It’s March Madness Alaska-style this week, as teams from around Southeast gather in Juneau for the 66th annual Gold Medal Basketball Tournament.
The event, organized by the Juneau Lions Club, has achieved legendary status in many of the small village communities that dot the panhandle.
KTOO’s Casey Kelly caught up with players and fans from Angoon as they made their way to the tournament on Saturday.
For many teams a trip to Gold Medal starts here, aboard the state ferry LeConte or one of the other boats that make up the Alaska Marine Highway’s Southeast fleet.
“The blue canoe? It’s very important that we have the blue canoe,” says 36-year-old William Jay Booth III, who plays on Angoon’s C team – for players between the ages of 32 and 42. He grew up in Metlakatla, in what he calls a “ball family.”
“My whole family, all my brothers, are all ball players,” Booth says. “High school ball, a couple of them went to college for a little while. But eventually they moved home and did some fishing. They do still participate in a lot of tournaments, and the biggest one for them is Gold Medal.”
Booth says Angoon’s C team has been practicing since last year’s tournament, putting in extra work since January. The team is extra motivated this year, after playing just three games before getting knocked out of the 2011 Gold Medal. In a tournament where positions aren’t exactly defined for most players, Booth is looking to contribute with defense and hustle.
“I like the defense. I like to rebound. I like to get inside and bump elbows. That’s where I like to be at,” he says.
Angoon’s B squad – for players under age of 32 – is coming off two consecutive Gold Medal championships in their bracket. Twenty-one-year-old John Croasmun says the B team just hopes to avoid a letdown.
“Yeah, I mean, I don’t want to lose, I want to win,” he says.
Croasmun says the Gold Medal tournament is all about bragging rights in Southeast Alaska.
“Growing up in Angoon, we played against Hoonah, Kake, Yakutat and all those villages,” he says. “You know, they all come together, and I know a lot of the guys and I’m pretty cool with most of them. You just get to see them again and say ‘Hi,’ and play against them. It’s like reliving high school.”
For Booth, it goes beyond bragging rights when he plays against his brothers on Metlakatla’s team. He says they always try to recruit him to play for their squad, but he switched allegiances when he moved to Angoon six years ago.
“I got to represent my community that I live in,” Booth says. “And I want my kids to see me running around with the Angoon jersey. But they know Metlakatla’s right there.”
Booth’s wife, Reanna Kookesh-Booth, is the daughter of State Senator Albert Kookesh – a Gold Medal Hall of Famer. She says the annual pilgrimage to the tournament sparks a lot of memories.
“It’s been a big part of my family’s life for as long as I can remember,” Kookesh-Booth says. “My dad played for many, many years, and as a child and growing up all through high school, every year we always went to Gold Medal.”
Kookesh-Booth says the atmosphere is the same no matter which teams are playing.
“There’s a lot of village chanting, you know, you hear a lot of ‘Hoonah!’ And a lot of ‘Angoon!’ Or ‘Haines!’ Everyone’s pretty much rooting for their village.”
The tournament lasts through Saturday at the Juneau Douglas High School gymnasium. Besides the B and C brackets, there’s also a Master’s Bracket for older players. This year’s Gold Medal is dedicated to the Reverend Dr. Walter Soboleff, who never missed a tournament before passing away last year at the age of 102.