Basketball is king in rural Alaska, and nowhere is that more evident than Juneau’s annual Gold Medal tournament now in its 65th year.
Organized by the Juneau Lions Club, the annual Spring Break competition brings together teams from all over Southeast – from Metlakatla in the south to Haines in the north. Over the years intense rivalries have formed between villages, as well as larger communities like Juneau and Sitka. But behind the rivalries, the players have genuine respect for each other.
Casey Kelly reports.
Ask a Gold Medal old timer who some of the best players in tournament history are, and you’re likely to get a rapid fire response.
“Guys like Scudero and Stigen, my brother Mike,” says Jim Jensen from Yakutat, who’s playing in his 41st Gold Medal tournament.
In case you missed it, the guys he mentioned were Jerry Scudero from Metlakatla, Greg Stigen from Haines, and Mike Jensen from Yakutat. All three have been inducted into the Gold Medal Hall of Fame. And for tournament fans, they might as well be Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
“The only time we get to see a lot of these guys is here at Gold Medal,” says Jensen. “It’s just a great tournament. Myself, I think it’s the best in Alaska.”
Years ago, State Senator Albert Kookesh from Angoon was quoted as saying “Muslims go to Mecca, Tlingits to Gold Medal.” A 1993 inductee into the Gold Medal Hall of Fame, Kookesh played in the tournament for 29 years. Bad knees forced him to give up basketball a few years ago – a result, he jokes, of too much dunking the ball when he was a kid. But he still tries to go as many Gold Medal games as he can.
“People yelling, ‘Hoonah, Hoonah, Hoonah,’ or you know ‘Angoon’ or ‘Kake.’ I mean there’s just enthusiasm,” says Kookesh. “I’ve gone to a lot of tournaments in my life, but you don’t see the enthusiasm in the hall where you’re almost rocking the gymnasium off of its foundation when people get excited.”
Kookesh says his favorite tournament was 1983, when Angoon beat Klukwan to win its first championship. At the time he says it was unusual for two village teams to make it to the championship game, which was usually dominated by larger communities like Juneau and Sitka.
“We just had a group of young guys from our village and everything just clicked,” says Kookesh. “And we shot good and we played good defense and everything just worked.”
He says what he enjoyed most about playing in the tournament – and misses most now – is the competition.
“The rivalry is intense,” he says. “You don’t want to get beat by Yakutat if you’re from Angoon, and you don’t want to get beat by Hoonah if you’re from Kake.”
Of course, all good sports rivalries need crazy fans.
“I’m just rooting with the crowd right now,” shouts Tracey Turnbull of Juneau. “Go Yakutat!”
Turnbull has been to more than a dozen Gold Medal Tournaments, and says it has the best sports atmosphere in Alaska.
“It brings people from all over Southeast Alaska and families from different communities and friends, you know people play basketball together high school, and they just continue to play with each other and against each other,” she says.
Championship games for this year’s tournament will be played over the weekend, and Yakutat’s Jim Jensen says it may very well be his last Gold Medal. He’s not getting any younger, and after 41 years it’s harder to get up and down the court. Then again…
“I threatened to quit last year, because it’s just too hard on my body,” Jensen says. “But they start practicing and I show up, you know?”
Twenty-one teams in three different brackets are playing in this year’s Gold Medal Tournament.
Proceeds from ticket and merchandise sales go to the Juneau Lions Club’s scholarship program, as well as local charities. Each team also gets a little travel money.
Championship games for this year’s Gold Medal Tournament start at 4 p.m. Saturday. First up is the “M” or Master’s bracket game, followed at 6 p.m. by the “C” bracket game, and the “B” bracket championship at 8 p.m. All games are played in the Juneau Douglas High School gym.