In his recent book on modern-day Alaska, Coming Into the Country, John McPhee takes a rather harsh but accurate view of Anchorage, a city that has grown like a weed since oil was discovered in 1968 in Prudhoe Bay, some 700 miles to the north, and construction began on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in 1974. Writes McPhee: "Almost all Americans would recognize Anchorage, because Anchorage is that part of any city where the city has burst its seams and extruded Colonel Sanders.... It has come in on the wind, an American spore. A large cookie cutter brought down on EI Paso could lift something like Anchorage into the air. Anchorage is the northern rim of Trenton, the center of Oxnard, the ocean-blind precincts of Daytona Beach. It is condensed, instant Albuquerque."
While other outsiders have found much to admire about Anchorage—the warmth of its people, its proximity to dazzling mountains, glaciers and bountiful waters, and the vast wilderness that begins just a couple of miles out of town—the seam-splitting urgency mentioned by McPhee is inevitably what gave birth to professional sports. Since 1968, the city's population has nearly doubled, to 200,000, and by 1988 is projected to reach 260,000, slightly smaller than the city of Wichita, Kans. The average citizen is 24.2 years old, earns close to $25,000 annually and has precious little to spend it on, save for food and drink. Anchorage has one of the five highest-grossing McDonald's in the world. Most bars stay open, and busy, until 5 a.m. seven days a week, and all the liquor stores remain open on Sundays. A local maxim goes: "Anything stays open in Anchorage if it pays."
But what the people of Anchorage are starved for is entertainment, especially in winter, when the combination of cold temperatures—15� F. on the average—and short daylight hours—the sun does not rise until well after 9 a.m. and sets by 3 p.m.—makes for the Alaskan malady known as cabin fever. A professional repertory theater is in its second season, but "name" entertainment is scarce because West High School, which has the city's largest sports facility, also has the largest auditorium, 4,000 seats, and it is booked for school and civic events almost around the clock. Big-name rock groups, big-name entertainers, major symphony orchestras and ballet companies often find themselves technically in Anchorage but only because its airport serves as a refueling point on routes to the Orient and The Lower 48. Loren Lounsbury, former president of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, is one of the chief proponents of a plan to build a civic center that would accommodate the performing arts, conventions and sports events. "People here are hungry for what they had outside," he says.
That same thought occurred to Rick Smith about two years ago. He began discussing getting a pro team for Anchorage with Mike Shupe, a friend since their high school days at West and now the owner of an enormously successful bicycle shop in which Smith is employed as general manager. Shupe also owns an expanding snow machine (Alaskans never say "snowmobile") distributorship. They convinced each other that pro sport in Anchorage was an idea whose time had come.
For advice they went to Jack Brushert, the 30-year-old general manager of the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, an amateur baseball team that has successfully recruited some of the country's best college players and since 1969 has turned a profit. The summertime beauty of the land, the promise of high-paying jobs, first-rate competition in the Alaska League—which plays 48 games and consists of the Fairbanks Goldpanners, Kenai Oilers and Palmer Valley Green Giants, in addition to the Glacier Pilots—and an almost guaranteed trip to the annual National Baseball Congress Tournament in Wichita, has over the years attracted collegians such as Tom Seaver, Chris Chambliss, Bump Wills, Dave Winfield, Graig Nettles, Randy Jones and Rick Monday. Brushert also flies in three visiting teams each year, picking up all expenses, to play 10 to 15 games among the four league members. The Pilots always sell out their 440 box seats at $110 per, and draw an average crowd of 1,700.
Brushert told Smith and Shupe that if baseball was this successful in Anchorage, then pro basketball could not miss. Basketball has traditionally been the most popular sport in the state, even bigger than ice hockey, which suffers, among other things, from a shortage of suitable rinks. Brushert said that a pro basketball team would have to operate like his baseball team: make terms of employment sweet enough to attract the best coach and players possible, and most important, be prepared to pick up all the expenses of visiting teams, at least in the early stages. "But all this is contingent on having a winning team," Brushert told them. "People here are willing to take a chance on anything or they wouldn't have come to Alaska in the first place. But they won't support a loser."
Smith certainly qualifies as one willing to take a chance. He was working his way up the ladder at Union Oil a few years ago when he decided that "the corporate thing was not my style." Counting on his fingers, he says, "I bet I have 10 friends my age who have become millionaires here in the last five years." So last summer he decided he would have a go at becoming Alaska's first professional sports baron. He went about Anchorage collecting investors for his basketball scheme, winding up with 75 in all, ranging from the very wealthy, like his friend Shupe, to "just plain folks" who pitched in as little as $500. The list includes students, a chef on the pipeline, a commercial artist, a couple of bar and restaurant owners, and a drilling mud salesman. Soon he had a $40,000 nut and, along with Brushert, who had agreed to become the Northern Knights' general manager, set out to find a league.
They considered the projected Rocky Mountain League. But when it looked as though the RML was going nowhere—it never got off the ground—they reached EBA Commissioner Steven Kauffman through a kind of transcontinental grapevine. They called a friend who was a Seattle sporting-goods dealer, who called Frank Wagner, the general manager of the EBA Allentown Jets, who called Kauffman.
"I told Frank I didn't understand," recalls Kauffman. "Did they have a team up there and want to arrange an exhibition or something? But to play in our league? I didn't see how that was feasible. But I said I was going to San Francisco in August and if they were serious they should fly me to Seattle and come down for a meeting. In San Francisco I got a call and was told there was a ticket to Seattle waiting at the airport. I was shocked. I realized maybe they were serious."
In Seattle, Kauffman learned from Smith and Brushert about the Glacier Pilots, the Anchorage market and the startup money that had already been raised. He began to see the publicity value a team in Alaska would have for the EBA, which, with an enlarged talent pool since the ABA folded, had been trying to upgrade its image from that of a nickel-and-dime Pennsylvania mill-town circuit—which is mostly what it had been—to something on the order of baseball's Triple-A leagues.