In rural Alaska, a passion for high school basketball

The Fort Yukon Eagles display a strength and character that teach a whole town to be proud.

If you think you've been cold this winter, just imagine putting a frozen basketball inside your shirt to warm it up. That's what the boys of Fort Yukon, Alaska, do before practice, to bring some bounce back to the "rocks" in a place where temperatures can drop more than 60 degrees below zero.

That's not going to stop the Eagles from working up a sweat on the court as coach Dave Bridges puts them through their paces - hoping speed and endurance will make up for what they lack in height.

Like most sports sagas, the heart of the true story told in Blue Eagle is the dynamic between the players and their coach. The stage is a Gwich'in town in Alaska that has spun around basketball for several generations. But the backdrop - a glimpse into the unique cultures at the top of the world - is what sets this story apart. Even for non-sports-page readers, who won't get it when a player "completely bricks the putback," the human drama both on and off the court will resonate.

With only 32 students in the Fort Yukon school, the team goes into some matches as underdogs. But as the story follows them through a season, leading up to the state championship, it's clear their coach has a way of bringing out their talents in key moments. Although he's originally from New England, Bridges has spent nearly 30 years among native peoples in Alaska, and he strives to inculcate in his teams the culture of interdependence that he's come to admire there.

That togetherness shows at home games when the village packs the school gym to cheer the girls' and boys' teams on. But Coach Bridges also loves to take his boys on the road, where they can escape the pressures of their home lives. It's almost as if he wants to protect them as some aspects of their Gwich'in culture fray under the weight of alcoholism, violence, and dependence on government checks from Alaska's oil revenue.

The players' focus seesaws, but when they're on, they can even astound their seen-it-all coach. During one key tournament, Josh, a first-year player, makes a jaw-dropping move, but it's not the score that really matters to Bridges. It's that "there's no quit in Josh, no quit in any of these kids," Michael D'Orso writes. "This is something no one can teach ... they'll learn things out there on that floor - about each other, about themselves - that will serve them for the rest of their lives."

Bridges may not teach that, but he does guide them, whether through a stern talk about academic eligibility or courtside humor: "Turnovers! Come on! It's Betty Crocker time. Lots of turnovers!"

Some scenarios are quintessential adolescence: the boys missing games because they let their grades slip or their tempers flare, the flirtations with girls at away games.

On the road, the players never complain, even though they're on such a tight budget they often sleep on the floors of classrooms or church basements. They just go with the flow as they encounter new scenery and cultures, as they do in Nikolaevsk, a town built by Russians escaping religious persecution, where the women and girls still wear floor-length dresses and head scarves.

D'Orso's first taste of his rich subject matter came more than a decade ago, when he reported on a high-school basketball team from Norfolk, Va., as they traveled to a tournament in Anchorage. Intrigued, he returned the next year to write a magazine profile of a star player in "the bush" - rural Alaska.

Now, with a number of other nonfiction books under his belt, he's finally followed through on a promise to himself to write about an entire basketball season in a native Alaskan village. To his credit, he acknowledges in his notes the gift of trust the team and the villagers extended by letting him into their world.

D'Orso's writing has its share of three-pointers, countered occasionally by segments that merely plod along. It is heartening that he seems never to shy away from an honest portrayal of the struggles he observed. Rather, he presents them in their fullness, without inserting himself into the story.

Stacy Teicher is a Monitor staff writer.

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