Ron Abegglen watches his favorite sports movie of all time periodically, but it's not as if he really needs a refresher about who starred in what role and how the plot developed. When the show ends he smiles every time.
One viewing was enough for Sean Higgins. He's just happy that every time he watches ESPN college basketball highlight shows that some talking head who was in elementary school 25 years ago doesn't remind the national hoops audience about what transpired on Dec. 28, 1988 in a game in Salt Lake City.
Popular belief aside, possibly the greatest major college basketball upset of all time was not the heralded Chaminade-Virginia game so frequently mentioned, but a game between the University of Alaska Anchorage and the University of Michigan in the first round of the Seiko Classic Christmas tournament in Utah that year. In December, the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame selection panel voted to enshrine the UAA-Michigan game in the hall, recognizing it as a one-time special event. The induction ceremony is scheduled for Wednesday at the Anchorage Museum.
That game pitted NCAA Division II UAA against Division I Michigan of the Big Ten at a time when the Wolverines were ranked No. 2 in the nation. Michigan was 11-0 at the time and the Wolverines suited up such luminaries as Glen Rice, Terry Mills, Loy Vaught, Mark Hughes and Rumeal Robinson, all of whom went on to play in the NBA. Higgins, another Michigan player, was injured and did not play.
"They thought they'd crush us and go on to the next opponent," said Abegglen, now 76, the coach who devised UAA's strategy at the time. Abegglen is now retired and living in Utah where he plays golf more than he watches basketball.
The Seawolves bested Michigan, 70-66. A quarter of a century later, the Alaska players don't understand why the world doesn't better remember their triumph and the Michigan players are glad that so many fans forget.
Chaminade was an NAIA school when it surprised No. 1 ranked Virginia, featuring player-of-the-year Ralph Sampson, 77-72, on Dec. 23, 1982. The game took place in Hawaii, in Chaminade's home territory. UAA's upset occurred on a neutral court. Although Virginia was ranked first at the time, Michigan later won the NCAA title the same season it fell to UAA.
"That's a good thing that we're not a part of history like that," said Mills, one of a handful of those Wolverines who played in the NBA and at 46 handles radio broadcasts of Michigan basketball games. "We had no business losing to them. But in all fairness, Alaska was a very good team that year. If we played them 10 times we would win nine, but in their book it only counts one time."
Higgins, 45, played pro ball, later coached Edmonds Community College in Washington, and currently focuses his coaching on youth programs. He said the Wolverines are lucky they do not get reminded constantly about that blip on their record -- the loss to Alaska Anchorage.
"We're fortunate we slipped that," Higgins said.
Because the game was in the opening round of the Utah tournament, Abegglen had time to devise a strategy. Alaska Anchorage was 10-2 entering the game, with its only losses to Kansas and Florida in the Great Alaska Shootout. That annual Thanksgiving weekend tournament gave the Division II Seawolves confidence that they could play with anyone.
UAA forward Todd Fisher, who was selected as a third-team All-American that season and a first-team honoree in 1990, was at age 25 an older player at the time. He was a fierce 6-foot-6 forward not intimidated by anything.
"They thought they were going to walk through us," said Fisher, 51, recently from his home in Topeka, Ind. "I'm not planning on any 20-year-old just whipping my butt."
Although his phrasing might not have been identical to Fisher's, that's pretty much what Abegglen told his players, too.
"Michigan had just played three games prior to us where they won by a 30-point spread or something," Abegglen said. "They just killed them. It ticked off the other coaches and we had game film to watch. I was able to convince our players we had to do something different, delay the game a little. Our players ran the game strategy to perfection.
"Todd Fisher roamed the paint. Ron Fischer (a 6-foot-8 forward) was at the top of the key and he was a very good passer. It was one of those things where everything fell into place. As the game went on, we were gaining confidence."
Michigan led 36-30 at halftime. While the fans streaming in for the feature game pitting Utah against Holy Cross had no Alaska allegiance, UAA's efforts charmed the 11,400 spectators.
"The crowd was totally in our favor," said UAA guard Joe Brinkerhoff, who is the chief executive officer of a construction company. "It shook Michigan up a lot."
Alaska Anchorage shot 62.5 percent from the floor in the first half and surely the Wolverines believed the Seawolves would cool off. They didn't. UAA shot 63.1 percent in the second half. Guard Michael Johnson, who was named a first-team Division II All-American that season, pumped in 20 points. Todd Fisher threw down 18 points and Ron Fischer, the passionate forward, added 16.
What Brinkerhoff remembers best was the way Todd Fisher challenged the Michigan big men time after time in the low post.
"Todd went crazy," Brinkerhoff said. "Todd just called for the ball every time."
As the clock ticked down, the Wolverines realized they were in trouble. Although Rice scored a team-high 24 points, Abegglen is almost gleeful about how skinny UAA forward Race McCleery regularly interrupted the flow of the star's game.
"I think we overlooked them," said Hughes, 47, now the director of pro personnel for the New York Knicks. "We went in thinking we were going to steamroll them because they were a Division II team. We struggled that night. We were in total shock."
There are theories as to why the Alaska Anchorage-Michigan upset is not as well remembered as the Chaminade-Virginia game. Players on both sides think part of the reason is that Sampson was such a high-profile player and that their game result did not get much air time at the moment. Another possibility some mention: Michigan is recalled more for its turmoil at the end of the season and its NCAA title.
On the eve of the NCAA tournament, Frieder announced he was accepting the coaching job at Arizona State after the season. Athletic director Bo Schembechler was furious. Proclaiming that Michigan would be coached by a Michigan man, he dumped Frieder on the spot and promoted assistant coach Steve Fisher to the head job. The Wolverines ran off six straight wins, finished 30-7, and captured the NCAA crown.
"That kind of erased it," Mills said of the stigma of losing to UAA.
Higgins agreed, though, that the Chaminade-Virginia upset and the Alaska Anchorage-Michigan upset were comparable.
"It just didn't get that type of publicity," Higgins said.
Some 25 years later, as the Wolverines were poised to gather for a celebratory reunion of their NCAA title triumph in Ann Arbor at the end of February, the astounding Alaska Anchorage victory was being celebrated among not only former Seawolf players and coaches, but among all Alaskans.
In December, the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame selection panel voted to enshrine the UAA-Michigan game in the hall, recognizing it as a one-time special event.
Michigan's players earned the big prize that year and collected championship rings. Alaska's players received a different souvenir -- a video copy of the Michigan game.
"My grandpa watched it all the time," Fisher said. "When he passed away I got it back. Every time I see Michigan playing, I think of that game. I never understood why it didn't get more attention. I saw a list of the top 10 upsets and we weren't even on it. Are you kidding me?"
In-between his golf matches, Abegglen, the architect of the upset, who later coached at Division I Weber State, sometimes relives the magnificent victory.
"I get out the film once in a while to make sure we beat 'em," Abegglen said. "It was a great win. It was a great win for the school."
Alaska Anchorage comes out ahead every time.
2014 Alaska Sports Hall of Fame
The 2014 class of the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame will be inducted at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Anchorage Museum, located at 626 C Street. Entering the hall are:
• Mario Chalmers, NBA and NCAA basketball champion
• Jeannie Hebert-Truax, Alaska basketball player and coach
• UAA men's basketball team's upset of Michigan in 1988 (Moment)
• Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race (Event)
• Joe Floyd Award: Dick Mize, Alaskan ski pioneer
• Trajan Langdon Award: Marko Cheseto, amputee and former UAA runner
• Spirit of Alaska Awards: Kikkan Randall, Olympic cross-country skier (female); Trevor Dunbar, first Alaskan to run a sub-4-minute mile; and Eric Strabel, new Mount Marathon record holder. (male)
Lew Freedman, a long-time college basketball reporter and former Anchorage Daily News sports editor is based in Indiana.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing