Five of the seven teams in town for this weekend's Great Alaska Shootout got a taste of Alaska on Tuesday night -- literally and figuratively.
The NCAA requires so-called exempt tournaments like the Shootout to provide a cultural learning experience for the visiting players. (Exempt means that games played here don't count against a team's limit of regular-season games.)
"It's a great opportunity to see each other and get away from all that's going to happen the next three days," said Bruce Pozzi, who volunteers the services of his public relations firm to help underwrite the event.
And so the Alaska Native Heritage Center played host to players and coaches from Virginia Tech, Eastern Washington, Michigan, Western Kentucky, Butler, and even a few of the hometown Seawolves.
First up was a sampling of Alaska fare -- fresh fruit, meats such as reindeer sausage and cheeses, fried halibut, salmon chowder and a blueberry cobbler with ice cream.
Players sported curious smiles as they contemplated the pink-hued salmon chowder. But as the evening wore on, the number of people returning to the chow line for seconds and even thirds seemed to indicate more than a passing grade for the food.
The center presented a short film produced by Pozzi with the help of local production company Larry Moore & Associates showcasing the various people and places of Alaska.
Then Ada Shavings of the center gave a short lecture on the various tribes around the state, and the common thread that binds them together through their differences.
"We are all very different," said Shavings, a Yup'ik. "Alaska is so huge and so diverse, but no matter where you go we all have the same values -- we still do the same things our ancestors have been doing, and we try to carry on our culture and our heritage, honor our elders, respect them, respect the animals and plants and land, because that's what our elders have been doing for thousands of years.
"We are all connected that way."
The evening concluded -- after another trip to the buffet -- with a Native song and dance demonstration.
Despite several players doing little dances in their seats to the music, only one had the guts to get up on stage with the performers.
Butler's Mike Green hopped out of his chair as soon as the offer was made to join in.
"That's my thing, I dance," Green said. "Just trying to have fun. They invited people up, I just took the initiative. Hopefully some people would join me but they didn't.
"It was cool, though. It was very informative, but the dance moves were tiring."
In a way, the basketball teams Tuesday night emulated another weeklong event that took over Sullivan Arena -- the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics.
The players were dressed in warm-up outfits in their school's colors and sat together in rows, much like the Native dance troupes that opened each evening of WEIO back in July.
The cultural element of the Shootout started in the late 1990s and has provided teams with a place to mingle away from the normal glare of the Shootout.
"It's been pretty good," Pozzi said. "(Oklahoma State) coach Eddie Sutton in 2002 said 'This is one of the finest ways for (my) players to gain some knowledge about Alaska and a chance to experience a different culture.
"Daniel Ewing of Duke in 2003 said this is one of the best ways he knew how to meet other players and learn something about a place he'd most likely never come back to."
Some players looked on with a certain amount of apathy; others listened intently. Shavings said it's a fairly typical response.
"You can listen all you want," she said, "but it's up to (you) to learn."
Find Andrew Hinkelman online at adn.com/contact/ahinkelman or call 257-4335.
By ANDREW HINKELMAN