Schools shut down, towns empty and thousands make the trek each spring from villages throughout Southeast Alaska to the regional hub of Juneau for the annual Gold Medal Tournament. Started in 1947 as a way to raise money for the Boy Scouts, the week-long event sponsored by the Juneau Lions Club transcends the sport of basketball.
It is a social, cultural and economic boon for Juneau and a March Madness gathering for family and friends from Metlakatla to Yakutat.
The tournament attracts former high school stars, college players and local legends. Some fly home from the Lower 48 or travel on leave from the military just to play in the tournament.
As teams trade baskets on the court, fans share stories and friends sample cultural delicacies such as herring eggs, smoked salmon and fry bread. Families are reunited.
Gold Medal refreshes spirits after the long winter months and gives many people a useful direction, said the late Dr. Walter Soboleff, a tourney founder who died in 2011 at age 102.
“The Muslims go to Mecca and each March (we) go to Juneau. It’s like a religious journey to us,” said Gold Medal hall of famer and legislator Albert Kookesh of Angoon during opening ceremonies at the 50th tourney in 1996.
Fathers, sons and grandsons have suited up in the same games. A few, such as Sitka’s Herb Didrickson, were reputed to have professional-caliber skills. Didrickson, considered one of the top basketball talents to come out of Alaska, played in the first tourney in 1947 and was the first member inducted into the Gold Medal Hall of Fame in 1961.
In those early years it took days to travel by fishing boat – sometimes in severe winter weather – to reach Juneau.
“You made sacrifices for love of the game,” said Gil Truitt, a former school administrator and Southeast sports historian.
Gold Medal plays such an important part in people’s lives that the tournament is mentioned in the obituaries of many former participants.
– Mike Sica