There had to be something more I could have done. The Alaska Sports Hall of Fame voting ends tonight and the man I should have cast a vote for had just appeared in view.
I saw he and his wife get out of a taxi at Thunder Mountain High School last weekend. He was instantly recognizable. His chiseled Alaskan native/Norwegian face, the broad shoulders that kept larger opponents at bay, the large hands that could palm an old worn spherical leather ball, the oaken legs that spirited his body past defenses.
I knew him mostly as a referee from my high school days.
I remember a break-a-way lay in my senior year. I had tipped the ball to a teammate and had dashed away in a dead sprint, miles ahead of anyone else on the Mt. Edgecumbe court. I received the ball at half court, started a power dribble and then he came out of nowhere.
I, the youth, with a head full of steam, seemingly invincible.
He the aged referee, breathlessly passing me and awaiting what I would do at the end of the play.
A humbling experience for a young lad in 1978.
His face was a big grin with a whistle dangling at the corner of his lips. Clearly he enjoyed the hoops life.
Herb Didrickson, 85, was born in Sitka. His mother was a Tlingit woman, his father a Norwegian fisherman.
He attended Sheldon Jackson High School because that was where natives went. Two uncles went to the Wrangell Institute native school.
“Things weren’t good then but they were starting to change,” Didrickson said.
His teams at high school and college didn’t have a coach. The players learned a zone defense from games played against the Navy base in Sitka at the time. There were also 17 city league teams, Sitka High and an army squad. Trips to Wrangell, Petersburg and Juneau were in the mix.
“Tip ins,” Didrickson said. “That was what we did. They would alley-oop to me. Dunking wasn’t allowed then.”
At S.J. College he would work half a day and study half a day.
“When you go to Sheldon Jackson Bible is one of them,” Didrickson said of his classes. “We had to do a lot of the construction on campus too. But it all paid off. At the end of the school year we could get a job at the main saw mill.”
He first officiated games during his college years, reffing games for Sitka High School and S.J. Not a lot of schools came to Sitka then.
“They didn’t have officials here,” Didrickson said. “So everyone had to kind of fill in. I enjoyed going up to Fairbanks and watching them play.”
At that time there were the northern champs and the southeastern champs and they played the best of three.
Didrickson remembers Fairbanks winning the north with Dimond second and Eielson third. Fairbanks, however, used an illegal player from New York so they were disqualified from the championship. Dimond confessed to having an illegal player as well so the series was between Eielson and Juneau. Didrickson was sent up by the state to officiate the contests.
“It was 58 below up there, kind of cold for southeastern boys,” Didrickson said.
The winners and scores aren’t important. Just talking to Herb about the game was enough.
“You get to see something in the players,” Didrickson said about being a referee. “How they are developing and their talent. You keep an eye on them to make sure they are still good sports.”
His travels for playing games and officiating games took him from Ketchikan to Bethel, King Cove to Nome, Dillingham to Anchorage, along the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers, and at odd little stops along dog sled trails.
In college he traveled with his church group to Seattle. Local colleges challenged them to games and they played well. Well enough to have them invited back.
“Except we only had three varsity players with us,” Didrickson said. “The rest were just our church group.”
When the navy left the island he took over maintenance jobs and became a lead mentor in the newly built Mt. Edgecumbe High School.
He played city league for Sitka Alaska Native Brotherhood. In 1961 he was the first player selected to the Gold Medal Tournament Hall of Fame. He won a few championships in that tournament. They traveled by fishing boat, the preferred mode of transportation then.
“That was how we traveled, from the good old S.J. days to Gold Medal,” Herb laughed.
He remembers the north wind blowing down Chatham Strait and forcing them to dock at Tenakee. The spray from the water would freeze on the boat, making it flounder and roll. The next day they chipped ice off the vessel and started off again.
That was how they played their games then. Docking at a community, beating the local team, sleeping on the boat and doing it all over again.
After Herb and ANB won their first Gold Medal, the sponsors began to find money for them to stay in hotels.
“I wish we could redo it all over again,” Didrickson said. “Because I had so much fun. Now, coming home and having your grandkids playing ball, that is special. They are all interested in sports.”
From the cab his legs easily balanced his body across the ice towards the gymnasium. On his arm he carried, not his teammates anymore, but his wife Pollyanna.
They have been married 63 years and first met at Sheldon Jackson.
Pollyanna was born in Bethel, her mother an Eskimo and her father an Englishman.
“We were a bunch of half-breeds,” Didrickson laughed. “When seventh-grade came around she was sent down to Sheldon Jackson… and that was a good thing for me. She more or less became my cheerleader. For life.”
They were going to watch grandson Freddy Hamilton play in the Black Friday Classic basketball tournament. Herb started Freddy playing in the fifth-grade.
“I would come to visit in Craig and he would give me a days rest,” Didrickson said. “Then it was lets go shoot some hoops.”
They have many children and grandchildren, but not as many as friends made on the hardwood courts in every corner of the state. Those names are too many to recite and some can’t be found in telephone books any more.
One of his good friends, Gil Truitt, has been pushing to get him into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame. The deadline for voting this year ends tonight at midnight.
Herb would be a good choice. He influenced people he knew and those he did not.
John Abell, a player on Sitka’s 1954 state high school championship team went on to play at Oregon State and lost by a point to Bill Russell and K.C. Jones and the University of San Francisco in the western regional finals. Abel’s coach asked if there were anyone better than Jones, and Abell spoke right up about Didrickson.
Another Pac-8 player came to the Gold Medal tourney one year and when he left he was praising Didrickson as a player who could start at any college in the nation and go into the NBA.
“I had lunch with Carlos (Boozer),” Didrickson said. “Before he had picked his college. He could have dominated every high school game. The good coaching he got was a big help to him.”
Herb said that coaches now-a-days are too into their coaching, that they want you to play exactly the way they want you to play.
“When we were growing up we had to do things our own way,” Didrickson said of why he loved basketball. “It gave you a lot of leeway to try different things. A lot of coaches did not approve, but it always worked for me and the guys I played with. We were all on the same page.”
I held the door to the gym open for Herb and Pollyanna. I could have done more.
“Going to watch my grandson,” Herb said. “I have another grandchild I am keeping my eye on. He is four; he can dribble the ball pretty darn good for a little guy. We call him R.J. I like to see a lot of these little kids playing.”
Didrickson put his large hand on my shoulder.
“I remember officiating your high school games,” Herb said to me as they passed. “You were fast.”
But I wasn’t fast enough. Herb ran past me like he did so many defenders. He hustled into the gym to watch his grandson play hoops. I didn’t say enough or do enough.
I think I will vote today to put Herb Didrickson into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame.
To vote, visit alaskasportshall.org.