Frozen Hoops

In November, the New York Times website featured a video and an accompanying article on the Tikigaq School in Point Hope, Alaska, and its men’s basketball team’s, the Harpooners, pursuit of a fourth consecutive state championship (the video can be found here).

As someone who played countless basketball games on the court in front of my house, playground blacktops, rickety armory gyms, and indistinguishable high schools, but for whom the game never became an all-consuming passion, I am drawn to stories about people for whom the small courts and isolated gyms are defining.  I call these people “gym rats,” but in the case of the kids from Point Hope, Alaska “gym marmots” or “gym arctic hares” might be a more apt name.  I am torn between envy at their drive to excel in basketball and worry about the over-emphasis of a game in children’s lives.

Point Hope stands in stark contrast to densely populated basketball meccas like New York and Los Angles, or even smaller cities like Seattle and Portland.  This tiny, isolated Alaskan town is located on a spit of land on the western-most extension of Alaska’s North Slope.  The Harpooners’ men’s and women’s teams must fly to all of their games; their shortest trip is an hour and a half, but some games require up to twelve hours in the air.  For the kids at the Tikigaq School, basketball isn’t just any old extracurricular, it’s an all-consuming activity that requires a major commitment of time and effort.

With about 900 residents and only 60 high school students, basketball dominance would seem to be demographically unlikely, if not downright impossible.   According to the article, the community credits much of the team’s success to its people’s history of whale hunting.  Whale hunting, like basketball, rewards teamwork and perseverance.  Basketball, like whaling before it, has become a tradition for this town and its people: younger siblings shoot and dribble courtside while they eagerly wait to join in their elders’ pick-up games; fathers and grandfathers can point out pictures of their past triumphs in the high school’s trophy cases.  In addition to history, the Tikigaq players credit their passing ability to the cold, frozen environment that, before the town had indoor courts, meant they always played on surfaces too cold for much dribbling or outside shooting.  Faced with these conditions, teams pass and cut rather than rely on one or two players to take their defenders off the dribble.

The Harpooners’ achievements are amazing and serve as an example of how willpower, practice, and effort can make victories even without a large talent pool.  Still, the article doesn’t address the Tikigaq School’s academics, or what happens to its players after their high school playing days are over.  A Google search turned up no information about Point Hopers playing college basketball, so I assume not many are going to school on athletic scholarships.  My questions, then, are the same ones I ask about all places where high school athletics are held in such high esteem not only by the players, but also by the community.  What happens after the four years are over?  What else do these kids take away from high school besides the memories of state championships and hours in the gym?  They must have missed a lot of class because of their long travel times, with basketball prioritized over school.

These concerns are also prevalent in discussions about professionalization in football and basketball at NCAA Division I institutions.  Although critics worry about student-athletes’ lost opportunities given the amount of time athletic programs require them to devote to their sport, concerns over student-athletes at the college level focus on the amount of money teams generate for their schools and the NCAA.  At the pre-college level, Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) coaches and organizers are often accused of using their players as cash cows and tools to land themselves college athletic jobs.  A town glorifying its high school athletes with little regard for their scholastic or personal development seems less damaging because there is less money involved, and, unlike with AAU teams, little benefit to the people rooting on the athletes.

I think this is an illusion.  In Point Hope’s case, is it possible that there is a ceiling to the opportunities for youths?  A ceiling so low, in fact, that basketball victories fulfil the players’ potential and don’t come at the expense of anything else?  I don’t think it is the case that high school sports are necessarily purer than college because of money isn’t as prevalent.  The lack of money involved doesn’t mean there isn’t something wrong with promoting athletic success at the high school level to the ultimate detriment of a student’s future.

Although this article doesn’t give any information about the town’s economic health or the opportunities available for young people, The New York Times ran another piece about the battle over Point Hope’s natural resources (the article can be found here).  While oil abounds in the ocean off Point Hope’s coast, many in the town worry that the oil industry will destroy their traditional way of life while simultaneously bringing jobs and revenue.  If basketball has also become a staple in Point Hope’s society and cultural legacy, would oil money bring distractions and opportunities that might slowly decrease the lure of basketball to children? Basketball is a relatively cheap game.  It thrives in impoverished areas where children lack abundant economic, educational, and social opportunities.  For Point Hope, oil brings money and opportunity.  These opportunities will threaten basketball’s grip on children’s time, hopes, and dreams.  While the oil industry means potential harm to Point Hope’s environment or cultural traditions, the money and jobs it provides also make a wider range of futures available. For example, if parents find better employment because of oil development, they might be able to afford to send their kids to college.  Seeing the possibilities, they might push their kids to work harder in school, and this might mean fewer hours to play basketball.

I still envy Point Hope’s Harpooners’ basketball success, even if I doubt whether the lengths they go to achieve it are healthy for children and teenagers.  I value having played sports in high school and college and I wish I had practiced more, but I knew for a long time that my future wasn’t on a court or a field.  Perhaps I am lucky I was never good enough and didn’t live in a place that valued athletic success so highly because I never felt pressure to make sports my main pursuit. Sports are often glorified given the myth that they offer life-changing opportunities for those without other avenues to personal betterment.  Since professional athletes often have remarkable personal stories of triumph, we tend to believe sports offer a greater source of opportunity than they actually do.  People who become professional athletes have supreme natural talent, and their lives are a blueprint for a replicable path out of adversity.

If this a topic that interests you, I strongly recommend the television show Friday Night Lights for a highly realistic but fictional portrayal of Dillon, a football crazed Texan town, where athletic dreams clash with educational and social development.  The show is based on an equally interesting non-fiction book of the same name, which I also recommend.  For anyone interested in the connection between basketball and society in America, the documentary Hoop Dreams is an amazing story about two kids growing up in Chicago and dreaming that basketball can be their ticket to somewhere else.  Hoop Dreams is particularly enlightening because it goes against the traditional myth of athletic triumph and explores what happens when sports don’t pan out.

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