Before Sarah Palin thought to enter politics, or ever dreamed of playing point guard, the Great Alaska Shootout put our state on the map.
For years, it was the only national pre-season tournament and attracted household names such as Duke, the University of Connecticut and University of North Carolina. Party politics played no part in these games, but come November they did more for state unity and identity than any political action committee could. This is the power that comes with a net, a ball, and two points.
Since the Shootout’s tip-off in 1978 by UAA Coach Bob Rachal, the Shootout has become one of the most revered Alaskan Thanksgiving traditions. While it’s lost some of its national prestige to other headlining pre-season tournaments, the Shootout hasn’t lost a point of its binding magic in Alaska.
For my two out-of-state roommates, the importance of this event has to appear strange–perhaps even stranger than Palin. It must be hard for them to consider people who otherwise would never look at a hoops game renting hotel rooms for the weekend to watch every single Shootout game. It has to be hard to imagine families such as mine, after skiing first light in Hatcher Pass, piling into the family’s Ford F-250 to give final thanks in the Sullivan Arena. It has to even be hard for the rest of my family to grasp; while my uncles in Iowa watch the Hawkeyes slam pigskin down the end zone on Thanksgiving, my family in Alaska watches basketball in a yellow chair on the half-court line.
So, I admit, it must be odd for the Outside to watch us unite from all corners of our vast state to take part in our cultural Thanksgiving tradition. Even villagers from Alaska’s remote communities make the trek to Gambell Street to eat hot dogs and watch left-handed lay-ups.
The Shootout opened us up to a sports world that was so different than our summer’s midnight baseball games or our winter’s Iditarod. Before the Internet, globalization, and the iPhone, the Shootout connected us to a bigger world.
For years, ESPN broadcast live coverage of the nation’s first pre-season NCAA tournament and provided the rest of the nation with a little peak of Anchorage. We hosted “real” sportscasters with famous names and read about our favorite and equally famous teams on the front page. The best part was that we were there. We had seen them! After the Shootout, who wouldn’t want to try out for their school’s team?
This tournament exposed us, inspired us and brought us a little bit closer to the elusive world of national sports entertainment.
To us, this game is so much more than just two points.