Yakutat, Alaska’s closest neighbor is a glacier the size of Rhode Island. Cars and trucks not used in the winter sprout like rusty flowers when spring frees them from the snow.
I’ve been there twice, both times to play basketball. Once we slept in the gym, once on the floor of a math room with used staples sticking to our sleeping bags.
The place was largely unremarkable, but I will forever remember little things like their springy floor which allowed me my first dunk. When Yakutat’s basketball team came to Klawock to play us when I was a junior I had to guard the 6-foot-8 kid. To slow us down, Yakutat held the ball the entire third quarter (Alaska has no shot clocks) but we still won. No one cares about stuff like this. Even I don’t anymore.
I do care about last summer, and last week.
Last summer Rex Newlun and Wayne Gray died while commercial fishing for sockeye salmon. Wayne was my age. He played basketball. Rex would have been a senior this year at Yakutat high school, he played basketball too.
Last week, when Klawock hosted Yakutat, the boys on the two-time state runners-up greeted the visiting Yakutat team by wearing orange t-shirts with Rex’s name and number on them during warm ups. Then before the start of the game, the Chieftains stood in a line at half-court, took the shirts off their backs, and gave them to the still-grieving Eagle players.
It was symbolic, figurative and literal.
The crowd stood and applauded, not because of what the Klawock kids did, but because even though Yakutat is 800 miles away and the schools have gotten in the way of the others quest for bids to the state tournament, it is more important to be human.
The crowd was saying, “We care about you kids.”
That’s what basketball is about. For every story about the punk kid that was handed everything, grades and money included, there are stories about the sport bringing out the best in kids. The seniors on the Klawock team will remember their back to back regional championships and trips to the state finals, but they will also remember the night they did the right thing. More importantly, so will the kids from Yakutat that stayed in school, stayed eligible and stayed with it even though it hurt.
The night was a tiny platform in a tiny town lost in the Alaskan winter forest, but that’s all that was needed.
Perhaps it’s even better that there wasn’t a reporter in the gym; no newscast, no satellite feed for a 30-second evening news spot – it was raw and honest. I wish I could have been there to witness the antithesis of what our culture readily consumes with increased regularity.
Poking fun at misfortune and misery is a multi-billion dollar industry. There are shows dedicated to what we as humans do wrong. It’s broadcast, mocked, laughed at, and then sarcastically redeemed. The phrase “epic fail” is a culturally accepted reaction to the inevitable mistakes of 100-percent of the population. Tragic and horrifying news makes the front page or the first ten minutes of the broadcast. The heart-warming features come as everyone flips to the newest installment of celebrities made from people willing to defile themselves in front of a camera.
Last week humankind was well-represented in Klawock’s gym, and that’s what is really worth talking about, that’s worth sharing.
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