Another take on the 50 top athletes from Alaska

Posted: Sunday, January 02, 2000

The dawn of a new millennium, new century, new year, new whatever, seems to be the time to create all sorts of best-of lists. Most of those lists are worthy of being ignored, but a massive project in the current issue of Sports Illustrated magazine caught my interest.

The magazine created lists of the 50 greatest sports figures -- athletes, coaches and other sports figures -- for each of the 50 states. The magazine created a series of special covers for each state, with an expanded list of that state's rankings. Every issue of the magazine had brief versions of all 50 lists. (For some reason subscribers in Juneau received Alaska's special issue, but copies on the newsstands are from Washington.)

Then, the Anchorage Daily News had its own Alaska's Top-50 Athletes of the Century list in Saturday's paper, and the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner ran a series of four unranked lists of top athletes from the Fairbanks area. The Juneau Empire ran a special section on Juneau's Sports Legends on Sept. 24, 1999.

While I agreed with many of the names mentioned on all the lists, I feel there are some serious omissions, especially to the Sports Illustrated list. Had some of these omitted names been included in Sports Illustrated's list, I feel Alaska would have ranked higher than 49th out of the 50 states in the magazines state rankings (only Delaware was lower).

For example, how can Sports Illustrated rank Iditarod musher DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow 34th when she's never won the race, but leave three-time champion Martin Buser of Big Lake off the list? The Anchorage Daily News list, which was compiled after a lengthy reader poll, also doesn't rank Buser but neither does it rank Jonrowe.

At the same time, the Anchorage Daily News didn't rank Joe Redington Sr. of Knik, the so-called Father of the Iditarod, while he was 18th on Sports Illustrated's list. Daily News sports editor Lew Freedman said the reason Redington didn't make that paper's list, even though he was mentioned on 68 of the 421 ballots received from the public, was because none of the ballots discussed Redington's athletic prowess. Redington, who died in 1999, ran the Iditarod 19 times, twice finishing as high as fifth place including once when he was 70.

It was then I decided to make my own list of the state's top sports figures. The Juneau Empire's rankings were compiled using my knowledge from 30 years as an Alaska resident, including a dozen years as a sports reporter with the Anchorage Times, the Frontiersman (Wasilla) and the Alaska Newspapers Inc. chain of weekly papers, including stints with ANI's Tundra Drums in Bethel and the Arctic Sounder in Barrow.

When creating the Empire's list, I ranked Buser 28th and didn't rank Jonrowe. I also ranked Redington second, just behind Olympic gold medal-winning skier Tommy Moe of Palmer and Girdwood and ahead of basketball player Trajan Langdon of Anchorage, who was first on the Sports Illustrated list.

In creating the list, I felt the need not only to look at an athlete's athletic skills, but also to look at the sports figure's impact on their sport in Alaska and how that impact is translated into the international and/or national arena. Since there weren't any distance mushing events and interest in sprint mushing was fading in Alaska when Redington created and funded the first running of the Iditarod in 1973, I felt Redington's contributions needed prominent mention. Now people from all over the world follow the Iditarod every year, and nine members of the Juneau Empire's top 50 are Iditarod veterans.

In a comment with its state-bystate rankings, Sports Illustrated ranked Alaska 49th and wrote, ``Would clearly be No. 1 on list of century's alltime dog-sledding states.'' I feel Redington is responsible for much of the national and international interest in sled dog racing, and the Iditarod and Redington's involvement in other races like the Knik 200 and the Junior Iditarod have helped revitalize mushing as Alaska's top sport.

Sports Illustrated ranked Langdon first, Moe second, sprint musher George Attla of Huslia third, Alpine skier Hilary Lindh of Juneau fourth and distance musher Susan Butcher of Manley fifth on its list. The Daily News had Moe first, Attla second, football player Mark Schlereth of Anchorage third, Langdon fourth and Lindh fifth.

I ranked all of these athletes in the Empire's top 10, but our top five has Moe in first, Redington second, Langdon third, Attla fourth and Lindh fifth. The rest of the top 10 included distance musher Rick Swenson of Two Rivers in sixth, Butcher seventh, Schlereth eighth, nordic skier Audun Endestad of Fairbanks ninth and runner David Morris of Chugiak 10th.

Moe took the top spot because of his gold and silver medals in the 1994 Olympics, and a fifth-place finish that narrowly missed a third medal. Langdon deserves mention as the first Alaskan to reach the NBA and as a trailblazer for Alaskans reaching prominent college programs, but he is still a rookie and he's been on the injured list most of the season. Attla was the dominant figure in sprint mushing during a career that spanned four decades, while Lindh won a silver medal in the 1992 Olympics and a World Championship in 1997.

Besides Lindh, other people from Southeast to make the Empire's list include basketball player Andrea Lloyd of Sitka in 14th (she made Sports Illustrated's list for Idaho as No. 14 and didn't make the Daily News list), basketball player Carlos Boozer Jr. of Juneau in 22nd (he was 27th in SI and unranked by the Daily News), nordic skier and swimmer Judy Rabinowitz of Juneau and Fairbanks in 44th (she was 31st in SI and 39th in the Daily News), basketball player John Brown of Ketchikan in 46th (41st in SI and unranked in the Daily News) and disabled Alpine skier Joe Tompkins of Juneau in 49th (unranked by SI and the Daily News).

One of the difficulties in creating a list like this is trying to determine who qualifies in the rankings and how do you compare athletes from different eras and sports.

Alaska has had many transient sports stars, who were prominent sports figures in the state for a short period of time but really developed their skills elsewhere. For that reason, few University of Alaska Anchorage or UA Fairbanks athletes made the Empire's list unless they also played high school ball in Alaska.

Sports Illustrated used a similar criteria, generally putting athletes in the state where they attended high school before ranking them, and it's one reason I think SI put Lloyd on its Idaho list. Lloyd attended high school in Sitka, but transferred to a school in Idaho for her senior year so she might gain more exposure with college recruiters.

A glance through some of the other state lists compiled by Sports Illustrated reveals a host of other athletes with Alaska ties. For example, former Angoon High School basketball coach Kenny Sailers is ranked fourth in Wyoming where he led Wyoming to the 1948 NCAA title and was MVP of the tournament. Several former Alaska League baseball players are also ranked - such as former Fairbanks Goldpanner outfielderpitcher Dave Winfield (second in Minnesota), former Kenai Peninsula Oiler first baseman-pitcher John Olerud (27th in Washington), former Goldpanner outfielder Barry Bonds (19th in California), former Anchorage Glacier Pilot first baseman-pitcher Mark McGwire (22nd in California) and former Goldpanner pitcher Tom Seaver (26th in California).

Another difficulty with creating a list is the timing. There's no question someone like Boozer will move up on the list, maybe into the top five, if he continues to improve while at Duke and eventually becomes a star in the NBA.

There is also the problem with only having a limited number of spots to rank people.

As I neared the end of the list I realized we wouldn't be able to include basketball player and track star Brit Jacobson of Chugiak, who was ranked 10th in SI and 47th in the Daily News. She deserved to be on the list, but I felt the other women's basketball players were more dominant in their eras. We also left off basketball and volleyball player Megan Irvine of Wasilla (43rd in SI), who is a twotime state basketball player of the year at Colony and is the career kills leader for Duke's volleyball team. Former U.S. mile champion Marcus Dunbar of Anchorage and Kodiak also didn't make the list, and neither did four-time state champion wrestler Matt Mattson of Fairbanks (40th in SI).

Sports Illustrated ranked Dewey Skan of Klawock 49th, the only member of the hall of fame from the Gold Medal Basketball Tournament to be ranked (none were ranked by the Anchorage Daily News). But there are so many prominent players from the Gold Medal - the Angoon guard combination of Albert Kookesh and Ivan Gamble, Paul Rudolph of Hoonah, Bill Tompkins of Juneau and brothers Mike and Steve Bavard of Juneau, just to name a few - it was hard to decide who deserved ranking. Also, the Gold Medal Tournament isn't as well known outside of Southeast Alaska so it's hard to rate the statewide impact of these players.

Readers may disagree with some of the selections on the Empire's list of the 50 top sports figures in Alaska, but these lists will always promote some controversy. If you feel there was an omission, send us a signed letter detailing who you think was missed and why they should be on our list (include your phone number so we can verify the letter) and we'll run those letters next Sunday in our Sports Mailbag letters section.



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