Mustang Men’s Basketball heads to Great Alaska Shootout

Updated: November 21, 2017

“We don’t really want to leave you two here. If wolves are around, it’s better that there are more of us.”

That was my boss talking. It was March of 2005 and we were on the frozen-over Kuskokwim River, somewhere between Kalskag and Aniak in Alaska. In the Bush, there were no roads, except in the winter when the river froze over and car traffic travailed on the thick ice atop the river. 

We weren’t in cars this day. Instead, we had a pair of snowmobiles. My boss and co-worker rode on one. I rode on the second “snowmachine” behind a school janitor, who was may or may not have been bribed with something herbal to give me a ride to Aniak. Instead, our snowmachine had broken-down about a third of the way there.

It was a nice March day — the temperature was probably somewhere around 25 degrees farenheit. If you hustle, you can span the 25 or so miles between the two villages in a snowmobile in probably 2-plus hours. 

But we weren’t going anywhere. We waited. 

My job in Alaska consisted of coaching teachers in teaching reading to their students. I spent the night in villages with names like Red Devil, Stony River, Sleetmute, and Chuathbaluk. The days were short. The nights were cold. In every village except Aniak, the only place to stay was on a cot in one of the classrooms. It was always comfortable. Most of the time the school buildings were the only place in the village with running water and indoor plumbing. 

About 30 minutes after the snowmachine broke down, two trucks converged from different directions — one going to Aniak, the other back to Kalskag. My ride loaded his vehicle into the back of the truck for Kalskag and I wedged into a two-door chevy truck, between a pair of gentlemen who did maintenance in the school district. My boss and co-worker zoomed ahead on the snowmobile.

Cars have to go much slower than the lighter snowmobiles on the ice. Wouldn’t want to have any accidents and fall through a hole or something, right?

Nearly four hours later, I was “home.” I stayed in a studio apartment in Aniak. My neighbors were a bush pilot and the only state trooper for hundreds of thousands of square miles next door. Alaska was beautiful. I’d go back, but probably not alone.

Alaska is a wild place. I have stories of setting beaver traps, ice fishing, and a vole infestation. I’ll save you the details. I left right after the ice in the river broke up and right before the silver salmon started to run. It’s a regret I carry with me still (can you imagine catching those fish there?!) 

Until I went there, one of the only touchstones a sports fanatic from California like me had about Alaska was the Great Alaska Shootout. In the mid-90’s, I’d sit in my bedroom at night watching college basketball. It was ESPN’s heyday. Dick Vitale would be screaming as players like Cherokee Parks, Vince Carter, Eric Montross, Christian Laettner, Jerry Stackhouse and others battled it out. Remember Serge Zwikker? Dante Calabria? Jeff Capel and Ed Cota. I could go on. It was like UNC and Duke played every week. 

Trajon Langdon was from Alaska. I remember that. From 1995-2000, the winners of the Great Alaska Shootout were, in order, Minnesota, Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Cincinnati, Kansas, and Syracuse. The Great Alaska Shootout was the place to be.

Over the years, tournaments in other exotic locations rose to prominence. Places like Maui, Mexico, Puerto Rico got what was left of the television attention the Great Alaska Shootout once owned. It has been announced that this is the final year of the Great Alaska Shootout. A staple of my childhood Fansmanship is going quietly into the night.

Hosted by the University of Alaska – Anchorage, this year’s Shootout includes Cal Poly. Over the past decade, my college basketball fan attention has turned toward the local team. 

The Mustangs will start the tournament with the College of Charleston — a top-100 team trying to prove its mettle. With a win, Cal Poly will have Thanksgiving off. With a loss, they’ll play Thursday and Saturday in the consolation bracket. 

Either way, the Poly kids will get to experience life in the great white North. Not the Bush version. The Anchorage version. Believe me, that’s the better option.

Photos by Owen Main. For more photos or to purchse photos, click hereIf you just want to contribute to the cause, Venmo @Owen-Main or paypal