In 1981-82 Back in Black was a top selling album for AC/DC and it was also the perfect theme for the 1981-82 Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears Boys 4A Alaska State Championship Basketball Team. The JD High boys first State title since 1972-73. Black uniforms were introduced to the Crimson Bear program for the first time for the 1980-81 season and the second year of Back in Black proved to be straight ahead rock and roll. The team dominated the State of Alaska going 30-1, with the season’s only loss, a one-point loss to Bothell, Washington at the Ketchikan Christmas Tournament. The team went 20-0 in Region 5 (Southeast) Conference play for the first time since 1954. In fact, a bet was made by the team with Head Coach Jim “Hambo” Hamey that if the team went undefeated in conference play, Coach Hamey would shave his head. The bet was satisfied after the season in front of the entire school at the most well-attended assembly at JD High that year.
The 1981-82 State Champions were led by 1st Team All-Alaska senior guards Lance “Soul” Solberg (Team MVP), Ethan “E” Billings (1982 Alaska Player of the Year) and junior forward All-Alaska Honorable Mention Craig “Dough Boy” Kahklen. These three were known as “The Triangle”. The team was a defensive team with offensive tendencies, meaning the defense dictated most of the offense as this team could run and gun fast break with anyone. The team averaged 85 points a game off of defensive pressure, mind games, mental toughness, and fast break basketball, all without the 3-point shot which was introduced to Alaska high school basketball in the 1987-88 season.
The defense was led by team captain, leading rebounder, defensive specialist, and ‘best dressed’, senior forward Brent “Spectreman” Fagerstrom. Enforcing the front line was 6’ 5” junior jumping jack forward/center Ross “Og” Ogden and 6’ 8” junior center Scott “Stew” Stewart. Other key bench contributors known as The Bomb Squad included: future Crimson Bear coach, junior guard Kevin “Casper” Casperson, junior forward Eric “Bird” Holst, junior guard Ken “Wizard” Willard, sophomore guard Marc “Banger” Greeley and sophomore forward and future Crimson Bear coach Matt “Hoss” Newhouse. The assistant coach was future Crimson Bears coach George “General” Houston and the manager of the team was future Crimson Bears coach Steve “Potts” Potter.
The average margin of victory per game during the 1981-82 season was 23 points. The team scored 103 points in the first game of the season at Prince Rupert, BC. Of the 30 victories, the team had only five games all season closer than five points: a two-point down to the wire victory at Ketchikan, a one-point last second buzzer beater at Sitka, a Dough Boy last second turn-around jumper one-point heart-pounder in the Southeast Tournament Semi-Final in Sitka against the 4-corners offense of stubborn Metlakatla 31-30, and a five-point State Tournament Semi-Final overtime victory over Chuck White’s East Anchorage Thunderbirds dynasty.
The 1981-82 team must be considered as one of the best overall Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bear basketball teams ever assembled. As youths, most of the players were coached by such Juneau’s legends as Bill Tompkins, Roger Polley, Bruce Casperson, Butch Holst, Bill Szepanski, and Darrell Ness (yes he’s a legend). The players also benefited from honing their skills at open gyms against a fraternity of past Crimson Bears including Mike and Steve Bavard, Pat Kemp, Tim O’Donnell, Jeff Miller, Creighton Miller, Dennis Edwards, Mark Pusich, Rich Eakins, Guy Tompkins, Dave Ignell, Mike Kelly, Don Nowlin, Chip Cantrell, Kevin Fagerstrom, Steve Brandner, Chris Monagle, Bret Schmiege, and John Richards to name a few.
The team was as unselfish as could be found on the court. Teammates got more thrill out of making the great pass, playing tough defense, and setting a hard screen than worrying about “getting their points”, everyone except for Soul that is. The greatest strength was team chemistry on the court as well as off the court on the many memorable road trips. Most of the core of this team had been playing together since 7th and 8th grade and it showed as this team could play with any team from any era in Alaska High School Basketball History.
As I look back on that championship year, I realize how unique and special it is to play high school athletics in Southeast Alaska and I thank Coach Hamey and Coach Houston for the work ethic they instilled in me and my teammates to work hard to reach your goals. GO BEARS!!
The strength of this basketball team is easy to affirm by reading the names of opponents on the teams they played: Kevin Worley (Skagway), Brien Craig, Steve and Paul Axelson (Ketchikan), Ken Winger, Jamie Castillo, Grussendorf (Sitka), Tompkins, Wilson (Haines), Conrad Hudson, George Blandov, Byron Hayward and J.R. Booth (Metlakatla), Mitch Eide (Petersburg), Tony Reed (East), Mike Farrell (West), Paul Durham (North Pole), and Ron Williams (Kodiak) to name but a few.
They also faced alumni who played at major, minor and junior colleges and that were kings of city league tournaments for years, their names are mentioned in the article. These alumni would return in the summers and the school breaks. In what is fondly remembered as the good old (pre-three-point-line) days there was a Southeast tradition of basketball play. Freshmen and sophomores would team up to play juniors and seniors and both would play alumni and city leaguers in open gyms at all hours.
There were no social media distractions. No easy outlets to other pastimes. High School travel trips were bonding experiences for teams as they got on the ferry or plane and were gone for three or four days without texts and facebook.
“That is why basketball was so good then and still can be,” Billings said. “You are bonding on these road trips. You are traveling sometimes every weekend. There is a lot of disconnect now. There was a time when you knew these guys were coming back to live in the town, and they would be in the gym over Christmas and be back in the summer and after they graduated they were in the city leagues.”
As with all communities Juneau too is seeing many college graduates not returning. The world is more accessible. The player’s tradition is not as strong. Luckily Juneau still has the coaching connection that has carried on various philosophies from Claire Markey, to Hamey, to Houston, to Potter, to Casperson.
The Crimson Bears Philosophy was actually a 20-plus page booklet given to players. Aside from terminology of the game and X’s and O’s it also included how to conduct oneself on the road.
A few years ago former JDHS coach James Hamey told me the most talented team he ever had was his first season in Juneau when the Bavard’s and O’Donnell tortured him with their long hair and wild ways. He also mentioned the 1977 and 1978 teams with Fagerstrom, Calvin, Ignell, Kelly, Monagle, Nowlin, Cantrell, Brandner and Richards when East High School used an illegal player to win state.
“The best team I ever had though were the state champions of 1982,” Hamey said. “We got there not because of talent, but because of all the character and hard work.”
Hamey credited the work ethic of that team and assistant coach Houston, calling their season a “cooperative effort.”
Perhaps the most over looked part of the 1982 state championship team is the author of the historical piece this accompanies, Ethan Billings. Only two JDHS Crimson Bears MEN’s basketball players have been selected as Player Of The Year. Carlos Boozer in 1998 and 1999, and Billings in 1982.
To be a State Anything Of The Year, you have to possess some talent. Billing’s was his ball handling, passing, defense and well, all around game.
Billings selection is possibly even more impressive if you look at the size difference (Boozer was an imposing power forward while Billings was a 5-foot-something, 150-pounds when wet guard) and the fact that Billings almost died on the basketball court the previous year.
“It was October 18, 1980,” Billings said. “A three man weave drill but only on the baseline.”
Billings suffered a skull fracture that first day of his junior season. Colliding in the air with friend and teammate Lance Solberg, Billings landed awkwardly, the back of his head striking the maple floor. The trauma was so severe that green membratic fluid was coming from his eyes, ears and mouth as he lay in unconscious convulsions. EMT’s said at the hospital it didn’t look good. Billings came too while at Bartlett during his medevac and next awoke in Anchorage two weeks later.
“I remember seeing Hamey and Guy Tompkins and Lance as they wheeled me out to the plane,” Billings said. “I remember taking up three seats in the plane and then waking up over a week later to Monday Night Football in the hospital.”
Billings recovered and was cleared to play, making the final 10 games of that season. That JDHS team lost to Sitka on a last second shot in the southeast tourney and went to state as the number two seed where they placed fifth. Billings played sparingly as he had lost weight and was out of shape. The next season he would add various team hustle awards and the honor of being named the state’s best player.
“My mentality was who cares, I could have died,” Billings said. “I was all Let’s go, let’s play ball attitude.”