Alaskans don’t mind a challenge, which is why, despite our geographic and weather extremes, basketball is a thriving sport in just about every bush village. Schools located in the most remote alcoves of Alaska’s 572,000 square miles of land mass raise thousands of dollars a year to facilitate travel between villages, sometimes traversing distances that equal several of the lower 48 states put together.
But in a region where the geographic area of certain school districts is the size of a small state, this is nothing new. Our teachers and coaches are willing to go the extra mile to safely unite one basketball team with another, traveling by a combination of boat, car, plane, and even caravans of snowmobiles. And they’re not in it alone: our players happily overcome obstacles as well. They brave freezing temperatures and round-the-clock darkness to shovel their driveways clean so they can practice shooting hoops, and cram study-time into grueling marathon journeys.
Alaskan high schoolers often aren’t afforded the same luxuries as other young Western athletes. College scholarships are few and far between, the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) is off-limits, and all-star teams and celebrity-run camps just don’t exist. And yet, even the smallest schools have no trouble recruiting players. So what is it about basketball that our kids can’t get enough of?
Well, at some point it just comes down to sheer love of the sport. Because we love it, we apply the same problem-solving skills and resolve it takes to thrive in a harsh environment to the game itself. People don’t survive for thousands of years in a remote and challenging landscape without building resolve and the willingness to cooperate. Fortunately, those are two characteristics that serve sports teams well, and basketball is a natural activity for us to adopt because an indoor gym allows for year-round play. According to a recent New York Times article on basketball in Point Hope, the sport has become “crucial” to our existence, as interwoven into our lives as murre eggs and bowhead whales in the spring, or seals and salmon in the summer. Basketball is now passed along to new generations as a matter of tradition, right alongside hunting and fishing.
Although many Alaskan players do not receive huge scholarships and perks, the local recognition goes a long way; small-town players are admired and praised within our villages. And sometimes the recognition goes state- or nationwide. Several basketball inductees to the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame have hailed from smaller communities: players like Herb Didrickson of Sitka, Jeannie Hebert-Truax of Glennallen, John Brown of Ketchikan and Wally Leask of Metlakatla.
Four elements have anchored basketball into our very DNA, making such outsized success possible.
In Alaskan villages of all sizes, basketball stretches back at least one generation, and as a result the sport has become something that people of all ages enjoy together. Families seeking a reprieve from the dark winters and the challenges of everyday life come together, squeezed into a brightly-lit and heated gymnasium, where the rules of the game are known and predictable. It is quite a juxtaposition, the challenges of a typical Alaskan winter a mere backdrop to the alluring shine of a basketball court. Inside a gymnasium, our older generations relive their glory days, our high school athletes conjure up town pride, and our younger generations imagine their own place in the game.
Basketball also helps unify our remote villages, allowing players to feel less isolated through travel. Spending countless days traversing from one end of the state to the other, Alaska Native youth are exposed to difficult-to-access areas of our state that they might otherwise never see. This is not only a chance to make new friends, view new landscapes, and learn about different cultures — for Alaskan youth, it is also a time to experience entertainment, new cuisines and other attractions that may be unavailable in their hometowns, like movie theaters and a variety of new and interesting restaurants.
Tradition has always been the lifeblood of our communities, especially gatherings consisting of dance and storytelling. Basketball has become another cherished custom, affording villages frequent occasions to convene and share our common hopes, dreams and history with one another.
Basketball provides our communities with a sense of hope, instilling pride in fans and infusing players with a greater sense of confidence and ambition. Questions surrounding jobs or college can’t be avoided, but basketball offers a much-needed reprieve.
Ultimately, basketball is more of a joy than a challenge, and one that we cherish dearly. The sport joins Alaskan families and communities into a multigenerational support system, giving all of us the chance to do what we love, and do it together.
This is why Ravn is committed to supporting Alaskan basketball at all levels. We currently aid the team travel for over 30 school districts, as well as collegiate travel for the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and the University of Alaska-Anchorage. In 2017, we provided free plane tickets to teams from bush high schools like Kenai, Gambell, Hutchinson, Bethel Regional and Barrow. We also sponsor NBC Camps and several tournaments, including the Floyd Nagaruk Memorial Basketball Tournament, the Alaska School Activities Association State Basketball Tournament, the Region 1A Northwest Arctic Conference Tournament, and the Clarence Savetelik Basketball Tournament.
Basketball is something that Ravn will always proudly support. It’s become emblematic of our diverse state, and has touched the lives of our many employees. So as long as our teams brave the travel (and we know they will), we’ll stand with them, handing out tickets and cheering them on.