Sports

Road Whalers: Barrow boys rack up games, mileage on epic road trip

There are not a lot of ways out of Barrow, but basketball is one of the best.

Depending on the season, the city of 4,400 people on the Arctic Ocean is typically only accessible by airplane or snowmachine. For restless teenagers, Barrow's long, dark winter (the sun doesn't rise for two months between November and January) and scant entertainment options can be a bit of a drag. So for the Barrow High boys basketball team, the physical toll of playing back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back games is worth it when the payoff is trips to the mall and dinners out in Alaska's largest city.

"We have nothing there," Barrow freshman Kamaka Hepa said. "No mall, no movie theater."

Like many 14-year-olds, Hepa's assessment of his hometown's entertainment options -- or lack thereof -- might be on the harsh side. According to the city's website, Barrow is home to eight restaurants, a recreation center and three convenience stores. That isn't nothing, but it's certainly a far cry from the kind of action offered in Anchorage, where on Saturday the Whalers wrapped up an epic road trip that included games on six straight days.

After playing in the opening game of the ACS Lime Solar/Pepsi tournament at Anchorage Christian on Thursday, Hepa and some of his teammates indulged in a rare treat for kids from the North Slope: they went to the movies. Hepa said he saw "Unbroken," the biopic about World War II hero and Olympian Louis Zamperini. The 6-foot-7 star gave the movie two big thumbs up.

Barrow played the opening game of the ACS tournament less than 17 hours after losing to Service 60-55 in the championship game of the three-day Doc Larson Roundball Classic in Wasilla. Combined with their victory in the East T-bird Classic tournament in late December, the Whalers played nine games over 17 days and twice made the roughly 1,500-mile round trip between the North Slope and Southcentral Alaska.

That's more wear and tear than you'll find in the NBA. During the Whalers' six-straight span, the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs played a paltry three games. And Tim Duncan and company only had to fly to Memphis -- which is about 100 miles closer to San Antonio than Anchorage is to Barrow.

All that travel might seem unusual, but for the Whalers it's nothing special. Yes, the recent frenetic game schedule was uncommon, but Hepa said long road trips are a way of life for Barrow, whose closest Class 3A opponent is more than 300 miles away in Kotzebue.

"There's no one we can just drive to and play," he said.

All that travel doesn't come cheap. Head coach Jeremy Arnhart said the school district foots most of the bill for Barrow's travel costs, which for the boys' six days in Anchorage and Wasilla came to roughly $10,000.

Corporations also chip in. For example, Arnhart said, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation paid for the team to have lunch on Thursday. And although the school only pays for airline tickets for 10 players and two coaches per team, Arnhart said he's usually able to drum up airfare for a couple more players to travel with the squad.

"We kinda hit every angle we can," he said.

Such expenses might raise eyebrows elsewhere, but Arnhart said the basketball-crazed residents of Barrow make hoops a priority.

"Some places down south are crazy for high school football," said Arnhart, who is from Arkansas. "Basketball is the thing in Barrow."

He said the team's hectic itinerary can take its toll mentally. He's not likely to schedule anything similar next season.

"It becomes a grind, six games in a row," Arnhart said. "But they're young."

Barrow has an exceptionally strong team this season. Hepa is regarded as one of the nation's top freshmen, which Arnhart said factored into his decision to schedule so many early season contests.The Whalers won the T-bird Classic at East High before Christmas, finished second to Class 4A defending state champion Service in Wasilla and lost to the host Lions 70-67 in the championship game of the ACS tournament.

"We want to play the best," Arnhart said.

Arnhart said it's good for his players to both play a lot of basketball and experience life away from the North Slope. He thinks the trips give athletes a chance to bond and learn how to carry themselves properly while away from home.

"We try to teach good character and conduct ourselves with class," he said. "I think we do that."

Players enjoy the trips for a number of reasons. Aside from getting to enjoy Anchorage's relatively sunny climate, they said they also enjoy spending time with their friends, bonding together over late nights playing video games and sleeping four to a hotel room.

"I think we have more of a team because of it," senior forward Tony Dunbar said.

And despite playing so many games lately, the Whalers have found time to have fun outside the gym. One highlight was a trip to a rock gym in Wasilla, where the players got to try a sport where size isn't always an advantage.

"Our two smallest guys were the best," Dunbar said.

Players spent the rest of their down time on the road playing Playstation games (NBA2K and Call of Duty are favorites) or shopping at the Dimond Center mall.

"We do have a lot of fun," Hepa said.

Dunbar, who traveled to Las Vegas to visit family instead of returning to Barrow during the Whalers' brief Christmas break, said he was getting a tad homesick by the end of the trip. After being away from Barrow for three weeks, he didn't hesitate when asked what he's looking forward to most when he gets home:

"I miss my bed."

Contact Matt Tunseth at 257-4335 or mtunseth@alaskadispatch.com

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