The Tourney That Wouldn't End. Three days turned into three weeks for basketball teams stranded by the cold. ALASKA: WEATHER
DAY 16: Tournament director John Bania hung up the phone and sighed. ``Forty-nine below here. Sixty in Noatak. Sixty-five in Shungnak. Ambler? You don't want to know.'' His weather report meant one thing to the waiting coaches: No one was going anywhere. Again. The extraordinarily cold weather that gripped Alaska for most of last month slipped south last week. Near-normal temperatures (0 to 20 degrees F.) were expected soon. But the frigid cold left indelible memories for the 130 basketball players and 40 chaperons who were caught in Kotzebue, a community of 3,600 in Alaska's northwest corner.Skip to next paragraph
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Here, where 20 below zero means business as usual, life froze to a virtual standstill. Temperatures ranging from minus 35 degrees F. to minus 70 settled in.
The cutoff for student air travel is 30 below, and planes are the only option; there are no roads. Everything in the northwest arctic - mail, freight, people - moves by small aircraft. And, at those temperatures, where steel turns brittle, oil becomes paste, and gasoline refuses to vaporize, flying is risky business.
The teams had gathered in Kotzebue Jan. 12 for the regional tournament, an annual event that attracts high school teams and spectators from nine Eskimo villages scattered across a wilderness the size of Indiana. The population of most villages is well under 500, and some teams have only five or six players. Still, they traveled as far as 150 miles by chartered plane; up here, basketball is the king of sports.
The three-day competition was fierce; many of the tournament's 20-odd games were decided in the final seconds. In the championship round, before 1,000 screaming fans, the Noorvik Bears (girls) bested the Ambler Grizzlies by a point, and the Selawik Wolves (boys) upset the Noorvik Bears by one to take the title.
The winners went off to the state championships in Anchorage (cold-weather jet flight is considered safe), but everyone else sat in Kotzebue, waiting on the weather, as Eskimos have done for centuries.
The 130 basketball refugees presented the Northwest Arctic Borough School District and the town of Kotzebue with a host of logistical problems: food, shelter, education, and entertainment.
The modern but already crowded Kotzebue School was the only choice for housing. Every night the classrooms doubled as dormitories; each morning the teams rolled up their sleeping bags and moved out, piling their gear in the halls.
Everyone had the routine down pat - desks straightened, floors vacuumed by the time the teachers arrived. ``The kids have been real troopers,'' said Kotzebue principal Pam Van Wechel.
The only complaint was chilly rooms. The heating system wasn't designed to keep up with a steady 40 below. The cold seeped in everywhere; frost coated doors and windows, the floors were like ice.
Meals were the largest problem. Food in bush Alaska may run 50 or 100 percent above prices in the Lower 48, and labor costs for the cooks, working seven days a week, were equally steep - $2,000 a day at least, according to Bania. The school district was already strapped by falling oil revenues.