Bailey Johnson had a choice of when he could take leave from his Army National Guard post in Kuwait: his 21st birthday or the week of his mother's birthday and the Gold Medal basketball tournament.
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The answer was a no-brainer.
"I saw the Gold Medal dates, so I said 'I'm gonna come back and defend the title,' " Johnson said.
Last year Johnson let his hometown team from Angoon to its first I bracket championship at the Juneau Lions Club Gold Medal Tournament.
Johnson, a 6-foot-1-inch small and power forward, was named tournament MVP in 2006.
In April of 2005, Johnson enlisted with the Army National Guard and nine months ago he left to serve in Kuwait.
"Everybody was a little worried and proud as well," said Don Martin, a family friend.
"Of course we were confident he'd come back," Johnson's sister, Shivone, said. "I talked to a friend of mine that had been in the same area as where he (Johnson) was going, and he said there wasn't much gunfire."
Johnson didn't know if he would be able to defend Angoon's I bracket championship when he left for Kuwait, but after he saw the dates matched up and his name on the Angoon roster, he knew it was on.
He flew for more than 20 hours from Kuwait to Southeast Alaska. He arrived Wednesday morning at Juneau International Airport - just as his team went onto the basketball court.
His mother Esther Johnson picked him up at the airport.
"We had some welcome signs and took some pictures, and of course I was crying," she said.
Johnson hopped into his family's van where he changed into some of his basketball gear. Then he went straight to the Gold Medal game.
When Johnson entered the Juneau Douglas High-School gym, the Angoon fans erupted into cheers. The crowd clapped and stomped the bleachers.
His team was behind by 10 points and just 11:50 was left in the game.
Johnson smiled at the crowd and jogged to the locker room to put on his Angoon jersey. Angoon called a time-out to give their teammate time to get dressed, and the former MVP entered the game with 11:10 left on the clock.
Village fans raised the volume every time he touched the ball. While Johnson sparked better play from his teammates, Angoon ended up losing the contest 74-58.
The next day, on his mother's birthday, Johnson played against Kake in an elimination game.
Kake came out firing and led by as much as 14 points during the first half, but it wasn't enough to hold down Johnson and his teammates as they rallied back and cut the lead to four points, with the last basket of the half coming from Johnson.
In the end, Johnson led all scorers with 30 points and Angoon beat Kake with the score of 79-58.
"That was awesome," his mother said. "It was the best birthday present I could ever have."
Johnson and Angoon advance to play the loser of the game between Juneau UAS and Yakutat. If Angoon wins their next game, it will play for the championship again.
"It's the best time of the year," Johnson said. "The guys I play against now are the ones I played against in high-school. It brings back a lot of memories and it gives you bragging rights for a year."
Johnson's cousin Brandon Johnson, who plays for Yakutat, said Bailey's return home is especially important for the villages.
"It makes me pay attention to the news a little bit more," Brandon said. "Being here means more for him than the tournament."
"It means a lot to my heart to have him come home when he did," Johnson's mother said. "He's proud to play for Angoon."
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