Amazing dynasties mark tournament

Southeast Alaska's greatest teams played at Gold Medal

Posted: Friday, March 31, 2006

The four championship games of the 60th annual Juneau Lions Club Gold Medal tournament will be decided Saturday, and with that in mind, the Juneau Empire takes a look back at some of the great dynasties of the past 40 years.

For more about the legendary Sitka ANB, Ketchikan Rockets and Juneau Arctic Knights squads, refer to juneauempire.com/goldmedal

HOONAH

Class AA champions, 1962, 1965, 1966; Class A champions, 1972, 1973, 1974

When Dennis Gray's 32-year Gold Medal playing career ended and he began coaching Hoonah's B bracket team, the 5-foot-8 shooting guard would always laugh when his players complained about practicing three days a week.

Clearly, they were not familiar with the story of the 1962 Hoonah ANB team.

"We used to turnout seven days a week," Gray said. "We started off in the morning, running together. We did about six miles in the morning before anything else. We cut wood for the people of Hoonah. We hunted deer and went clam digging for everybody. We had three hours of practice every evening. Everything we did, we did together."

In 1961, the Gold Medal tournament expanded to include a AA bracket for the larger communities and a A division for the smaller villages. Hoonah insisted on playing in the AA and soon captured the crowd's imagination at the brand-new Juneau-Douglas High School.

In 1962, Hoonah beat Metlakatla, the Juneau Arctic Knights and then knocked off Sitka ANB in the semifinals behind Ray Howard's 40-foot buzzer-beater. The next day's Daily Alaska Empire called it, "the greatest basketball game ever played in Juneau."

"If anyone noticed a star in the sky last night, it was undoubtedly the small fishing village known as Hoonah!" the paper gushed.

The championship was just as good. Hoonah beat Sitka ANB 63-62 behind 14 second-half points from reserve Leroy McKinley and two late free-throws from Howard. Those two -along with Paul and Frank White, Paul Rudolph, Dennis and Robert Gray and Ken Schoonover - were soon said to be household names.

Most of the team spread out in 1963, except for Rudolph, who was tournament MVP for Hoonah. The Juneau Arctic Knights and Ketchikan Rockets played for the titles.

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The team refocused in 1964. That year, they recruited a 6-foot-5 fisherman who had played two years at Skagit Community College in Mount Vernon, Wash., and had been working seasonally in Hoonah since 1959. His name: "Big" John Thein.

Thein was a first-team all-tournament selection in 1964 - the year Sitka ANB outsmarted Prince Rupert and 7-foot-1 Billy Joe Price, NBA draft choice, for the title. A 1989 Hall of Fame inductee, Thein led Hoonah to consecutive titles in 1965 and 1966. Rudolph was co-MVP in 1965. Thein was MVP in 1966.

"Paul (Rudolph) was a good shot, Ray and Dennis were good shots, and we were young," Thein said. "We moved pretty well."

Hoonah dropped down to the A bracket in 1968. Levi Dow, Jim Abbott and Johan Dybdhal came aboard and led the team to three more titles - 1972, 1973 and 1974.

"No matter how things were going, even if we were losing, our people never ever abandoned us," Gray said. "They were always there for us all the way. That's one heck of a moral boost for ballplayers. Just having the roar of the crowd behind you when you do something good, it gets you so pumped up.

"My hands still get all sweaty when I walk into that gym for a Gold Medal game," he said. "I still get that feeling."

KAKE

Class A Champions, 1966, 1968, 1970, 1971

Kake qualified for its first Gold Medal tournament in 1949 by beating Hoonah and Angoon in a village play-in. It took 17 years, however, for the village to reach its first championship.

Using its trademark full-court press to make up for its lack of size, the town reached five Class A finals between 1966 and 1971 and won four (1966, 1968, 1970 and 1971.)

"All the teams were good back in those days," said point guard William "Billy" Bean. "They were all in shape, but they didn't train as hard as we did."

"You have to remember there wasn't any television, and so basketball was our main entertainment," he said. "When we had turnouts, the gym would be half full of people who had come down to watch. They'd open the gym for us and make sure it was heated, and all we had to do was train hard."

Kake burst though in 1966 with point guard Bean, shooting guard Gordon Jackson, post Byron Wallace and forwards Dewey and Ray Skan.

On the first two title teams, Wallace was the tallest at 6-foot-1. The rest of the team ranged between 5-9 and 5-11. Willis Cromer (6-3) played post for Kake's championship teams in 1970 and 1971, winning the MVP award in 1971.

The Skans played for Klukwan in 1968 and faced Kake in the title game. Kake won 94-89. In 1969, the Skans jumped to Juneau ANS and against met Kake for the championship. Juneau rolled, 92-76.

"Once we figured out the formula, we stayed pretty competitive," Bean said. "We just had to get to Saturday night and see who won."

Gold Medal trivia

What: 60th annual Juneau Lions Club Gold Medal Tournament.

When: Continues through Saturday..

Where: Juneau-Douglas High School gym.

On tap: Four Gold Medal games are scheduled today: One elimination semifinal in the new Intermediate bracket, 4 p.m.; one elimination semifinal in the Women's bracket, 5:30 p.m.; one elimination semifinal in the Legendary C draw, 7:30 p.m.; one elimination semifinal in the Mighty B bracket, 9 p.m.

For more: Refer to today's Empire and www.juneauempire.com/goldmedal

Thursday's trivia question: In another one of the great AA finals of all time, the 1970 Anchorage Sleepy Bears, led by 6-10 Camden Wall and two-time tournament MVP Lee Maxwell, faced the Fairbanks Freelancers, sparked by 6-8 Scott Loll and former University of Alaska star Milo Griffin.

All four were joined on the All-Tourney First Team by this Fairbanks player, who sank two free throws with 15 seconds remaining to propel the Freelancers to a 75-74 victory. Who was he?

Thursday's answer: Chet Saladin drilled the foul shots to give the city of Fairbanks its first of three consecutive AA titles. Griffin's Photo Fairbanks won in 1971, and Fairbanks Elbow room conquered the class in 1972. No correct answer was received by the trivia deadline.

Today's trivia question: In 1970, the Gold Medal tournament instituted an "Inspirational Award" to honor this Juneau ANS star, who died in a boating accident less than one week before the tournament began. What was his name?

Call the Gold Medal Juneau Empire trivia hotline, 523-2268, before 5 p.m. today with your answer. Please leave your name and a telephone number. (Former Juneau ANS players are not eligible for today's question).

When the C old-timers bracket was added in 1981, Kake won the first title by beating the Sitka Old-Timers 89-85.

ANGOON

Class B champions, 1976, 1978; Class C, 1984, 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1989

Angoon has a rich Gold Medal history. The town's "49ers" squad knocked off barnstorming Sitka ANB in an exhibition game in 1949, impressing Sitka so much that they lobbied the Gold Medal tournament committee to invite more villages.

As impressive as that win was, it would be 27 long years until Angoon won its first championship. The town beat Klukwan 81-70 for the 1976 Class B title. Jay Levan was MVP. Al Kookesh and Mac Demmert were first-team all-tourney.

"That was almost like a dream come true," Kookesh said of the 1976 team. "We'd been going for so many years and nobody thought we'd win it. When I came up here, I didn't think we'd win it either. I walked into that gym and I saw Sitka play, and I thought, 'How can we compete against these guys?'"

Angoon did, by playing well in nearly every facet of the game. The team's guards and wings averaged 6-feet, but post Jay Levan towered at 6-7.

The team's main asset, however, was its physical strength. Almost all of the players were from Angoon and had grown up in a subsistence lifestyle, strengthening their muscles.

The team could also shoot. Schoolteacher Rick Anderson (6-4) was lethal within 10 feet. The team had strong perimeter shooting while Demmert, Bill Albert and Levan could out-rebound most teams.

"We had a great all-around team, and that's what you have to have in Gold Medal," he said. "You've got to have people who can play inside and outside, both. We had perimeter shooters, speed, good rebounders and a big guy in the middle, Jay Levan."

Angoon won again in 1978, routing Yakutat 111-79. Kookesh was MVP and Anderson was named first-team all-tourney. The next year, the team was asked to jump up to the A bracket and play with the larger towns.

Angoon soon returned to B. In the 1980s, they won five C titles in six years: 1984, 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1989.

HAINES MERCHANTS

Class A champions, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1982, 1983

In the late 1970s, five former college basketball players found themselves in Haines with little to do in the offseason. They spent hours in the gym getting ready for Gold Medal, where they could finally play against somebody besides each other.

The Haines Pioneers won the town's first title in 1977 with point guard Rick Lowe, a former player at Skagit Community College; Gary Lathan, from Western Oregon State College; Terry Friske, of Carroll (Mont.) College; Terry Sele of Linfield College; and Hugh Rietze, who had played with Lowe and Lathan at Skagit and Western Oregon State.

In 1978, the team changed its named to the Merchants, to honor the support from the town's business owners.

At 6-4, Rietze was the tallest Merchant. He won the MVP in 1979. Lowe took three (1978, 1980 and 1983), and Sele was awarded one (1982).

"It was probably the best team I ever played on, including four years of college," Rietze said of playing with the Merchants. "Everybody on that team could score. Somebody might get 20 to 25 points one night, and the next night the next guy would get his. It was an excellent team, big and quick. We had Sele and Friske and Lathan, all of whom played good defense. Rick Lowe was a great ballplayer. He was a great passer, great shooter, just a real general."

The Merchants played the AA Juneau Arctic Knights in a couple exhibitions, losing by just a few points. From 1980 to 1982, the Merchants met Juneau Kentucky Fried Chicken in three consecutive title games. Haines beat Juneau in 1980 and 1982.

YAKUTAT

Class B champions, 1979, 1980, 1982, 1983

Cousins Jim Bremner and George Henniger and brothers Mike, Bill ("Buzz"), Jim and Les Jensen started getting serious about putting together a solid Yakutat team for the B classification in 1978. They rolled to the finals but were promptly crushed by Angoon, 111-79, for the title.

That beating served as motivation for 1979, when high school teachers Tim Kenworthy and Bill Cass joined the team and helped Yakutat to a title-game pasting of Klawock. Kenworthy, a 6-4 post filling in for Jensen who couldn't make it to Juneau due to five days of heavy fog, was named MVP.

Yakutat added three more B bracket championships in the next four years - 1980, 1982 and 1983.

"Kenworthy was definitely a good ballplayer, and he could put some points up," Bremner said. "We were all in shape and could run. Chunky (Henniger), myself and Mike, we all scored points. When one of us was off, the other was on. Les could score points, and Jim was a good rebounded. Buzz could rebound, assist and shoot. John (Jensen) was a defensive player. He could steal the ball."

After a one-year stint in the A bracket, Yakutat returned to the B in 1982 to win two more titles. After 1983, they went back to the A tournament.

The core of the team stayed in the A until 1987. Some are still playing in the Legendary C bracket.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com



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