Shelter - and hoops - on a stormy night
The Aleut villages of Ivanof Bay and Perryville are only 15 miles apart as the raven flies, but nothing was flying on this late-winter evening. Neither ravens nor gulls and certainly not commuter pilots were risking air travel in the 50-miles-per-hour gusts and torrential rains that had roared in from the North Pacific Ocean to batter Alaska's remote southwest coast.
Stormy, unflyable weather is the winter norm on the lower Alaska Peninsula, some 500 miles from my Anchorage home. The plane that brought me to Perryville for a scheduled one-night visit was the first flight to reach here in nearly a week. So it was no surprise that tonight's flight to Ivanof Bay had been canceled. The only uncertainty: How long would planes be grounded?
The storm complicated my travel and work plans, but in another respect, it was a blessing. It was a Monday night, and I was told the school's gym was open for basketball. Contrary to popular myths, basketball - not dogsled mushing - is the true winter sport throughout most of rural Alaska (it's simply called "the Bush" by many residents). Nearly every community has outdoor basketball courts, and most have a gymnasium as well. If the gym is open, you can bet there's a crowd inside no matter what the weather.
Basketball has been a passion of mine since I was introduced to its fundamentals as a fourth-grader in Connecticut. Short, slow, and without any exceptional ball-handling or shooting skills (but lots of hustle), I nonetheless played organized ball in a progression of church, college intramural, and adult city leagues for three decades. Even more to my liking were the hundreds, maybe even thousands, of pick-up games that I've joined. My participation has fallen off in recent years, but I still love the game deeply.
Upon learning that there was a chance to "play hoops" that night, I felt the rush of anticipation. At 8 p.m., buffeted by gale-force winds and drenched by pounding rain, I walked several hundred yards from my temporary lodging to the gym. Several four-wheel-drive off-road vehicles - the preferred choice of winter transportation in Perryville, where comparatively mild temperatures ensure that snow never stays on the ground long - were already parked outside.
Inside, down a hallway, the gym was filled with echoes of bouncing balls, shouts, laughter, and rock-'n'-roll being played on a boom box. Nearly 20 people were shooting baskets. Most were young, native Alaskan, and male.
I hadn't brought sneakers on this trip, but an old, beat-up pair was in the equipment room. Not a perfect fit, but they'd do. I was older than most of the players, many of whom couldn't even vote yet. No matter; They welcomed me, and I blended in nicely, for we shared a common passion.
After 15 minutes of unstructured shooting, a line formed. We would shoot for teams.
I made my shot and joined Richard, Sarah, John, and Steven. We played for more than an hour, with no breaks: five-on-five, full-court, run-and-gun, playground-style basketball.
Fortunately, plenty of others were eagerly awaiting their turns. When one player tired, another came in. Free substitution was the rule. The game rolled on. The contest was played in spurts, as our intensity and energy waxed and waned.
Defense, played in a zone by both teams, was minimal. My team had a size advantage and thus the better inside game, but our opponents had several hotshots who could score from long range: "bombs away!" from three-point land.
Running, jumping, shooting, passing, rebounding. The competition felt good. So did the sweat and laughter. My feet didn't feel so great, though. I chose to ignore them; it's only for one night. Besides, I was having too much fun to sit down.
A woman sat in the stands and kept score. Not that it mattered much. The playing, not the tally, was what was important. There was an emphasis on teamwork and an unspoken honor system that demanded players call fouls on themselves when they broke the rules. But few fouls were called, simply because the game was so cleanly played.
As the score soared above 100, we began to tire, and the game gradually degenerated. Predictably, defense was the first aspect to fall apart. On both sides. It almost always happens this way in freewheeling playground-style pickup ball.
Finally, play stopped. That was all for tonight. Before leaving, I exchanged some handshakes and small talk. I learned that Perryville, population of about 100, had no high school basketball team. There was lots of interest, but simply not enough student athletes.
At least the village had a gym, and basketball three or four nights a week. I headed back into the raging night, my body sweating and my thoughts still on the game. In the background, someone continued to bounce a ball as the boom-box blared, "It's all too beautiful...."