Back in September, Metlakatla got a sneak peek of itself. A documentary about the high school boys basketball team’s 2017-18 season played pretty much nonstop one weekend in the small Southeast Alaska town, and pretty much everyone got a chance to see it.
“Alaskan Nets” was shown 12 times on a 20-foot screen set up in the community’s longhouse. Among the first to see it was basketball coach T.J. Scott, who worried parents might take offense when they saw him yelling at their kids when things got intense.
But blowback didn’t come until earlier this month, when the movie made its world premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, where it won the audience choice award. A thousand virtual tickets were sold, and Scott’s grandmother in Washington was among those lucky enough to snap up a ticket — they sold out in less than a minute.
After she watched it, she called Scott with a critique.
“You need to watch your mouth, young man,” she told him.
Scott’s defense: “It’s real life.”
“Alaskan Nets” is a story about life and death in small-town Alaska, and the title is an homage to Metlakatla’s twin passions of fishing and high school basketball.
It follows the Chiefs as they chase their first state basketball championship in 34 years, a pursuit that sometimes becomes a heavy burden — for the team, and for the filmmakers.
There’s always pressure for a talented team to win a championship, and in Alaska’s small towns and villages, where high school basketball is the biggest and often the only show in town, the pressure is amplified.
In the 2017-18 season, the Chiefs had more than the usual pressure. Without giving away too much, the town of about 1,500 on Annette Island lost a couple of residents that winter to commercial diving accidents, including a former player. Everyone knew him, some of the players were related to him, and in its grief the town sought solace through basketball.
“Everyone wanted a reason to feel good again,” Scott said. “We really wanted to bring it to them. Thank God things turned out our way.”
It’s no spoiler to say the Chiefs won the Class 2A state championship that season, beating Unalaska 49-45 in the title game at Anchorage’s Alaska Airlines Center.
Their triumph was the town’s triumph, and early reviews of “Alaskan Nets” compare the story to “Hoosiers,” the feature film based on the true story of an Indiana high school basketball team.
Of course, when director Jeff Harasimowicz and producer Ryan Welch of Oregon began their project, the basketball season hadn’t even started. They pinned their hopes and most of their money on a bunch of teenagers.
The Chiefs had made it to the state championship game the previous season, losing to Petersburg, and many of their players were back. When Harasimowicz first approached Scott and the school about the project, Scott told the director the team should be good and a return to the state tournament was a good bet.
Still, there are few guarantees in sports. That’s why the movie was self-funded.
“We took the leap of faith that something could and would happen, and everything happened,” Harasimowicz said.
“A story like this, we have our topic, but the road is completely bare,” he added. “You have no idea what’s going to happen. It’s a massive, massive leap of faith, and the reason no one wanted to finance it. What if they don’t make it to state? There were so many reasons to not get funded.”
The deeper he got into the project, the uncertainty of how the season would end weighed heavier and heavier. Then came unexpected tragedies.
“The goal was all along to win a state title,” Harasimowicz said. “Then people started dying, and the only way we’re coming out of this is if you guys win. It really poured gasoline on the fire we were already watching.”
As the region and state tournaments approached, he started feeling a bit desperate.
“If they didn’t make the state title game, I don’t know how to end this,” he recalled thinking.
Harasimowicz shared his burden with Scott, who took on the added pressure of wanting to fulfill the wishes of two filmmakers as well as the entire town.
“Jeff and Ryan, they lived with us for the second half of that year,” Scott said. “Becoming really good friends with them, you want them to have a product they can find success with. For me that pressure was that we have to at least make it to state.
“We made it to state and it was a huge relief.”
In their first-round state tournament game at the Alaska Airlines Center, the Chiefs coasted past Bristol Bay 59-34 to earn a spot in the semifinals against Unalakleet.
Later that night, Harasimowicz spoke to Scott at the team’s hotel.
“He said, ‘We need this one. If we get to the state championship game, we have a good movie. Either it will be an outstanding finish or a heartbreak, but still it’s a great story,’ " Scott said. “We won that semifinal game, and all the pressure’s off. Then he comes to me and says, ‘We need this last one.’ "
The Chiefs complied, following up their 61-51 semifinal win over Unalakleet with a 49-45 championship-game victory over Unalaska. Metlakatla and the filmmakers got the storybook ending they prayed for, and the next day when everyone returned home, all of Metlakatla welcomed them with a parade.
Three years after the Chiefs cut down the nets, another victory came: the audience choice award at the Santa Barbara film festival, which was attended by about two dozen players, coaches and family members from the 2017-18 team.
Scott, who just turned 40 and is in his ninth year as a teacher and coach in Metlakatla, has seen the movie four times, and each time he’s hit with a wave of emotion.
“It is a little weird,” he said of seeing himself on a big screen. “You watch and think back, ‘maybe I should have worn a different shirt,’ or ‘you’re looking pretty scruffy, or ‘maybe you should have lost 10 pounds before this started.’ I always go back to, ‘it’s real life, and that who I am.’ "
Harasimowicz, 36, said the first person to see the movie in Metlakatla’s longhouse was the father of the young man whose death becomes part of the story.
“We did a private showing for him to make sure he had a chance to experience it himself, and not in a crowded room,” he said. “He had a big smile on his face afterwards.
“That was something that was really important to us, that we brought honor to them on topics that are very painful. It’s easy to show the highlights, but when things are tough and people are dying, it’s tough.”
Harasimowicz said he’s gotten some criticism from people in Metlakatla who wished the movie showed nicer parts of town. But overall, he said, “They’re on board. They’re amped up.”
In the aftermath of filming and editing the movie, actor Chris Pratt came on board as an executive producer. Harasimowicz and Welch are still working on a distribution plan, and they’re holding out for a theatrical release before making it available on a streaming service.
Harasimowicz hopes for more festivals and doesn’t shy away from talk of more and bigger awards, or from talk about the movie’s potential as a Hollywood feature film. He believes people want stories of hope as they endure the second year of the pandemic, and in that regard “Alaskan Nets” delivers.
“There are thousands and thousands of documentaries that come out every year, and we literally picked the one year in 34 years to follow this team, and they (win) in the most miraculous way possible,” Harasimowicz said.
“It feels fated. If we can ride this all the way to the Oscars, that is great. If not, it is not a failure.”
That the entire project took nearly four years from conception to this month’s world premiere is not lost on him.
“When we started, my wife and I had no kids and I told her I’d be done before we had kids. Now we have two,” he said.
“... Our wives have been investing in this too. All of our money is invested in this, so essentially we gambled on high school boys basketball. Our wives are watching a championship state basketball game and just praying. We are never betting on high school boys basketball again.”
Which is not to say Harasimowicz is done with Metlakatla.
“I made a deal with my wife that I get to go back once a year for a fishing trip and hopefully for basketball too,” he said. “It will be my home away from home for a long time.”