When Mike Krzyzewski flies from Durham, N.C., to your hometown to recruit you to play basketball at Duke, you think, He must be crazy. When your hometown is Anchorage, you know he's nuts. So it was in the summer of 1993 that Coach K came for a visit and took me out to dinner. We talked about Duke, basketball and Duke basketball. Afterward, standing in the driveway of my parents' house, we looked up and saw the Northern Lights—waves of blue, green and yellow illuminating the sky. It was only the second time I had ever seen them. "Trajan," Coach K said, "this is a sign that you've got to come to Duke."
The next year I left Alaska for Durham, and since then I've lived around the world: Ohio, where I played for the Cleveland Cavaliers; Italy ( Benetton Treviso); and now Turkey (Efes Pilsen). I visit Alaska at least once a year, and each time I go back I realize how lucky I am to have grown up there. My father, Steve, an anthropology professor at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, taught my younger sister, Trista, and me to appreciate the state's landscape and way of life. He took me on many of his research trips, including one on which he made a documentary about the use of fish traps in early native cultures. Over time what stuck in my mind was how everyone who lives in Alaska loves it there.
Alaskans' passion for basketball—without question the most popular sport in the state—is just as strong. Because of the long, cold winters, it's difficult to play baseball and football. And though many like to play hockey, the money needed to buy equipment and to build and maintain rinks makes the sport too expensive for the small villages that dot the state. I've conducted basketball clinics and summer camps in some of those villages—Barrow, Kotzebue, Seward—and the people there are just as fervid about the game as any in the Lower 48.
Two years ago, at my camp in Barrow, I met a 15-year-old Inuit girl who had tremendous basketball skills and could hold her own against the boys. Later that day I watched as she helped her father make jewelry out of the claws and teeth of a polar bear he had hunted down mat day.
In Anchorage, I attended East High and played in three straight state championship games at high school gyms which were always packed. And whenever we played our crosstown rival, West High, fans had to be turned away at the door because East High's 5,000-seat gym would be sold out.
Trying to improve your game takes a little more effort in Alaska than in any other state. Many times during the winter I would be watching an NBA game on television and get the urge to work on my jump shot. The temperature outside would be 0� if I was lucky, and mere would be at least six inches of snow on the ground. So I would throw on a hat, boots and gloves, grab a ball and start shooting at a driveway basket that had a frozen net. As my skills improved, especially in high school, I wanted to play in adult pickup games, but there were never enough guys at the gym to go three-on-three, much less five-on-five. So games always had to be organized by someone with a lot of phone numbers and determination.
Even playing high school games wasn't easy. In some conferences, teams had to fly to their away games. Carlos Boozer, who followed me at Duke, told me that his high school team, Juneau Douglas, had to take a 90-minute flight to Anchorage and men drive an hour to get to three schools in its conference. For Carlos, ACC travel must have seemed like walking to the mailbox.
So there is much more to Alaska than the images that are typically beamed around the world. Sure, it snows a lot and it's dark for as many as 18 hours a day during the winter, but if you take a good look, you can see light through the gloom—and it's probably coming from a crowded arena or school gym where Alaskans are enjoying their hoops.