Dusk descended upon the fishing village of Angoon in southeast Alaska at 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 21 as Demetrius Johnson set off on the longest odyssey of his life. Johnson, a 16-year-old Tlingit Indian, had never traveled more than 100 miles from his home before he embarked on the 11-hour ferry ride through the Alexander Archipelago to Juneau. After waiting there for two days, he flew the remaining 600 miles to Anchorage, clutching his precious ticket to the Great Alaska Shootout. A junior on the Angoon High basketball team, Demetrius says his wanderlust was sparked largely by his cousin Stanley, who five years earlier had procured the autograph of Trajan Langdon and mounted it on his bedroom wall. The scrap of paper became something close to a religious icon among the 638 people of Angoon. "Since Trajan's from Alaska, his success in basketball at Duke has made him a big hero for me and lots of other people from the state," Demetrius says. "I wanted to come to the Alaska Shootout because this may be the last chance I ever get to see him play in person."
Thousands of Alaskans like Demetrius flocked to Anchorage last week from all over the state, from Ageklekak to Yakutat and from North Nenana to South Naknek. They came to bask in the glow of Alaska's shooting star, the 6'3", 195-pound senior guard who left his hometown of Anchorage for Durham, N.C., four years ago and was making his long-awaited return to the Shootout as an All-America.
When Langdon was introduced at Sullivan Arena last Thursday night, one local swore that the ground shook more than it had since the great earthquake of 1964. A banner read WELCOME HOME ALASKAN ASSASSIN. One young female admirer walked behind the baseline waving wildly and calling Langdon's name, all the while sharing the moment with a girlfriend on a cellular phone. You'd have to go to Vegas to find more folks in pursuit of a 21.
In their tournament opener, against Notre Dame, the top-ranked Blue Devils rolled to a 111-82 victory behind Langdon's 20 points. Langdon is foremost a deadly shooter; he makes up for a lack of quickness by being a fundamentally sound position defender and a scorer with a knack for finding open spaces to launch his shot. Moments after he drained his fourth three-pointer of the opening half, Jerry Tarkanian, the coach of Fresno State, Duke's next opponent, turned to a friend and said, "I feel like a condemned man getting ready to go to the chair."
About the only guy in the arena who appeared unmoved by the excitement was Langdon. "When Trajan comes home it's like Beatlemania, but you'd never know it from watching him," says Louis Wilson, who coached Langdon's AAU teams. "His expression never changes, whether he's playing in front of 9,000 groupies at the Shootout or two strangers in a driveway in Hattiesburg, Mississippi."
A banner headline in the Nov. 19, 1990, edition of the Anchorage Daily News read LANGDON COMES OF AGE. The story asserted that Langdon would become the best basketball player ever from Alaska. At the time Langdon had played three high school games. He was 14 years old.
Of course, when your name is Trajan Shaka Langdon, expectations run high. On May 13, 1976, Trajan's father, Steve, an anthropology professor at Alaska-Anchorage, and his wife, Gladys, named the first of their two children after a Roman emperor who conquered Dacia in the second century and a Zulu chieftain who unified southern African tribes into one nation 1,700 years later. Despite his love of sports, Trajan swears that he never rued his family's decision to live in a giant meat locker dubbed Icebergia at the time of its purchase from Russia in 1867. Instead he steadfastly pulled on a parka, knit hat, mittens and boots to practice his jumper on the playground at Rogers Park Elementary during every recess, no matter how cold or snowy the weather was.
But as Trajan began his freshman season at East Anchorage High, he questioned his future in the sport because Alaska provided him few role models, only a smattering of local legends with mostly unfulfilled basketball goals. There was Tony Reed, a guard at Montana in the mid-1980s; Tony Turner, who tried out for the Detroit Pistons and played in the CBA from '80 to '82; and the most highly regarded, Muff Butler, who moved to Anchorage from the Bronx and scored more than 30 points a game at East High in the 1977-78 season. Butler played at Northern Idaho and then New Orleans, but when the NBA didn't come calling, he returned to Alaska. Throughout Trajan's high school years he regularly played one-on-one with the 6'1" Butler, who even in his mid-30s was one of the few people in the entire 587,875 square miles of Alaska who could keep up with the kid. Butler told Trajan stories of the Lower 48, urged him to maintain his grades and tried to erase his doubts by repeatedly insisting, "You stay healthy, and you're a lock for the NBA."
Trajan began to believe in his sophomore season during a Thanksgiving tournament in Anchorage, when he scored 32 points against Virginia's powerful Oak Hill Academy and future North Carolina guard Jeff McInnis. Recruiting guru Bob Gibbons attended that game and says, "I remember thinking, Wow, this kid's as good as any sophomore I've ever seen, and he's from Alaska."
A few months later Steve sent first a three-page letter and then a videotape of the Oak Hill game to Duke, shopping Trajan's wares in the hope that coach Mike Krzyzewski might be interested. Meanwhile, Trajan, who didn't know about the sales pitch to Duke, sold himself during summer camps in the continental U.S., where he endured silly questions like, "What country is Alaska in?" and "Do you have a pet penguin?"