Imagine 700 rowdy fishermen, fresh off the boat from a bristling two-day sea voyage, elbowing out a seat in a gym that was built to hold hundreds less. Fueling their actions is a bitter regional rivalry that extends past basketball and into each of their wallets. Now blow a little whistle and tell the biggest guy in the gym he just fouled out of a close game.
From 1947 until 1950, the few years before the Juneau Lions Club called for help from Lower 48 referees to mediate Gold Medal games, a handful of local men stepped between warring teams for a few dollars per contest.
Juneau resident Jimmy Vuille was part of the original crew that called the first-ever tournament in '47. A player himself, Vuille picked up the whistle while he and his Moose Club teammates were between games.
"We were all ball players at that time," Vuille said. "I actually enjoyed (refereeing) more than playing. The crowds were always boisterous, but always ... fairly well-behaved."
Vuille got to know fans from one of the tournament's earliest teams, the Mike's Place squad from Douglas, especially close around Gold Medal time. One fan in particular "helped" Vuille with colorful displays when the calls fell against her boys.
"Oh yeah, I used to have some favorites from over in Douglas," Vuille said. "The number one fan in those days was Gracie Pusich. Especially when her husband and brother were playing (for Mike's Place). She didn't like my calls one day and she used my head as a target for her umbrella."
Vuille said he always got along with Pusich and her family, but learned when to duck late in a Mike's Place game.
Another of the tournament's original officials, Juneau resident John Dapcevich, recalls earning $10 for every doubleheader he refereed in '47. The money from calling one session could buy a player roughly three bottles of coffee, four pounds of butter or a steak from any restaurant in town with all the fixings, according to Dapcevich.
As the father of three kids at the time, Dapcevich said he picked up the whistle for two reasons - because he enjoyed watching the games and to supplement his family's income. While the pay might be a little better these days, the current referees are calling a vastly different game, according to Dapcevich.
"The basketball was grade 'C' then and now you're watching grade 'A' competition," he said. "The population was smaller, though. A lot of villages were hard-pressed to put together a team that could play competitively."
The game was also much more physical in the early tournaments. Officials focused on watching players' hands and feet to make sure nobody traveled or violated a basic rule while they pushed and nudged each other around. The game also moved at a slower pace, mainly due to each team's focus on playing tough defense. One game Dapcevich refereed finished with Douglas outscoring Mike's Place 20-12.
"It was a no harm, no foul kind of game," Dapcevich said. "You killed a guy before you let him shoot."
The first year was also the only year that a prep team, Juneau High School, was allowed to play. Unfortunately for Dapcevich, JHS fielded a "heck of a team" that sent him and his Moose Club buddies out of the only single-elimination bracket in their first game.
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