Gold Medal Tournament joins Alaska Sports Hall of Fame

The rebounds with elbows extended, the steals at half court, the last second buzzer beaters, the tiny village beating the city team, the young nephew screaming his village’s name at the top of his lungs during a quiet time out, the elders sitting at the baseline dreaming of their own time on the court, the grandson pointing to the heavens after making a shot, the grandfather leaning on his cane watching his children carry on what he had taught them about the game, the fry bread, the herring eggs, the smoked salmon, the gathering of a thousand moments in a single day. All these things were honored recently when the Gold Medal Tournament was inducted as the “event” of the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2012.

“What a huge honor for the Lions Clubs of Alaska and the communities of Southeast Alaska that have made this thing such a huge event,” current Juneau Lion’s Club president Steve Brandner said. “This is for all the communities in southeast Alaska, for 66 years now, that have come together and made this thing the event it is.”

The Juneau Lions Club Gold Medal Basketball Tournament is the longest running sporting event in the state. The hoops gathering is much older than the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race, which started in a short course run in 1967 and first went to Nome in 1973,

Players have competed at the Gold Medal since before statehood. They have “thrown” the ball through solid rims attached to walls since before 1940 but were organized into the first tournament in 1947. That was when Del Hanks, a Boy Scout executive who traveled throughout Southeast Alaska, organized, with the support of the JLC, and the many he talked to on his trips, a time for fellows to play the game they loved and talked about in a friendly competition setting.

“I am wondering if I have a sweatshirt that says what year that was,” Juneau Lions Club member Joyce Kitka laughed. “Today we said Dr. Soboleff is smiling because he was so passionate about the tournament.”

Soboleff, who passed this year, would sit on the end line in a big easy chair and smile the length of a game. Whole villages and small towns have been known to come to the gathering and, when not rooting or playing for the home team, spend time visiting, shopping and bragging.

“My biggest memory of the tournament was in 1951,” said southeast basketball historian Gil Truitt, who has pushed for the selection for over 10 years. “It was when Angoon ANB was given the sportsmanship award. Up until that time they were only giving individual awards to players. But Angoon was so outstanding they called the whole team out and gave them each individual trophies. It was one of the biggest ovations I have ever heard at the tournament.”

Truitt played at Gold Medal from 1948-52. The first two years were as part of the Mt. Edgecumbe High School team. In 1950 he was with Sitka ANB, he didn’t play in’51. In 1952 he played in the tourney with Sitka’s Columbia Lumber.

“It was the most fun I ever had in basketball,” Truitt said of that team. “A good team and great teammates.”

Truitt also referred the GMT from 1948 - 1951 and coached Sitka ANB in the early 60’s.

In the first Gold Medal Tournament teams included the Ketchikan All Stars (later changed their name to Rockets), Ketchikan Coast Guard, Petersburg Wasvick & Torwick, Petersburg Hack’s Hornets (a legendary team during the 30’s and right up to World War II), Juneau Moose, Juneau Coast Guard Waschusetts, Juneau Vets, Juneau Imperials, Juneau High School, Mike’s Douglas Nite Owls, Douglas High School, Wrangell American Legion, Sheldon Jackson Jr. College, and Sitka ANB. Metlakatla VFW accepted an invite but withdrew just prior to the start of play.

Sitka ANB and Metlakatla were the tough teams of southeast in 1949 and the Ketchikan Rockets were the top dogs in 1950.

“Those are some of my best memories,” Truitt said. “Watching those teams play.”

Mt. Edgecumbe, Juneau and Douglas were the only high school teams ever allowed in the tournament.

The Juneau high school team was one of the best teams in 1947, losing by one point in the semifinals to Ketchikan. Juneau’s Herb Mead, who later starred at the University of Idaho, missed a tough free throw at the end of the contest. Teammates included Frank ‘Denny’ Merritt, Harry Aase, Jack O’Conner and Jim Rude. The Ketchikan Rockets went on to the championship but lost to Petersburg.

“We should have won it all,” Merritt said. “We beat just about everybody. I enjoyed it and it was a lot of fun. That is all we played in those days was basketball. That gold medal year I was a senior. Herb was MVP and I was a first team selection.”

Juneau High School would finish second in the 1948 GM and Mt. Edgecumbe High School was third.

According to Truitt some of those earlier players from 1947 are: Juneau Vets - John Dapcevich, resides Juneau; Juneau Moose - Jim Vuille, resides Juneau;

Mike’s Douglas - Louie Bonnett, resides Douglas; Juneau HIgh School - Denny Merritt, resides Douglas; Jim Rude, where-about unknown; Ketchikan All Stars - Herman Ludwigsen, resides Wrangell; Wrangell American Legion - Richard Rinehart, resides Wrangell; Petersburg Wasvick & Torwick - Nels Otness, resides Petersburg; Petersburg Hack’s Hornets - Mr. Noreide (not sure if he is still alive); Sheldon Jackson Jr. College - Herb Didrickson, resides Sitka; John Borbridge, resides Juneau; Juneau Imperials - Jack Pasquan, resides Juneau; Jim Nielsen (uncle to George Houston) resides Juneau; and John Bavard, Jim Hickey and Jack McDaniel .

Other players included Gus Adams and Herb Didrickson of Sitka.

Truitt also has pushed heavily for Didrickson, his playing buddy from Mt. Edgecumbe, to be selected into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame.

“I was told this year and last year that he is a legitimate contender,” Truitt said. “He was discussed at great length. So we will try again next year. I think up north they are slowly beginning to recognize us down here.”

The Alaska Sports Hall of Fame held an induction ceremony in February at the Anchorage Museum atrium. The event was free and open to the public.

“In our opening ceremonies for the Gold Medal Tournament we will make a presentation to all the fans and players and everybody that makes the tournament go,” Brandner said. “This is not just the Juneau Lions Club, it is all the communities, the players, the players who have become fans, the family lineages, the hall of famers and their grandsons.”

Brandner moved to Juneau at age 13, snuck into a GM tournament, and was hooked. He would go on to play in three different brackets, be an MVP one year, a co-chair and now a president.

“And now, to be able to accept this on behalf of so many that have played and participated and watched is very humbling,” Brandner said.

JLC co-chair Ed Hotch noted the charity of the tournament.

“It is a tournament that we sponsor to help give to the people that need help,” Hotch said. “It is two fold. It brings in all the people of southeast so they can visit but then it raises money to give back in scholarships to a student from their village.”

The event also helps St. Vincent’s, Salvation Army, AWARE, and numerous other charities.

“I am so excited,” former JLC president Ted Burke said. “I bet Dr. Walter Soboleff is smiling down on all of us

The selection panel for the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame consists of Fairbanks Daily News-Miner sports editor Bob Eley, Anchorage Daily News columnist Beth Bragg, former ADN sports editor and now author Lew Freedman, longtime Alaska coach and athletic administrator Mike Janecek FDNM sports writer Steve Nerland, longtime Alaskan sports broadcaster Mike Sica, and former JDHS basketball coach George Houston. Internet voting by the public represented the ninth vote.

Also selected this year was renowned mountain runner and Olympic cross-country skier Bill Spencer and accomplished climber, including the highest mountain on each of the seven continents, Vern Tejas. In addition, the 2002 Top of the World Classic title won by the University of Alaska Fairbanks men’s basketball team was the “moment” selected to the hall.

The Gold Medal Tournament is run by volunteer help. This year will be the 66th annual tournament and is dedicated to Dr. Walter Soboleff. Some times as few as 10 people have worked the magic that brings so much satisfaction to the throngs attending. A common saying is that he who opens the doors in the morning turns out the lights at the end.

“It is an adventure,” Kitka said. “It’s a reflection not only of the Lions Club today but of the Bob Janes’ and Sasha Soboleff’s and those who have worked on many tournaments prior to this. It is exciting and good recognition for Juneau, and for southeast… for the people of Hoonah, and Kake and Angoon and all the villages that come in. This is what we have said for years… if those folks in Anchorage that make the decision would just come down and watch a couple games, they would understand what the tournament is all about. It is so much more than basketball. It’s the culture and the community and the pride of who they are.”

That pride started when the Kake Black Cats, the first village team to compete, stepped onto the court in 1948.

Their invitation was received late Sunday afternoon yet somehow managed to reach Juneau for the GMT opening game on Monday. Kake returned to the GMT in 1949 after winning a special play-off with Hoonah ANB and Angoon ANB, and they returned in 1950.

The 1949 Sitka ANB squad was the most colorful, idolized and fan favorite in GMT history according to Truitt and other old-time players.

The 1949 Metlakatla VFW was the most feared team. That team of Metlakatlans lost to the Harlem Globetrotters by a single point, in over-time, just prior to the start of the tourney and fans wanted to see the Sitka ANB and Metlakatla team hit the boards. Metlakatla defeated Sitka 76-62. Sitka worked its way back through losers bracket and made the championship game rematch with the VFW team. Behind early, Sitka came storming back to take a two-point half time lead and won going away 55-39.

According to Truitt the Sitka team put on a fan-pleasing display of fancy passing that kept all in attendance in an uproar.

That is just one of Truitt’s many favorite memories.

“The1950 Championship between Ketchikan Rockets and Sitka ANB,” Truitt said. “Ketchikan won an overtime 80-79 thriller. This was by far the best title game I have seen in the GMT. A game with the two most polished and powerful teams going at it: two very classy teams. And talk about good sportsmanship. Every member of the Sitka is in one or two halls of fame today as are most of those from Ketchikan.”

As a fan you will, or have, found your own:

The Kake Tlingit Heat’s run of C-bracket championships from 2006-11, and the possibility most of those players will win the Masters this tournament.

The 1951 Angoon ANB team being awarded the sportsmanship trophy; the 1949 Sitka ANB, the “Old Sitka ANB” or the “Tournament Darlings” as they were called for their fan appeal and outstanding sportsmanship.

There are many moments and people of importance:

Herb Didrickson, Moses “Mighty Mo” Johnson and Jeff David helped get the GMT off and running on the right foot. Don Pegues (Austin) was the first play-by-play announcer. And was followed by Terry Pegues and Vern Metcalfe of Juneau; There is John Hope, and Steve Agbaba.

“During the early years of the tourney, sportsmanship was always outstanding,” Truitt commented. “And Herb Didrickson was the best of them all.”

As the 66th Annual Gold Medal Basketball Tournament begins, fans will see among the current rosters and out on the courts, a ghost or two. Perhaps they will just be in a pass or a rebound or a shot, something simple that reminds them of a player who now sits next to them.

Or perhaps they really will be an apparition, come to cheer and play once again.

Now wouldn’t that be a game!


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