Unknown Alaskan stars for Billings

Posted: Thursday, January 06, 2000

BILLINGS, Mont. - Nate Strong is the find of the season in the Pac West Conference.

And find is the right word.

``I didn't recruit him,'' Montana State-Billings coach Craig Carse said.

Recruit him? How would he have found him? Strong is from Tenakee Springs, Alaska, population 93. But Carse is certainly glad he has him.

Strong, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound forward, is averaging 17.2 points and 5.8 rebounds a game while making 53.3 percent of his field goal attempts and 86.5 percent of his free throws for the 8-3 Yellowjackets who meet the 6-3 University of Alaska Anchorage tonight in the teams' league opener.

And if anyone is wondering how Strong avoided being spotted by either the Seawolves or the University of Alaska Fairbanks, that's an easy one. He didn't even play high school ball.

Strong, 24, is originally from Michigan, but his family moved to Tenakee Springs on Chicagof Island in Southeast Alaska to live a primarily subsistence lifestyle when he was still a pre-teen. He didn't play basketball until he was about 15, when the community built a school with a half-court gym.

Later, while working as a logger in Hoonah, Strong played on a rec league team. Over the years, while others were honing their games, Strong spent most of his time commercial fishing, logging and trapping.

``Lots of trapping,'' said Strong, who didn't mean in a zone press.

No, he was gathering marten, mink and otter.

But Strong, who has four brothers and a sister, had a pretty strong belief in his basketball capabilities, even if hardly anyone was seeing them. Last summer he worked at the basketball camp run by Juneau-Douglas High School coach George Houston. After the campers were done, Strong played pickup games with the likes of Carlos Boozer, the two-time Alaska player of the year now at Duke, and UAA players Chris Hamey and Shaun O'Shea, who both live in Juneau in the off-season.

``We played a few times a week,'' O'Shea said. ``He's athletic and strong. He likes to run. He's just an all-around good player.''

Strong attended Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon, Wash., last year, but because he was paying his own way, he couldn't afford to return. Billings assistant coach Brent Montague played for Skagit Valley, and he was tipped off about Strong.

``I got lucky,'' Carse said. ``He came here sight unseen. I didn't have a clue how good he'd be. He's just a hard-nosed, tough kid. He works as hard as can be.''

Strong, who has scored 30, 26 and 28 points in his last three games and is the current Player of the Week for the Pac West Conference, isn't surprised he's doing so well. He gave Juneau basketball fans a sampling of his potential during the B Bracket championship game of last spring's Gold Medal Tournament, when Strong scored 53 points and grabbed 24 rebounds as Hoonah Totem lost a close 93-91 decision to the Haines Merchants.

``I had high expectations,'' Strong said. ``I always have. I've set high goals. I always think there's more I can do. The more experience I get, the better I'll get.''

When Strong faces UAA tonight, it will be the first time he's seen the Seawolves play. His family didn't have a TV in Tenakee Springs, though he saw some game highlights on RATNET (now called ARCS) on someone else's set.

For that matter, when Billings visits UAA for a game Feb. 17, it won't really feel like a homecoming. Strong has never spent time in Anchorage.

``Wait,'' he said. ``I might have been in the airport.''

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