Ten years ago, a dream of a small-college basketball coach was realized when the first Great Alaska Shootout was played here on Thanksgiving weekend.
In the decade since then, the tournament has blossomed into one of the premier tournaments in all of college basketball with long waiting lists of teams wanting to get in.The University of Utah is making its first appearance here and the second by a Utah team (Utah State played here in 1986, finishing fifth). The Utes are finding the 5-degree temperatures are offset by the warmth of the local community, which offers a royal treatment.
The whole city seems to get into the action during the week of the Shootout. Since the tournament is played Thanksgiving weekend, families from the area take players in and feed them Thanksgiving dinner. At each of the hotels where the teams stay, the front-desk people wear shirts from the various schools, and the lobby is decked out in basketball decorations. The waiters and waitresses in the restaurant wear referee-striped shirts while they serve you your $2.75 small orange juice.
The idea for the tournament originated with Bob Rachal, the coach of Alaska-Anchorage in 1978. Rachal was aware of the NCAA rule that said college basketball games played outside the contiguous 48 states don't count against the normal allotment of 28 games. And he decided to take advantage of teams wanting a "free" extra three games with an eight-team tournament.
The first Sea Wolf Classic was played in the 4,000-seat Buckner Field House at nearby Fort Richardson. Despite the fact that the tourney was a brand-new idea, it still attracted a quality field that included teams such as North Carolina State, Louisville, Indiana, Lamar and Pepperdine. North Carolina State won the initial tournament, defeating Louisville - and Darrell Griffith.
Although Rachal lost his job after the 1978-79 season and despite less-than-expected crowds and revenue, the tournament survived another year. For its second go-around, it was renamed the Great Alaska Shootout, a name reportedly coined by TV commentator Billy Packer
During the first decade of the tournament, some 41 teams that played in the Shootout made the NCAAs the same season. Virtually every major college basketball team has played in the Shootout. Past winners include N.C. State (twice), North Carolina (twice) Kentucky, Louisville, Iowa, and Arizona. Among the players who have played in the tournament are James Worthy, Patrick Ewing, Wayman Tisdale, Alvin Robertson and Danny Manning.
In 1983, the tournament moved to its present location, the 8,000-seat Sullivan Arena, which was built in midtown Anchorage.
This year's field includes some big names such as defending national champion Kansas, the all-time winningest school in NCAA history, and Kentucky, the third-winningest team in history. The only problem is that both schools are in turmoil right now because of off-the-court activities.
Kansas has been placed on probation by the NCAA for violations committed under former Coach Larry Brown. Kentucky, meanwhile, is under investigation for several alleged violations. Two weeks ago, athletic director Cliff Hagan resigned and last week, commentator Dick Vitale caused some controversy by calling for Coach Eddie Sutton's resignation.
Florida, which features the third-winningest NCAA coach in Norm Sloan is one of the favorites in the Southeastern Conference and one of the favorites here. That was before 7-foot-2 center Dwayne Schnitzius was suspended by a student committee for his involvement in a fight last week.
Utah, which may not win the whole thing, may end up with the prize for the cleanest school in the tourney. The Utes got into the tournament with help from Alaska-Anchorage Coach Ron Abegglen, who formerly coached at Snow College.