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Grounded: How a tiny Bering Sea community forged a basketball star

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  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published May 2, 2016

I didn't know that I was watching Gambell's star basketball player the first time I saw Wallace Ungwiluk slipping, crawling and flailing his way up a wind drift on St. Lawrence Island. His ankles were collapsing in his ski boots, his jeans were freezing into snowy sheets as the wind howled through the village, and he absolutely could not figure out how to herringbone up the hill. As I watched the high school freshman repeatedly fail, fall and slide backwards, I marveled that the huge smile never left his face.

Most boys in the same situation let frustration take over, angrily unclip from their bindings, tear their ski boots off and go back to playing ball in the gym where there are no hills to contend with. Wallace never ripped those boots off. After four days, he was quickly climbing up hills, tucking down them and taking jumps. It was dramatic and unanticipated improvement, enough to make me sit up and take notice. Who was this young man and what made him that way?

Wallace is now a junior at Gambell's John Apangalook Memorial High School, and is a rising star in the world of basketball. After attending a camp in Spokane, Wash., this summer, he was offered a spot on the Seattle Lutheran High School team, which he declined after discovering that, as a transfer student, he wouldn't be eligible to compete his first year.

He was then contacted by a coach in Eagle River who asked him to play for Eagle River Christian School. Along with teammates from all over the Lower 48, he trained and played with the team while he lived with a host family. Unfortunately, there was not enough financial backing to keep the team going. During Christmas break, Wallace moved back to Gambell, home to roughly 680 people.

Many high school athletes who come back to their hometown teams after playing in more competitive divisions do so begrudgingly. Wallace is the exception to this.

"I feel like I had a great experience while I was down there. I was blessed to have it happen to me and to be able to experience the sport at the next level. I was able to come home a better person, be a leader and bring home what I learned."

When I returned last March to coach skiing again in Gambell, I walked over to the school one night to watch community ball at open gym. The game was intense and fast, a blur of layups and the pounding and squeaking of shoes. The young men and one young woman who played for hours were a commanding group; raised in the constant wind of the Bering Sea, they grew up hunting walrus, seals and whales from open skiffs. These high schoolers are confident and polite.

Wallace exemplified this as he wiped the sweat off his forehead and walked off the court for a minute, spotting me sitting there in some bright ski clothes. He reached out to shake my hand, welcomed me back to the village, then excused himself and returned to the game.

Wallace is a soft-spoken leader of this powerful group of young adults that hunts by day, are athletes in the evening and avoid the easy teenage pitfalls of drugs and alcohol. How was he making such consistently good, healthy decisions in his life?

"I am old enough to know what the consequences are," he explained.

The basic elements of the future are clear in Wallace's mind. Being a good ball player is his ticket to college. A business degree from a college in the Lower 48 will help him get established enough to come back to Gambell to help create more jobs.

"I grew up in Gambell watching people struggle," he said. "It's hard to live out here; everything is expensive and unemployment is high. My drive is because I want to come back and help make life more bearable, give people here a better future."

Wallace's path to a good future has many guardian angels, one being the tight-knit community of Gambell. Educational posters in the local deli display the traditional Siberian Yupik cultural values, one of which is to treat all children like your own. Wallace said this is being able to go to anybody for help, not just your relatives, because it is like one big family.

Foundational to Wallace's success, of course, is his family. I have spent many hours skiing alongside his mother, Yuka, to the edge of the frozen beaches and trying to imitate her crisp movements in early-morning martial arts practice. I can sense that her gentle, dedicated love for her family and her example of diligence and excellence in a sport have given Wallace solid footing. His father, Rodney, will excuse him from school to spend the day with his uncles and cousins whaling or hunting walrus. The meat they bring back feeds their family, friends and the elders. It has given Wallace a fundamental understanding of responsibility to his community.

Wallace doesn't disagree with my observations, but sees his family's strength in a different way. In his eyes, it was their consistent discipline, the knowledge that a bad decision had real consequences and would result in getting grounded, that made a lasting impact on him. While he was grounded, his parents would often check in and make sure he could explain what he had done that had gotten him in trouble.

In the end, maybe it was being temporarily grounded that made Wallace Ungwiluk into the enduringly grounded person he has become.

"I am really serious about my future, and I learn from other people's mistakes. I hear things about people in the villages and I watch TV and I learn from it."

Megan Corazza traveled to the village of Gambell with the Skiku program teaching the local kids how to ski. She fell in love with the people and place, and has wanted to live there ever since. She has many things to learn from the people of St. Lawrence Island.

This article appeared in the April 2016 issue of 61°North, a publication of ADN's special content department. Contact 61°North editor Jamie Gonzales at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com.

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