The bandbox gym at Anchorage West High School, capacity 4,000, was filled to overflowing for the first time since one evening last winter when West High beat East High 69-58 for the state Region IV championship—and that was about as big a basketball game as Alaska had ever seen. But on this particular Saturday night in November the guys on the court were certainly not high-schoolers. These were pros and this was opening night. Their flashy uniforms, their size, strength and amazing grace were unlike anything ever seen in Alaska.
The crowd was screaming at the ferocious high-speed dunks the visiting Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Barons were throwing down through the south basket as they warmed up for the scheduled 7:30 tip-off. Suddenly, 6'10" Joe Newman soared in to ram one. On the way down, the ball struck the front of the rim with such force that the fan-shaped glass backboard shattered into a thousand pieces. There was a long "oooooh" from the crowd, followed by a stunned silence. Hardly anyone present had ever seen a backboard shatter like that.
At the other end of the court, the hometown Northern Knights were also warming up. After a few routine layups and some careful dunks, Ron Davis, a 6'7" rookie forward from Washington State, caught the rim on a slammer and there was another sudden crash, another shower of glass. Both backboards now were in pieces on the floor.
Rick Smith, the Knights' 33-year-old president, was beside himself. He had already made an emergency trip to a nearby gas station to find a replacement fuse for the 24-second clock. There was a contingency plan for one broken backboard, but not for two. Even so, it was announced that two new boards were on the way.
On the floor, high school gymnasts tumbled themselves dizzy while 4,021 fans waited patiently. As the "short delay" became an hour, the Knights offered refunds. Hardly a soul in the $9 and $6 seats budged. There was no booing, no stamping of feet, no yelling of obscenities. In the end, about 100 people did decide to leave, but only 50 of them asked for their money back. The rest said things like, "Are you kidding? Two shattered backboards? I've gotten my money's worth already." Meanwhile some of the fans who had been turned away because of the sellout and were listening to the proceedings on the radio hurried back to the gym, and the 100 deserters were quickly replaced.
Two hours and 15 minutes later the game began, once again with 4,021 spectators, who considered the wait well worth it. As far as anyone knows, they were witnesses to the first professional sports event, aside from boxing matches and two 1965 NBA exhibitions, in the history of Alaska. After Alaska had waited 92 years to become a state, and 18� more to get its first professional sports franchise, who besides the 100 who left was going to let a two-hour delay stand in the way of being in on history?
With two new backboards in place (one was removed from a neighboring junior high school, the other discovered in a storeroom) and a strict "no dunking" rule in effect, the Anchorage Northern Knights, led by Davis' 30 points and 17 rebounds, beat the Wilkes-Barre Barons 117-112 on opening night in the Eastern Basketball Association.
The Eastern Basketball Association? Ludicrous, you say? That is exactly what the owners from the nine other clubs in the 32-year-old circuit thought when the idea was first presented to them. A league that was founded in Pennsylvania, and with teams in Wilkes-Barre, Lancaster and Allentown, Long Island ( Commack), Brooklyn, Providence, Jersey Shore ( Asbury Park), Quincy (Mass.), Washington, D.C.—and
But in an insane sort of way, maybe the arrangement is not so ludicrous. "After all," says Smith, "few people realize that Alaska contains not only the northernmost point in the United States, Point Barrow, but also the westernmost and the easternmost." There is no disputing him. Just a few miles west of Amatignak Island in the Aleutians (179� 10' west longitude), across the 180th meridian, is Pochnoi Point, 179� 46' east.
Smith knows his trivia. More to the point, he knows success. In the face of the initial skepticism, born of what seemed the fundamental folly of joining a league whose nearest member is almost 5,000 miles away, and having had to put up with cracks like "Do you have an igloo big enough to play in?" Smith now is enjoying all the laughs. The Northern Knights have proved that selling professional basketball to Alaskans is not nearly as difficult as selling them, say, refrigerators. If they like the product, they will buy it. And after the first three months of the EBA season, the Knights have an 18-5 record and are in first place in the Western Division—which was created this season—2� games ahead of Wilkes-Barre. The Alaskans also boast an average attendance of 2,400, more than twice as big as next-best Quincy (950), and 1,650 better than the league average of 750. There is, of course, a perfectly rational explanation.