Basketball – Alaska style


The Joe T. Classic
It’s Finals week so I have to stick around the classroom long enough for students who might have questions or need help, but I have to catch the 3:15 ferry that will take me from the island on which Ketchikan sits, to the island on which the airport sits.
We’re headed to Fairbanks for a basketball tournament. It’s been below freezing there for months, so I’ve got all my warm gear designed for public use. The problem is, my warmest gear is my hunting gear, and even though it’s Alaska and reality TV might make you want to believe Alaska is void of warmth and civility during the winter, we do dress nice and professional when the situation calls for it.
Anyway, we’re all on and accounted for – nine players, two coaches, the athletic director and our manager. The boys team left that morning, so all told there are 24 students and coaching staff on the way to the tournament. Just two of these trips is about the entire athletic department budget for a Manteca Unified high school.
That’s a lot of fundraising and participation fees.
The first flight is to Sitka and takes 36 minutes. There was a little turbulence and little bump on the landing, but nothing outrageous or enough to wake up our point guard and team captain sitting behind me.
Next is a 17-minute flight to Juneau, then an hour and a half leg to Anchorage. We’ve got an hour at the airport, so for the first time in seven months I’m able to get Outside food – or food not available on the island. I decide on Chili’s and text all my former coaching buddies in Manteca since that was our post-game spot when I coached there.
Our flight arrives in Fairbanks at midnight. It’s a balmy 2 degrees which is a considerable improvement over last year’s -31 when the team arrived.
Head coach Kelly Smith and I scamper to the rentals and warm them up. I sit in the van long enough for my nostril hairs to thaw, then leave it to claim my checked bag and my half of the team.
A light, dry snow fell at some point during the week and was packed into a thin ice sheet that coats the streets. There’s no use melting it chemically, because when it refreezes it will be much worse, so there’s only a little bit of sand for traction. When traffic lights turn green, light pressure is applied to the accelerator because there will be sliding nine of ten times. Once traction is achieved, we glide along to the hotel.
Photographers are exiting the elevators as we’re heading in. Armed with coffee and their cameras they’re headed out of town to take images of the sky turning green and red and yellow with the Northern Lights. It’s cloudy downtown and we don’t really care about the lights. It’s time for bed.
We’re in our beds by one. We play one of the top teams in the state that afternoon. Their 6-foot 3 wing has signed with Oregon and their only loss last season was in the state championship last March. They graduated an all-state guard and another tore her ACL in the championship game is still getting back to where she was, so we’ve got a solid chance – as long as we don’t use traveling close to 1000 miles on four flights over nine hours as an excuse.

Thursday –
I woke up and looked out the window to see if I could see the Northern Lights. I’ve seen them before, but they are still pretty cool. I don’t see them. Then I realize it’s not the middle of the night, it’s 8 a.m., but still two hours from sunrise. By 3:45 that afternoon, the sun will be gone again.
We hit the continental breakfast, have a shoot around, make a trip to the grocery store, then prepare for the game. The first half is a buffet of correctable mistakes. We’re down one at the half. Eight of West Valley’s 22 points are second-chance points, and four are from back to back buzzer-beaters.
Our defense stiffens and we shoot 12 of 18 from 2-point in the second half, breaking down their zone with great high-low passing and stretching their man to man for open lanes off set plays and a motion dribble-drive. A 9-2 run gives us the lead and a 10-2 run gives us room. Their Oregon-bound, 2-time Alaska State Player of the Year has 25, but no game-changing spurts and we win 54-49.
As a victory meal the girls want Taco Bell. Can’t blame a bunch of girls from an island wanting what they can’t have back home.
I’m not that desperate or excited to be on the mainland – there was pulled pork in the hospitality room.

Friday –
Breakfast then study hall. I administer the AP English final to five of the girls. The rest are taking a US History Final or listening to Fleetwood Mac in the, we’re-done-with-Finals room. It’s -13 outside. There are electrical outlets in the parking lots so you can plug in your vehicle to keep it from freezing. It’s sorta miserable.
Our game against the host school, Lathrop, starts terribly, but not catastrophically. One of their guards is a top 50 prospect at her position for the class of 2018 according to an ESPN affiliated, national ranking system.
Defensively we are lethargic and we’re down 7-0, five minutes in. We switch from a half-court zone to a press and reel off a 30-11 run. We have a chance in the second half to really break it open but we don’t. We turn it over, we miss some free throws but it never gets closer than five. With that, we’ve effectively won the round-robin tournament. We play 0-2 South Anchorage tomorrow night.
The victory meal is Chinese food and pizza, delivered to the hotel because the last two days we’ve seen the aftermath of ice-induced car accidents on the way to our games. No need to do any extra driving.

Saturday –
I’m digging the king-sized bed and the view, but it’s cold. Real cold. So cold I’m looking forward to the rain when I get back to Ketchikan tomorrow.
But we’ve got business still. South Anchorage is winless in the tournament but we don’t want a letdown. The boys play South for the championship too.
We start out sluggish again and let South hang around. When we should drive and dish, we drive and shoot. When we should drive and shoot, we drive and dish. We’re up nine at the half, but it could be, should be, 29. To their credit, they’re making it tough and playing well. We finally get the run we need, a 16-3 run to close the third quarter. The lead is 23, we win by 15.
There is no victory meal. Thanks to the round-robin set up, we played the 3 p.m. game so we have to sit around for the rest of the night to be there for the awards presentation. The boys take care of business too and also win a commemorative Joe T. Classic championship basketball.
By the time we get to the hotel it’s 10:30 p.m. and we’ve got the 6 a.m. flight in the morning, so we aren’t going to sleep as much as we’ll nap before getting up at 4 a.m.

Sunday –
The early morning is relentlessly cold, but still. The wings need deicing, but we still leave fifteen minutes early. The last ten minutes of landing in Anchorage are bumpy, the last five minutes of the flight to Juneau are rough, but those are but appetizers.
There’s a windstorm in Sitka and it’s blowing 60 in Ketchikan. The plane bounces its way to the cruising altitude out of Sitka. Flight attendants aren’t permitted to serve water or throw bags of pretzels at us. For the 35-minute flight, no one is up, but everyone shifts as the plane does. The engines pulse as the pilots line us up on final approach. We’re coming in hot to break through the turbulence. It seems like we’re moving side to side as much as we’re headed forward. The jets roar again, I’m sure we’re about to abort the landing, pull up, circle and give it a second try. But we don’t. We’re still heading in hot and our wing dips sharply as the clearing before the runway appears below us. The wings level, a gust turns us sideways slightly, we hit, bounce, hit again and the engines roar. We’re home.
A couple kids release sweaty hands and two dudes breathe through the tightened throat of someone about to puke.

The boys team leaves again Thursday for a tournament at South Anchorage. All told they will have been in class for five days of the last ten. We have two home games against what might be our biggest competition for the regional championship – Thunder Mountain out of Juneau. The following week we’re on the road again, taking our school bus (Alaska Airlines) to a tournament hosted by the defending state champion.
I’m not sure when I’ll fish again.

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