If the GCI Great Alaska Shootout ever turned up as a category on Jeopardy, the person that you would want to throw out the answers would be none other than Lee Piccard.
The long-time UAA administrator who retired in 1994, has never missed a game. Every men’s game, every women’s game, every non-UAA game, Piccard has been there, enjoying the atmosphere that he helped create when he took a job with the university back in 1976.
Hired as the Director of Student Services when UAA was Anchorage Community College, Piccard played key roles throughout the university. Piccard was inducted into the Seawolf Hall of Fame in 2001 for his work helping expand an athletic department that only housed three sports at the time of his arrival.
On top of successfully adding women’s basketball, which the university had originally told him there was no money for, Piccard also hired the late Bob Rachal to coach the men’s team. Rachal is recognized as the individual who started the Shootout, although he had taken another job prior to the opening of the tournament.
The women’s team didn’t start playing as part of the Shootout until 1998. Their own tournament, the Northern Lights Invitational, was held as a separate event. For Piccard, the 1990 tournament was a display and showed what sort of powerhouse program the UAA women’s team would eventually be recognized as.
“The final game, a young lady by the name of Greta Fadness took a shot from just beyond the foul line, and got fouled. [With the] scores tied, she went to the foul line; missed one made one, we won the ballgame,” Piccard said.
Rachal, according to Piccard, was attending the Final Four of the 1977 NCAA men’s basketball tournament when he came up with the idea. Rachal looked to exploit the NCAA exemption rule that allows teams to play three extra games on top of the allotted 28, as long as they take place in Hawaii, Puerto Rico or Alaska. Rachal was successful in getting contracts signed for the inaugural Shootout, but that was as far as he got.
“That was his last hurrah,” Piccard said. “He wasn’t here for the first game of the Shootout… The next person coming in found the contracts in his desk, signed. We didn’t know that we were going to put on a tournament until we found the contracts… They found them in the fall, I think it would have been the fall of ’77.”
The next few months were hectic, as Piccard and the university began to put the pieces together in order to host the tournament.
“We didn’t have a gym, we were playing our games in the high schools around town. The air base and Buckner were the [ones] that offered the only opportunities, basically,” Piccard said. “The military really did a good job for us.”
The Buckner Fieldhouse on Fort Richardson became the first home of the Shootout. Thanks to the base and the countless number of volunteers, the tournament was an instant success.
Having seen every game the Shootout has had to offer, Piccard can recall some of the most memorable games like they were yesterday. One of the games he dubs the most memorable took place in 1980 in the Buckner Fieldhouse. The UAA men’s team were taking on the University of Missouri in a game that came down to the last second.
“[Missouri] threw the ball in to this 7-foot-2[-inch] monster and he jammed it through and we lost by one point,” Piccard said.
Before Harry Larrabee became the head coach of the men’s team in 1981, he served as the assistant coach under Gary Bliss. Piccard remembers him by the moniker Dick Vitale bestowed on him during some of the tournament’s ESPN-aired games.
“Dancing Harry. He was up, jumping around all the time, he was hoarse half the time. I didn’t know what the hell he was doing. I didn’t know if he knew what he was doing,” Piccard said.
One “Dancing Harry” story Piccard recalls, was back when Larrabee was still an assistant for coach Bliss.
“He was walking into the [Buckner Fieldhouse] and he was carrying all the trophies that they give out for [all-tournament teams] and most valuable players and stuff,” Piccard said. “And he fell and dropped them. They were all broke and scrambled.”
Piccard took on the task, along with another university employee, of putting the awards back together.
The fondness Piccard looks back on the Shootout with is unquestionable. At 83, he thinks UAA should pay him back for his outstanding attendance record.
“I think the university should give me a golden pillow, or something, to sit on,” Piccard said.
The final GCI Great Alaska Shootout opens on Tuesday, Nov. 21 with the women’s tournament and it will conclude the Saturday after Thanksgiving with the final men’s championship game of the tournament’s 40-year run. No matter who plays in the first game, or who takes home that final trophy, Piccard will be there, adding to his already impressive collection of Shootout knowledge.