Columns 2015

In Bush Alaska, basketball rules all

Congratulations are in order for the boys and girls Barrow Whaler basketball teams. They both did extremely well in their respective tournaments. For anyone who has lived in Alaska for longer than ten minutes without figuring this out, let me make it perfectly clear to you that basketball is to Bush Alaska what football is to all of Texas. It is king.

For the kids lucky enough to have the talent to play, basketball can be a way out of town for some mall roving and movie going. It is also a strong impetus to stay in high school. The cheers and adulation that follow many high school players can make you feel pretty good about yourself. For many kids from small villages, basketball provides an escape from a sometimes not great home environment. It provides an escape from the boredom that can sometimes sit heavily in a village during the long winter months. It provides a way to exercise, stay healthy, learn to function as a team with others and feel good about yourself.

Here comes the bad news. Only so many kids in any community can be on the team. Only so many kids in any community have the physical skills to play at that level. Only so many kids in any community want to actually be on that team. There are some with other skills, other areas of interest. Believe it or not, there are some kids in high school in small villages with a real interest in the academics that are supposedly at the center of the secondary school experience.

By just saying that, I can already feel myself getting in trouble with a lot of people I truly admire and respect. It happens every time I write about basketball in a way that suggests that maybe the emphasis placed on it is detrimental in some small way to the success of students with an academic bent. While the basketball team gets a $10,000 budget for just one away trip, with parents left behind in the villages glued to whatever means of communications can keep them up with the game score, the debate team and the science competition tend to happen in a much quieter atmosphere. Other school activities always seem to come second. I sometime wonder if the passion expended by some villages on the success or failure of their school basketball team might not be a reflection of an adult need for bragging rights.

This whole experience would be a lot more wonderful if that success had more impact on the players’ futures than it seems to have, with a few obvious and notable exceptions. What I always hear ringing in my ears when people rave about basketball is a statement once made after a former high school basketball star killed himself in a drunken vehicular accident. On hearing the news, a friend quietly said, “He didn’t have much to live for. After high school, it was all down hill. No one was cheering him anymore. He’d already peaked.”

Sports in school are a vital and fun way to learn a lot of important lessons. Learning how to both win and lose gracefully and learning how to be part of a team are the kind of experiences that will last these student athletes throughout their life. And for many, staying on the team is what keeps them in school. If only we could translate that into these students continuing their education. But far too many star players simply fall off the radar after their high school playing career ends. They may graduate, but once they’ve taken that walk down the aisle, they walk into an empty future. Crowds no longer cheer them. No one slaps them on the back at the store and tells them what a great game they had. You can understand how they feel as though they’ve peaked and there is no place to go but down.

Wouldn’t it be great if, after the season, each and every player was shadowed by a counselor who made sure that the player had an idea of what he or she wanted after high school and basketball ended? And as a former (current?) nerd, let me add my dream for a future in which the debate team has a roaring crowd cheering them on to victory with full newspaper, radio and TV coverage. Now wouldn’t that also just be wonderful?