The late Bob Rachal spent only one season as the University of Alaska Anchorage men’s basketball coach, but his legacy was the grandest early-season NCAA college basketball tournament of them all.
Begun on a wing and a prayer, and a very small budget, in 1978 on Fort Richardson, the originally named Seawolf Classic became a college basketball institution. The Shootout was the first event of its kind, attracted high-powered teams, offered superb hospitality and traded on the mystique of Alaska.
Rachal initiated the concept of bringing seven Division I teams to Alaska each Thanksgiving for a tournament hosted by a Division II school that would never otherwise have the clout to compete against them or to appear on television. But the community’s enthusiastic embrace of the event made it big-time. Once, Thanksgiving was a holiday when Alaskans vacationed out of state. The Shootout transformed the celebration into one where turkey was secondary to basketball and vacation time was spent at a gym called Sullivan Arena.
Traditional college basketball powers, from North Carolina and Duke, to Kentucky and Indiana, made Anchorage a coveted schedule stopover. Basketball fans in Alaska saw star players such as Patrick Ewing, Glenn Robinson, Antawn Jamison and Dwyane Wade in the flesh, sometimes before they became famous.
The Shootout became the signature sporting event for UAA and showcased the talents of All-Americans such as Hansi Gnad, Jessie Jackson, Jason Kaiser and other greats, for large audiences rooting for the underdog hometown team. Nationwide TV exposure boosted awareness of Alaska, the university, Anchorage, and a team popularized as a giant killer for all of its upsets.
When the Shootout absorbed the women’s Northern Lights Invitational as a four-team competition, the UAA women also distinguished themselves by winning several titles.
The Shootout continues to be popular to this day, but an influx of preseason tournaments throughout the Lower 48 have prevented the tournament from attracting the elite programs of yesteryear.
– Lew Freedman