many of them have no idea that Langdon is among
the finalists for the Naismith Award or that he could become the
first three-time first-team All-ACC player at Duke in 19 years,
but they all know that he has an excellent chance to become the
first Alaskan to play in the NBA.

Trajan's appeal crosses ethnic lines. Steve is Caucasian;
Gladys, a social worker, is African-American; and young Trajan
spent lots of time visiting villages with his father, whose area
of academic expertise is Alaskan native culture. Among the lucky
kids who made it to Anchorage was 16-year-old Craig Carter, who
met Langdon at the Craig High awards banquet and still receives
a Duke poster in the mail from Langdon every fall. There was
Tikigaq High basketball coach Rex Rock, who came all the way
from Point Hope, a village of Eskimo bowhead whalers 700 miles
northwest on the Arctic Ocean. Rock brought four members of his
Tikigaq Harpooners and his 18-year-old son, Rex Jr., who admits
to pulling a few all-nighters drawing pencil sketches of himself
playing hoops alongside Langdon. And there was Rahim
Abdul-Basit, Muff Butler's 17-year-old son. Butler is currently
in a Texas prison on a drug charge, so Rahim, a senior swingman
for East High, has consulted with Langdon in his father's
absence, absorbing some of the same wisdom that Langdon once
heard from Butler.

Last Friday night Langdon, the second-best three-point shooter
in Duke history, missed six of his seven three-point attempts in
the first half, while Duke made 1 of 13 as a team. Alaskans
hadn't seen aim that bad since Captain Hazelwood. The Blue
Devils eventually overpowered Fresno State in the second half
for a 93-82 victory. While Langdon finished with a team-high 26
points, he made only 8 of 19 shots, a tough night for a
perfectionist. "When I miss two shots I expect to make the next
two, so I kept firing and waiting for the law of averages to
kick in," said Langdon, a math major. "I guess I'm still waiting."

It seemed as if an entire state tuned in to the Shootout finals
last Saturday night against Cincinnati, and the fans were
reminded that you can't spell Alaska without Alas. There would
be no Disney ending to this script as the Bearcats (page 115)
found no place in their hearts for sentiment. Against a swarming
defense, Duke fell behind by 19 points in the first half before
rallying to take a four-point lead with six minutes left.
Finally, with the score tied 75-75 and three seconds remaining,
Cincinnati threw a baseball pass the length of the court. Kenyon
Martin caught the ball and shoveled it to Melvin Levett, who
left Langdon flatfooted as he cut past him for the game-winning
dunk for a 77-75 win. "Obviously this was a very disappointing
night," said Langdon, who scored 13 points. "Growing up, my
dream was always to win the Shootout with a last-second shot,
not lose it that way."

The final score hardly seemed to matter to Demetrius Johnson. As
Langdon left the court, Demetrius watched him, as awestruck as
if he had just witnessed the return of a Roman emperor or a Zulu
chieftain. Or the basketball king of Icebergia.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER ON THE BALL Langdon kept his focus against Fresno State in the semifinals, racking up 26 points in a 93-82 victory. [Trajan Langdon and Fresno State player in game]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER SNOW GLAD TO SEE YOU With Dad at a ski resort outside Anchorage, Trajan looked skyward at another familiar sight. [Steve Langdon and Trajan Langdon watching snow]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [Carlos Boozer]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER RETURN ADDRESS After a Blue Devils practice last week, Langdon shared his experiences with a group of home folks. [Back view of Trajan Langdon talking to audience]
"When Trajan comes home it's like Beatlemania," Wilson says,
"but you'd never know it from watching his expression."
"It's humbling," Langdon says of the hoopla. "I've found myself
thinking, What in the world is going on here?"