The Eskimo Boy was only five or six, but he was the mayor of mischief. In a gymnasium rocking to the chanting and foot-stomping of a whole Arctic community, he had twice stolen the crowd's attention. The high school principal had shooed him off the floor when the boy appeared ready to steal an inbounds pass. A later violation, for running a slalom through the cheerleaders, had drawn the youngster a firm hand on the shoulder and a lecture, from which he sprinted off to roughhouse with a diminutive colleague under the rollout bleachers.
Now he was by himself in a corner behind the stands. Frustrated by a lack of legs to run through, he put his hands on the fire bar of an exit door and gave a tentative shove. Nothing. He pushed again and the door swept open, crashing against an outside wall. The boy recoiled in a 60-mph wind that pinned the door open and sent icy air into the gym.
Even in frigid Kotzebue, a largely Inupiat Eskimo town of 3,705 in northwest Alaska, the residents resent a -60° draft. A tall visitor from the lower 48 hurried to the door, braced himself and leaned into the night. He grabbed the bar and pulled, his pants legs flapping. The wind, hammering at the door, wouldn't let up. The visitor plunged into the horizontal snowfall, reeling like Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush. He grabbed the outer edge of the door with both hands and hauled it closed, a fisherman pulling in a heavy net. The wind whistled exuberantly through the diminishing gap and then fell silent as the door snapped shut. A final swirl of snow dropped softly to the floor.
The visitor, brushing snow off his head and shoulders, imagined that all the occupants of the gymnasium were staring at him and grinning. If so, their attention quickly returned to the game, a spirited tussle between the Harpoonerettes of Tikigaq High and the Bears of Aqqaluk High. Roughly half of Kotzebue had braved the storm and paid $5 to get in, and judging from the din, the fans were getting their money's worth. An Aqqaluk girl took a charge and fell hard to the floor, drawing gasps from the crowd. She popped right up and exchanged high fives with her teammates, winning an ovation.
The little Eskimo boy had scampered under the stands to escape punishment. He was already old enough to accompany the men of his village on seal hunts. In two or three years he would shoot his first caribou. After that he would learn the fundamentals of dribbling, shooting, passing and defense in hopes of bringing a state title back to his home on the shores of the Bering Sea.
"Growing up, all you have here is basketball," said C.J. Wells, a recent Kotzebue High boys' star who was watching the game. "Summer nights, you'll see about 40 guys out behind the rec center, playing for hours—bugs and all."
High on the gym walls are hung large black-and-white portraits of Eskimo elders, men and women, their proud, lined faces framed in fur hoods. Wells's wardrobe, by way of contrast, was straight out of Foot Locker—white Nikes, red nylon sweats and a Chicago Bull cap.
"I don't remember a time," he said, "when basketball wasn't important."
Now, some people will object. If you're going to put a face on Alaska basketball, they'll say, it should be that of Trajan Langdon, the 17-year-old blue-chip guard who plays for East Anchorage High. Langdon is why journalists from the lower 48 have been checking into Anchorage hotels with the regularity of mineral-rights speculators and Sierra Club lobbyists. The 6'4" Langdon is why an assistant coach from the Midwest flew 4,000 miles to watch in silence as the Thunderbirds practiced, and why top coaches such as Bobby Knight, Mike Krzyzewski and Dean Smith have been spotted in library carrels poring over the November 1991 issue of National Geographic, which contains the article "Alaska Highway: Wilderness Escape Route."
But it's hard to imagine anyone less representative of Alaska basketball than Trajan Langdon. His father is a white anthropologist who went to Stanford, and his mother is a black graduate of Notre Dame College, in Belmont, Calif. Langdon takes calculus courses at the University of Alaska—Anchorage and plans to be an engineer. As a player, too, he is an Alaska anomaly—a tall, smooth guard with a style so silky and controlled that Anchorage Daily News sports columnist Lew Freedman once wrote, "Trajan Langdon deserves an audience dressed in tuxedos and long gowns." When he enrolls at Duke University in the fall, Langdon will be one of the first males from Alaska to play for a Top 20 college basketball program. (Some Alaska women are already impact players, most notably Arizona State's Molly Tuter, Loyola Marymount's Amber Magner, and Brit Jacobson, a point guard with All-America potential who has signed with Kansas State.)