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Village basketball players, fans take over Bethel High in annual ritual

BETHEL -- The first fan claimed a spot in the ticket line Saturday before 10 a.m., eight hours before game time. More than 200 players -- plus family members and fans -- flew in from small villages. And Bethel Regional High School morphed into a makeshift motel for players, coaches and chaperones, with boys' teams taking over classrooms in some wings and girls, others.

When they say basketball is big in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, this is what they are talking about.

"It's in their blood," Toksook Bay coach Simeon Lincoln said Saturday afternoon about his players, who at that point had won two district championships in a row and five in all. "The whole town is a basketball town."

A young Catholic priest brought basketball to the village, Lincoln said. "He made an outdoor basketball frame, and we played in the mud." The backboard was plywood and the post, driftwood.

The 28th annual Coastal Conference small schools basketball tournament kicked off in Bethel Thursday with eight games and wrapped up Saturday night with the district championships. High school teams from 22 villages were winnowed down in league play to make it to what many consider the spotlight event for village basketball.

They came from Newtok, Kipnuk and Toksook Bay in far Western Alaska, from the near-Bethel tundra villages of Nunapitchuk and Atmautluak, and from Tuntutuliak and Napaskiak down the Kuskokwim River.

"Whoever wins here is No. 1 in our region," said Sharon Wegner, the Lower Kuskokwim School District student activities coordinator, who has run the tournament since 1999.

'The thing'

Sixteen teams from 11 villages that surround Bethel in the Lower Kuskokwim School District competed in the tournament, which then sends the winners to the state tournament, beginning March 14.

It's the biggest student event of the year in the region.

"It means a lot to all the people around here," said Noah Charles, 21, a former Toksook team player who came to watch his brother and the rest.

Parents sport high school team shirts for the Islanders and the Jaegers, the Shamans and the Hawks, the Falcons and the rest. A blue bird mascot danced in the hall.

"For one day, it's one big happy family," Wegner said.

Bad weather on the coast almost prevented players and fans from Newtok -- where more than half of the 30 high school students play basketball -- from making it to the tournament. In the opening round on Thursday morning, the Jaegers -- that's a seabird -- girls team only had five players in Bethel. Between injuries and rest, just four were on the court for stretches. They still won and ended up in third place.

"This is the thing to attend," said Cheryl Beaver, a fan from Kwigillingok, who was the first in line Saturday for the championship. "I have to see it."

Nearly 100 people, mainly from Bethel, volunteer to make it happen. They come from the Alaska National Guard, the Village Public Safety Officer program, public radio station KYUK. They take tickets, keep score and track time. KYUK broadcast the entire tournament with announcers speaking in both English and Yup'ik. A student journalism class sends streaming video to villages, where the games are projected on big screens.

While the village schools played in Bethel, the hub community's own schools were on spring break. Bethel High basketball players flew to Anchorage to compete.

Playing at fish camp

The village tournament started in 1988 after Carlton Kuhns, who is now assistant superintendent over human resources and student services at the school district, pitched it as a new, better way to pick the region's competitor for state.

Small village high schools had only been open a few years. Lower Kuskokwim schools were matched against those from other districts for playoffs to get to state, which didn't make a lot of sense, Kuhns said. Now the district's 22 villages have their own conference and the Bethel tournament has grown into a can't-miss event.Village players are showcased before a big crowd that includes family members from across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

At the high school midday Saturday, coaches, chaperones and some of the volunteers gathered for their annual tournament potluck. They ate musk ox stew and caribou stew, marinated halibut and seal, dried herring and dried beluga, red velvet cupcakes and two kinds of akutaq, or Eskimo ice cream, plus some from the store freezer case.

The village love of basketball is a self-perpetuating phenomenon. Not everyone participates in cross country meets. Not everyone signs up for wrestling or volleyball. But almost every kid plays basketball and many continue on in adult leagues.

"It's a sport you can play all year long. They can play it at fish camp," Wegner said. And if their own parents play, "they probably grew up in a gym."

The enthusiasm for village basketball caught the attention of a pair of documentary filmmakers from Washington, D.C. Nathan Golon and Daniele Anastasion spent the last couple of weeks filming in Alaska including visits to Toksook Bay and Newtok, as well as time at the tournament.

"There's a pretty unique intensity here," Golon said Saturday evening. "You usually don't think of basketball when you think of very cold weather places. The fact we went to the villages and saw the kids playing outdoors in driving snow storms -- it's somewhat unexpected."

Curtis Mann, who grew up playing basketball in Kipnuk and now plays in a Bethel men's league, said it brings "an excitement level we don't find anywhere else."

Fans who grew up playing said they love to see the next generation take it up.

Before showtime, chill time

Before the championship game, the Toksook Bay boys team -- officially the Nelson Island School Islanders -- relaxed in their athletic quarters, a classroom off the Bethel High library. Some rested on inflatable mattresses. They checked their cell phones and talked about their village and their love of the game. Wilton Charles, a 15-year-old freshman, said he's been playing since he was 1.

Byron Nicholai, a 16-year-old junior who has become a Facebook celebrity through his singing and drumming, said the players want to shine at the tournament because family members travel so far to see them.

The girls' team didn't make the cut for the tournament this year. The boys said they tried to ease the pain with good words. "There's always next year," they told them.

Someone showed a phone video of an arcing 3-point shot by Moses Moses, an 18-year-old junior, that clinched a win in the final seconds at an earlier tournament.

Noah Charles -- Wilton's older brother -- played a basketball video he made on his phone that includes old Toksook Bay team photos from decades earlier. It was set to "Hall of Fame," a song about dreams and hope that someday, the world will know your name.

"We want to keep this going," Isaiah Pitka, an 18-year-old junior and team captain, said before the game.

Saturday night, the championship games sold out. The girls' game ended with a big win by the Kipnuk Falcons, who came in second the year before to small-schools powerhouse Cherfornak and emerged on top in a rematch. Some village residents flew in Saturday to catch the action.

Then at 8 p.m., the boys took to the Warrior Dome, Bethel High's packed gym. Toksook Bay, a village of just under 600 people, was playing much smaller Newtok, a village of about 350 people just a few miles to the northeast.

Toksook dominated much of the game and Newtok struggled to catch up. Then the Jaegers rallied. With a minute and a half to go, they were down by three baskets.

"Fire it up, Jaegers, fire it up!" Newtok fans yelled.

"Let's go, Islanders, let's go!" Toksook yelled back.

People cheered and stomped. The bleachers rocked. Parents groaned at missed shots. The Warrior Dome was loud and electric.

Toksook Bay held off the rush. The final score: Toksook Bay 59, Newtok, 52. The coach's father, elder Alois Lincoln, seemed to leap out of the crowd to celebrate.

The Islanders now are three-peat winners headed to the state tournament, but with a new district title and medals that will be forever theirs.

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