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Behold, basketball sneakers are fighting with mukluks to get a foothold in Alaska, where night games sometimes start at 3 o'clock in the afternoon and the Top 20 is treated with deference and respect. Last week the Great Alaska Shootout in Anchorage brought together five distinguished members of various preseason Top 20 polls—Missouri, Arkansas, Georgetown, Louisiana State and North Carolina. They went north to Alaska to seek their place in the midnight sun and to moil for a little ratings gold. Some moiled pretty well. Some found out their moiling needed oiling. But when this eccentric tournament came down to its final pulsating moments, North Carolina moiled best of all.
If there was anything even more improbable than the sight of that many outstanding teams willing to risk their high rankings so early in the year, it was the fact that they had left the "Lower 48" to do it. And yet there was a kind of obscure logic involved in bringing so dazzling a field together. The tournament began two years ago, largely as a result of a rule that permits teams to play in Hawaii and Alaska and not count those excursions against the NCAA's 27-game limit. The prospect of playing three "free" games against good competition, with most of the expenses covered by the host school, was so inviting that in its very first year the tournament attracted such powerhouses as North Carolina State, Indiana and Louisville.
The tournament was the invention of University of Alaska-Anchorage Coach Bob Rachel, but he wasn't around long enough to see it past the initial planning stage. Rachel was an idea man and a promoter, but he occasionally had trouble with mundane things like rules. In 1978, after the NCAA put the Seawolves, a Division II team, on two-year probation, the school fired Rachel and gave serious thought to dropping the tournament before it had even started. "We had contracts with four schools already signed," says Gary Bliss, Rachel's successor, "and I thought we should go ahead with it. But there was no way we were prepared to host a tournament. The first year was chaos. The public didn't really feel we could pull it off. People would hear the names we were talking about bringing in, and they'd think it was another scam. The credibility of our program was zero."
In that first year the tournament—then known as the Seawolf Classic—played to crowds of fewer than 2,000 people and lost $12,000. North Carolina State defeated Louisville in the championship game, but the Wolfpack went on to finish in a tie for last place in the Atlantic Coast Conference race that year. Indiana lost two of its three games to finish seventh in the eight-team field, but eventually won the NIT. So as a long-range barometer, the tournament may not mean very much.
But the Alaska state legislature was so smitten with the idea that in 1979 it set aside a fund to cover the debts, which eventually mounted to $18,000. This year the state did even better than that. The legislature voted a special appropriation of $115,000 to pay for the Shootout and another $85,000 for a women's tournament next spring. "There is a tremendous excess of wealth in Alaska," says Alaska-Anchorage Athletic Director Gene Templeton. "This year the state has about $6 billion it must figure out what to do with. I think the legislature's feeling is that the tournament is an important community service, and it deserves the money. After all, what else do you do with $6 billion?"
Well, for one thing, you can invite one of the most glittering collections of college basketball teams this side of the Final Four and then sit back and watch them outshine the northern lights. "The tournament is a way for us to carry the message of the Alaskan way of life back to the Lower 48," says Templeton. "People think Alaska is ice and snow and polar bears, but there's quite a bit of sophistication here."
Alaskan sophistication does not yet include much appreciation for basketball, but then the same could be said for places like Phoenix, which have been exposed to the game for years. "The people here seem starved for this kind of entertainment," said LSU Coach Dale Brown, "but if you listen to the crowd you get the feeling they don't know what they're getting." Crowd? What crowd? Tiny Buckner Fieldhouse on the Fort Richardson Army base was not exactly overrun with fans. "This may be the only place in the world where teams of this caliber could play to empty bleachers in a 4,000-seat arena," says J.R. Baldwin, an expatriate Texan now writing for The Anchorage Times. "Alaskans are doers, not seers. People who come to live up here are either looking for a fresh start or they're running from something." Last week they seemed to be running from the Great Alaska Shootout, and in fairly large numbers. The average attendance was 3,500 per session.
Because the games didn't begin until Friday, there was plenty of opportunity for teams from venues as different as Fayetteville, Ark. and Hamilton, N.Y., home of the Colgate Red Raiders, to see Alaska and rub noses, or rather elbows, with some of America's last frontiersmen. When Derek Smith journeyed to Anchorage two years ago with the Louisville Cardinals, he participated in such cross-cultural activities as snowmobiling, dogsledding, ice fishing and bobsledding. "One night we went out looking for hamburgers, and I ended up in a striptease joint called the Booby Trap," recalls Smith. "I hope it's not closed; I'm looking forward to going back."
Billy Tubbs would like to go back, too. Tubbs, now the coach at Oklahoma, took his Lamar University teams to Alaska the past two years, and he also remembers it as culture, culture, culture. "Our players did some sightseeing," says Tubbs. "They went to see some glaciers, things like that. In Alaska you awaken at 9 a.m., and it's dark outside and there's a live football game on TV. Then it gets dark again about 3. Happy hour comes very early for the people up there."
All eight teams in this year's field, which included the host school, Colgate and Nicholls State of Thibodaux, La., had assembled in Anchorage by Wednesday night. The players and coaches were invited to have Thanksgiving dinner in the homes of local families, but only the men of Arkansas and Colgate were wise enough to accept the offer. "We try to let the kids take advantage of the activities that are available to them when we go someplace unusual like this," said Razorback Coach Eddie Sutton. "I think some coaches get too uptight about the games and don't let their players enjoy themselves."