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For 40 years, Shootout showed Alaska what big-time college basketball looks like

  • Author: Beth Bragg
  • Updated: August 25
  • Published August 24

UAA coach Harry Larrabee dashes out onto the court to celebrate the Seawolves’ 64-61 victory over Idaho at the 1991 Great Alaska Shootout. Andre Price hit a 3-pointer with one second left for the victory, marking the first time since 1987 the Seawolves won two of their three Shootout games. (Jim Lavrakas / ADN archive 1991)

At the end of the first day of play in the 1990 Great Alaska Shootout, a small army of sportswriters walked across the gym floor at an empty Sullivan Arena after filing their final stories.

The place had been rocking just an hour earlier. UCLA was that year's main attraction, and a crowd of 7,947 had watched the Bruins score a tournament-record 134 points to beat Cal-Irvine in the late game.

There were just enough lights on in the arena for someone to grab a basketball and shoot it. That's when we noticed the palm prints on the backboard, a lot of them, high above the basket's rim. We gathered and gawked. How could humans jump that high?

At its very best, the Shootout showed Alaska what big-time college basketball really looks like.

It's not the same as it is on TV. The players are bigger, the coaches are louder, the contact is more violent. You don't see the palm prints on the backboard.

The Shootout showed Alaska what big-time college basketball really looks like, and it did so with a personal touch.

Tim Melican, owner of the Magic Bus, remembers the time his business provided transportation for the Washington Huskies and their 5-foot-9 star, Nate Robinson, who went on to became a three-time NBA dunk champion.

"I stood toe-to-toe with him on the motor coach and he was maybe 1 inch taller than me," Melican said. "Next thing you know he's slamming the ball."

Harlow Robinson, executive director of the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame, remembers standing in line to meet Oklahoma All-American Waymon Tisdale before the 1983 Shootout.

"There must've been a hundred kids in line to meet him, and he took time to say hi. He was the leading scorer in the nation," Robinson said.

When Kentucky won the 1996 Shootout, Iditarod champion Martin Buser sat on the Wildcats bench — earlier in the week, he had come to the rescue when a Kentucky player got lost when the team went snowmachining at Big Lake.

And then there was the time when Alaska's Sarah Palin met Michigan's Glen Rice during the 1987 tournament, an encounter that became news three decades later when Palin was a vice presidential candidate.

One of my favorite Shootout memories is the time I called the North Carolina State basketball office to schedule an interview with Jim Valvano. It was about 5 a.m. in Alaska — you have to get up early to talk to East Coast basketball coaches — and I was stunned when Valvano answered the phone. I had expected to talk to a secretary. Instead I had a productive and fun 10-minute conversation with a man who was a big supporter of the tournament.

(Valvano on bringing Iona to the 1979 Shootout: "We had preconceived ideas about Alaska. We thought you play three-on-three with Eskimos. Most of the kids are from New York City. They thought everybody lived in igloos, that it was all frozen tundra.")

Yet as much as the Shootout is about the big names of college basketball — the Valvanos and Tisdales and UCLAs — it is especially about Alaska.

It's about Dancing Harry Larrabee, the UAA coach who earned his nickname from Dick Vitale when the Seawolves beat Missouri in the 1985 tournament. It's about Service High grad Jason Kaiser and UAA dismantling Tim Duncan and top-ranked Wake Forest. It's about Andre Price's buzzer-beating 3-pointer to clinch fourth place for the Seawolves in 1991. It's about UAA's Suki Wiggs in 2015 breaking a tournament scoring record that had belonged to Purdue's Glenn Robinson. It's even about heartbreak, none so great as when Cincinnati ruined hometown hero Trajan Langdon's bid for a tournament title by beating Duke in 1998.

Nothing ignites a Shootout crowd more than the Seawolves threatening to beat a team they have no business beating. The UAA men are always the underdogs, the only Division II team sharing the bracket with seven Division I teams.

Yet the Seawolves have routinely gone the giant-killer route, winning an average of one game per year — through 39 Shootouts, they are 37-77. That's something for two generations of Seawolves to be proud of.

Blame the demise of the Shootout on a financial crisis that has meant deep cuts at the University of Alaska.

Once a money-maker for UAA, the tournament now bleeds money — it cost the school nearly half a million dollars last year alone.

Blame the loss of Shootout profitability on dwindling crowds — last year's turnout of 19,653 was the lowest in tournament history.

And blame the dwindling crowds on the NCAA, which in the last decade or two has loosened its rules on preseason tournaments so much that Alaska went from being one of three preseason tournaments to one of dozens.

UAA probably stuck with the Shootout longer than it should have. Crowds in recent years have been almost cringe-worthy, although the move to the Alaska Airlines Center in 2014 brought new energy, if not more fans.

But even in the years when teams like Murray State and Middle Tennessee State took the place of teams like North Carolina and Indiana, the basketball was often exceptional.

Back in 1987, the University of Miami's 7-foot-1 center Tito Horford stepped off a plane at the Anchorage airport and uttered words long remembered: "I can't believe humans live here."

A couple of days later, there was more disbelief for Horford. He and his teammates were on the losing end of a 78-77 game with the Seawolves.

The little guys had beaten the big guys, Sullivan Arena felt electric and it seemed like all of Anchorage was in love with college basketball.

The long ride is about to end, but we won't forget those times when the Shootout showed us what big-time college basketball really looks like.

This column is the opinion of sports editor Beth Bragg. Reach her at bbragg@alaskadispatch.com.

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