FAIRBANKS - Seven-foot center Nick Billings was a big draw in Kodiak when he led the Bears to the 2001 Class 4A state high school basketball championship. This weekend, he drew most of Kodiak to Fairbanks.
Billings is the starting center for the Binghamton University Bearcats, one of eight teams competing in the BP Top of the World Classic, and as many as 200 Kodiak residents made the trip north to see him in a green Bearcat uniform.
"The whole island claims Nick," said his mother, Jeanne Billings, as she sat with her family three rows up from the midcourt line.
"We want to see how much he's changed," said the athlete's father, Dave Billings, a Kodiak firefighter. "We haven't seen him (play) since high school."
Billings is the big one that got away from the Alaska colleges. Famed Marquette coach Al McGuire called players like Billings "aircraft carriers," the force in the middle, the last obstacle to the basket who makes up for teammates' defensive lapses. Last year, he was credited with 117 blocked shots, second in the nation behind Connecticut's Emeka Okafor.
Billings was recruited heavily by NCAA Division II Alaska Fairbanks but he wanted to play for a Division I school, Jeanne Billings said.
He found a situation he liked at Binghamton, a school of 13,000 on the other side of the country in Vestal, N.Y. He liked the small-town atmosphere, the rolling hills that reminded him of Kodiak, the coaches and players, his mother said.
Billings' parents had not been to Fairbanks since they drove up on a Harley-Davidson for a Hog convention, they said, and never in winter.
The Kodiak High School cheerleaders arrived Wednesday, mindful that they had left a maritime climate for the subartic.
As they stood up from their seats on an Alaska Airlines jet, they reached into the overhead bins and donned scarves, hats and gloves so that soon only cheerleader eyes were showing. No one told them their encounter with the cold would begin only after they had walked through a warm jetway and collected their luggage.
Most had never been so far north, but they were willing to risk it to cheer on Billings.
"I've never used so much lotion in my life," Crystal Jones said after experiencing the cold, dry Interior air.
The high school drill team and dozens of its students also flew north.
"They were telling us on the phone that the halls were empty," said Hilary Merrick, a senior who cheered for Billings when she was a freshman.
They didn't get to see much of Billings in his debut against St. Mary's on Friday. The junior picked up two fouls in the first 1:22 of the game and immediately went to the bench. He came in for about a minute more toward the end of the half. He finished the game with eight points, all in the second half of a 76-58 loss.
The game Saturday went much better. Billings scored 15 points, grabbed six rebounds and blocked three shots in a 78-62 loss to Idaho State.
On Sunday, Binghamton beat Virginia Military Institute 72-63 to claim seventh place in the tournament. Billings scored 12 points, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked three shots before leaving the game with an ankle injury with 5:13 left to play.
In other games Sunday, Rice beat Washington State 64-49 in the championship game, while St. Mary's beat UAF 71-47 in the third-fifth place game and Idaho State edged Texas-San Antonio 65-59 in the fourth-sixth place game.
Rice's Mike Harris earned tournament MVP honors and Billings was one of the 10 players named to the all-tournament team.
Billings' fans were just happy he came back to Alaska, especially the cheerleaders who cheered for him as a high school player and now as a college star.
"He's going to go pro," Merrick said.
"And we'll be there," Jenny Melendres added.