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Over the last 59 years, the Juneau Lions Club's Gold Medal Basketball Tournament has provided an annual display of basketball talent from across Southeast Alaska and beyond.
But even more so, the tournament has fostered friendships, built community pride, united generations of families and created memories that endure for decades.
Sitka residents and friends Herb Didrickson, Gil Truitt and Sam Martin each have played many roles in the tournament over the past 59 years.
Didrickson, considered to be one of the top basketball talents ever to come out of Alaska, played in the very first Gold Medal in 1947 as part of the Sheldon Jackson School team. In 1948, he played for Sitka ANB, which was a powerhouse through the 1950s and early 1960s as Didrickson teamed at various times with legendary players including Moses "Mighty Mo" Johnson, Robert "Jeff" David, Gil Booth, Paul White and Harry "Buddy" Lang.
Didrickson was the first player inducted into the Gold Medal Hall of Fame, in 1961, and three years later helped Sitka ANB win one more Gold Medal title. He continued playing at Gold Medal through the early 1980s, and has since watched his son and several grandchildren compete in the tournament. He also was a coach and teacher at Mount Edgecumbe.
Truitt played for several Gold Medal teams from 1948-52, including Sitka ANB and Columbia Lumber, then served as the coach of Sitka ANB four times, as a referee and finally as a Gold Medal fan and supporter. He is a former teacher and coach at Mount Edgecumbe High School, writes the "Gilnettings" column in the Daily Sitka Sentinel and is one of the leading sports historians in Southeast.
Martin grew up watching Didrickson and his teammates play, then joined them on the Sitka ANB team from 1957-60. Martin spent several years with Sitka Pulp Mill teams before returning to Sitka ANB as coach in 1964, when he helped guide that squad to a Gold Medal title. In the years since, Martin has occasionally coached and refereed games.
Didrickson, Truitt and Martin took a break from watching the Southeast-Class 2A region basketball tournament earlier this month at Sitka's Mount Edgecumbe High School to talk about Gold Medal.
The first year of the Gold Medal tourney...
Truitt: I was going to school at the Wrangell Institute (and) that's when we found out there was a tournament and the Wrangell town team was going. ... The first announcer, who was a good one, was Don Pegues. ... We listened to the tournament at Wrangell, and we were really rooting for Herb's team.
Didrickson: When we were playing, for most of the people here (in Sitka), it was hard to get the Juneau station. Some of them had to go six miles out on their boats and they'd tune into the games. It was kind of a surprise when we were invited ... but I guess they heard of our basketball (success from) the military teams who played here. ...
In our city league, the majority of the teams were military. In the early years - '42, '43 - that was the coaching we got. We saw some of the good players, and adopted some of the moves they showed us. The Navy played a big part in our basketball program.
Traveling to the tournament in the early years...
Didrickson: Travel was not like it today - on a good day, it would take us 18 hours to get there (by seine boat), and on a bad day maybe two days. Weather was severe ... icing down was a big problem. We'd have to pull into Tenakee to get out of the weather, and wait until the next day. ... We lived on the boat, and sleeping in the hull of the ship was pretty cold. But it was exciting to attend and play in the tournament. ...
Once we got to Juneau and showed we had a pretty good team, the senior ANB groups decided to back us for future games. They didn't want us to sleep on the boat, so they raised money so we could stay at a hotel and eat at a restaurant. City Cafe, with Sam and Gim Taguchi, was our favorite place to go and eat.
Martin: When the Gold Medal first started (and) even up until the '60s, people don't realize today what it entailed to get to the Gold Medal, from (Sitka) or from Angoon. They traveled on seine boats or on an old PBY or Grumman Goose. It was no easy thing to do.
What sets Gold Medal apart from other tournaments?
Martin: When they first started the tournament, it brought in Angoon and Kake and Hoonah and Skagway, Ketchikan, Sitka - it didn't matter, they were all put into one pool and they all participated for the same goal, to be the best in Southeast. It not only achieved that, but it brought the communities together. It was a cohesive thing. ... It brings people together as a group, it brings a lot of pride, and of course the competition is absolutely fantastic.
Didrickson: It exposed a lot of players to the fans. Now I go to a lot of the towns, and they know me or remember me because of basketball. ... It's always a good time to go attend the games now and see a lot of the old fans. ...
When we left the games in Juneau, we made some pretty good friends whether we won or lost. Over the many years, we still greet each other in our own hometowns and talk a little bit about basketball.
Truitt: What I remember about Gold Medal, when we were all involved, was the attitude of the players. You went with your team because you loved the sport. You made sacrifices. You left your job. You didn't worry about the pay you were losing - it was done for the love of the game.
Favorite Gold Medal memories...
Didrickson: For me, it was winning that first championship. And then '64 kind of topped that one. In the earlier years, most of the teams weren't very powerful yet. In '64, it was make a mistake, you lose the game.
Truitt: Seeing the Angoon ANB team win the sportsmanship award in '51. In those days, they picked the top five. But Angoon was so outstanding, they gave the whole team the five trophies. I remember they told them, "You're such good sports, you'll know how to divide the five trophies among yourselves."
Didrickson: One year Metlakatla came up - PNA, the old Pacific Northern Airlines (team). Their plane ran off the runway (in Juneau), and they were supposed to play the first game. A bus had to go out there and pick up the passengers, and bus them into town. It was getting close to game time, and the Metlakatla team was dressing in the bus so when they got to the gym they just came in the door with their suitcases, put them down and went into their warmups - just like the Globetrotters - and then they won their game.
What has Gold Medal meant to you through the years?
Truitt: Socializing and remembering friendships that were made. Unfortunately, many have died. ... That brings back sad memories.
Didrickson: I've always enjoyed going over. I haven't missed too many after I quit playing. You get a chance to talk to some of the younger players, comment on their games, pat them on the back if they played a good game, if they were a good team player.
Martin: When I first started out with the ANB, basically what it meant for me to go over to the Gold Medal was to compete. The second year, it was to go over there, compete and then meet new friends from the previous year. And the third and fourth years, I'd go over there to compete, meet new friends and then visit with friends and family from the villages. It meant all those things combined. It was always so much fun. After you got through playing you'd walk through the stands, meet some of the elders, friends, ex-ballplayers, and it still carries on today. You could walk into this gym now (at Mount Edgecumbe) and run into somebody you played against or watched play 30, 40 years ago.
The Juneau Empire sports desk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.