Near the turn of the century, Alaska School Activities Association officials decided their signature event, the high school state basketball championships, needed a proper moniker and a bit of a makeover.
In 2001, March Madness Alaska was born, turning a decades-long tradition with modest beginnings into an annual spectacle.
March Madness represents Alaska better than any other sporting event. Held over consecutive weekends at UAA in mid-March, it features 118 games and 80 teams ranging from schools from the smallest villages to those from the largest cities. It crowns eight champions in four enrollment-based classifications and attracts thousands of fans from every corner of Alaska, where basketball has reigned since long before statehood.
“A common thread through all of Alaska is basketball,” said Don Winchester, one of the state’s foremost sports historians. “It ties the whole state together, so creating this version of the tournament became a natural thing.
“ASAA and its board wanted to have a premier event, a real flagship.”
To get started, ASAA secured a license from the Illinois High School Association to use the phrase “March Madness.” It cost $10 – a decent investment.
Now an extravaganza, the tournament got its start in 1929 when Petersburg beat Fairbanks for the first Alaska state boys championship. It took a long break before returning in 1948 with Ketchikan triumphing over Fairbanks.
Juneau won the first title sanctioned by ASAA in 1958, and in 1972, Glennallen claimed the inaugural girls championship.
Today Alaskans from every way of life gather each March to celebrate the athletes who play for teams with only-in-Alaska nicknames like the Whalers, the Northern Lights, the Moose and the Halfbreeds. The essence of community is captured each time March Madness Alaska takes center stage.
“It’s really been an excellent event for those of us in the villages and the entire state,” said Ramona Rock, a longtime resident of Point Hope and coach of the Tikigaq Harpoonerettes.
– Matt Nevala