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High School Sports

Flashback: Kodiak’s fans carry the Bears after they came to Anchorage and collected the big-schools title

  • Author: J.R. Rardon
  • Updated: April 26, 2019
  • Published April 26, 2019

(This story originally appeared in the Anchorage Daily News on March 26, 2001.)

Kodiak High senior Nick Billings was simply trying to celebrate the Bears’ state basketball championship win with his teammates Saturday when he was sucked into a whirling mass of blue-and gold-clad admirers.

And that’s when he levitated.

Billings, who at 6-foot-11 was already head and shoulders above the frenzied mob, slowly rose toward the distant ceiling, an index finger pointing skyward at the end of one long arm.

''This was destiny, man,'' Billings said after Kodiak beat two-time defending champion East 55-52 in a finale that rivaled the best high school games ever seen in Alaska. ''It’s the greatest way we could’ve ended a great season.''

The people of Kodiak agreed. As the final buzzer sounded, hundreds of fans who made the trip from the island community flowed as inexorably as a glacier from their seats behind the team bench and onto the floor.

One by one they lifted their heroes upon their shoulders -- first Billings, then 5-5 senior point guard Geoffrey Agmata, then senior guard Curtis Mortenson, whose back-to-back shots early in the final period of the game gave Kodiak the lead for good.

The public address announcer asked everyone to leave the floor so the awards ceremony could commence. The Kodiak crowd simply shuffled to one end of the court, where they continued to party by sharing hugs and spraying water on one another as dozens of still and video cameras documented it all.

''It’s a strong-knit community,'' said Amy Rakers, who moved to Kodiak in 1995. ''We’re the show in town. We don’t have football. We don’t have all the stuff they have here. We just have an incredible following.''

In fact, basketball may rank behind only commercial fishing in importance to Kodiak.

And it's a close second.

Four state champions were crowned Saturday, but while supporters of the Valdez girls, the Grace Christian School boys and the East girls whooped it up after those teams' victories, the Kodiak celebration was a cross between religious revival and Mardi Gras.

Back on the island, people unable to make the trip tuned in to the live broadcast on the Alaska Rural Television System. Laurie Davis, who works the pull-tab concession at Henry's Great Alaska Restaurant, said all 17 of the establishment's televisions were tuned to the game.

''We were packed, and I think probably every place in town was packed, '' Davis said. ''The service (suffered) just a little when the game got tense, but the moment it was over, this place erupted.

''It was like earthquakes going off in here.''

Kodiak had not won a boys state championship since Alaska was granted statehood in 1959. In fact, it had never reached the state final, though last year's team placed third at state, setting the stage for this year's run and whetting the appetites of its fans.

These were people who waited a long time to party, and they got the festivities started at the game's opening tipoff.

The cliche describing a team's fans as its ''sixth man'' is often overused. But in Kodiak's case those fans provided a tangible lift to the team -- well before they hoisted Billings and his teammates aloft.

''The crowd was like total adrenaline, '' said Mortensen, who scored 15 points to tie for game-high honors. ''I was never tired the whole time.''

So many people made the trip north that many of them had to stay over in Anchorage until Monday. Every available flight to Kodiak on Sunday was booked.

The presence of the Kodiak fans was not lost on East coach Geno Morgan.

''Every time we play, it's like we're the visitors, '' he said. ''That's not a knock on our team, it's a knock on the basketball fans of Anchorage who let a team come 800 miles and make more noise than they do in their own building.''

Kodiak's devotion to basketball is matched by small communities scattered throughout Alaska. In this case, though, that devotion comes from a city of more than 9,000 people -- even more when you include the neighboring U.S. Coast Guard base.

''Winning helps too, '' said Joe Floyd, a retired coach and teacher at Kodiak. ''I’ve seen people here who I’ve never seen in a gym before.''

The Bears won at an unprecedented rate this year, entering the tournament with a 25-0 record and the top ranking in a poll of the state's sportswriters.

Still, there was a feeling among the Kodiak faithful that their team lacked respect. Especially when they heard Morgan suggest the Bears hadn't really been tested by a quality team in a radio interview before the tournament.

''Just because you're not an Anchorage team doesn't mean you can't play ball, '' said Phil Nisbett, a 5-9 Kodiak junior.

Other than Billings, Kodiak gave up size at every position to the Thunderbirds, the Region IV champions. But after spotting East a 10-point lead midway through the third quarter, the Bears countered with a frenzied defensive effort to charge from behind in the final 12 minutes.

''East is so talented, '' Rakers said. ''They're so much bigger than us and so much stronger. But we're the best-conditioned team in the state. These guys play hard, and they play as a team.''

On Saturday night, they celebrated as a team. All six of them.