Alaska celebrated some of its finest and most inspiring athletes Thursday night at the annual Alaska Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony — among them, a football player who spent a decade playing in the NFL, a cross country skier who won an Olympic gold medal and a high school coach who, sport by sport, built the athletic department at Kodiak High School.
But Alaska is a basketball state, and time after time people connected to the sport were honored at the ceremony at the Anchorage Museum:
- Jessica Moore, the Colony High graduate who won three NCAA titles with UConn and played nine seasons in the WNBA, became the second women’s basketball player inducted into the 15-year-old Hall of Fame.
- Alissa Pili, this season’s Pac-12 Player of the Year who last month led Utah to the Sweet 16, received the Pride of Alaska award given annually to the top women’s athlete of the year;
- Sayvia Sellers, the point guard who recently carried Anchorage Christian to a third straight state championship, picked up the Pride of Alaska award as the best high school girls athlete of the year;
- March Madness Alaska, the annual state basketball event that crowns eight state champions and stages more than 100 games over a two-week span each year in Anchorage, became the 15th event inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Toss in a cameo via video by Trajan Langdon, the basketball great who played for Duke and carved out a long pro career in Europe before becoming general manager of the NBA New Orleans Pelican, and the night was filled with hoop dreams.
Moore, 40, helped pave the way for other Alaska girls and women in the game.
“I’m so excited and so proud every time I see another player coming up and rising and not only going to college and playing, but really thriving,” she said in a video presentation about her career. “Alaska’s definitely on the map, and to be that catalyst for the next generation, it is everything.”
Pili and Sellers represent that next generation. Pili, the Dimond High grad who will be a fifth-year senior at Utah next season, has already made her mark in the Pac-12 Conference; Sellers, who just wrapped up a high school career during which her Anchorage Christian School team never lost to an Alaska opponent, hopes to do the same next season when she joins the Washington Huskies.
All three won high school championships at the March Madness Alaska tournament, a monster event that brings 80 teams, hundreds of players and thousands of fans to the Alaska Airlines Center every year.
The tournament is like a family reunion, said Gary Matthews, the retired director of the Alaska School Activities Association, which hosts the event.
It’s the biggest state tournament in the nation, he said, and it “celebrates Alaska’s fascination with basketball.”
Moore and March Madness were among five people, moments and events inducted into the Hall of Fame. Also enshrined:
- Reggie Tongue, a Lathrop High grad who starred at Oregon State and spent 10 years in the NFL;
- Joe Floyd, the beloved coach and athletic director who turned Kodiak into a sport town by introducing a multitude of high school and city-wide programs;
- Kikkan Randall’s 2018 Olympic gold medal victory, which was honored in the “moments” category. Randall was previously inducted as an individual in 2011.
Randall, 40, earned a big round of applause when she held up the gold medal she captured in the women’s team sprint race five years ago in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Moments become eligible for induction after five years, and Randall’s historic victory was added to the Hall of Fame as soon as it became eligible.
“To bring this gold medal back to Alaska and celebrate — it was just the most amazing thing,” she said. She recalled how her son Breck, now 7, would drag the precious medal “down the hallway like (it was) a little puppy following him.”
Tongue, a defensive back who finished his playing career with the most tackles (676), interceptions (17) and touchdowns (5) by an Alaskan in the NFL, won the night with a funny, heartfelt speech.
“I wrote it all down. Getting hit in the head a lot, (I) can’t remember everything,” he said as he unfolded a piece of paper before taking the microphone.
“Me and my mom had this conversation the other day. She was giving me some shade about not coming up to Alaska because I live in Texas now and she was talking about me not being an Alaskan any more,” he said. “I said, Mom, do you realize I’m in the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame? I’ll always be an Alaskan — my nickname’s Igloo.
“She also said, “You can call your brother and get some jokes for your speech,’ and I said, ‘Mom, do you realize I have a degree in speech communication?’ But you were right. I’m nervous as hell right now.”
Tongue, who turned 50 earlier this month, was a second-round pick who started in 116 games and played for four teams — the Chiefs, Seahawks, Jets and Raiders.
“I’m not sure how I was able to play as long as I did,” he said. “I just had a little voice in my head: ‘Why not you?’ I came to learn words are powerful, especially the ones you say to yourself.”
Also delivering a stirring speech was Max Floyd, who represented the Floyd family.
“He was at his best when he had a life in front of him to teach,” he said. “Dad was an influencer before there were influencers. Dad was a life coach before there were life coaches. He was a dad to anyone who wanted to play.”
Joe Floyd’s desire was “to get everyone into the game,” his son said, and that meant everyone. The philosophy was simple: “Play it. Coach it. Ref it. Sponsor it. Organize it.”
Floyd was inducted posthumously — he died in 2022 — but he has been a part of the Hall of Fame since its inception. He was a member of the first selection panel and is the namesake for one of the Director’s Awards, who are presented in conjunction with the Hall of Fame inaugurations. The Joe Floyd Award goes to a person or group for significant and lasting contributions to Alaska through sports.
This year’s winner was one of the many people influenced by Floyd — Kathleen Navarre, who spent a couple of decades working as a coach and sports administer at Kodiak High and Dimond High. Floyd was a mentor, said a sometimes-emotional Navarre.
Other Director’s Awards included four Pride of Alaska awards and two Trajan Langdon Awards.
Joining Pili and Sellers as Pride of Alaska winners were goaltender Jeremy Swayman, who is currently chasing the Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins, and Finnigan Donley, who emerged as the country’s top young alpine skier this winter.
Donley, 18, was a constant presence on the slopes at Alyeska Resort as a kid. “Growing up in Alaska led to all my success,” he said.
Swayman, 24, gave a nod to the athletes who inspired him growing up. “I’ve been looking up to all the amazing athletes that have paved the way for us,” he said. “It’s an incredible feeling to be in the same conversation as them.”
Runners collected both of the Trajan Langdon Awards that honor leadership, sportsmanship and inspiration.
The youth division winners — Grace Christian runners Geremu Daggett and Colton Merriner — were honored for an inspirational moment at the end of the Class 3A boys race at the 2022 state cross country championships, when Merriner pushed himself to exhaustion.
Both boys were headed to top-15 finishes until Merriner collapsed a few meters from the finish line. Daggett was nearly at the finish line when he decided to go back to help his teammate and was passed by two runners as he dragged Merriner across the finish line. Even though Merriner was disqualified for not finishing under his own power, Grace Christian won the team championship.
The winner in the adult division was Vanessa Aniteye, an Eagle River runner who was a six-time Division II All-America at UAA before putting her career on pause to get married, move to Seattle and have a baby. Aniteye and her baby spent four weeks in a newborn intensive care unit before leaving the hospital, and Aniteye didn’t train for about 20 weeks.
But she wasn’t done with track, and after two years without racing she joined the Seattle Pacific track team. There were plenty of naysayers, said husband Brandon Nicholson, who accepted the award because his wife is currently competing in Germany.
“It was a rough go, for both of us,” he said of the health concerns for their baby. “But she pushed through it. She’s very persistent.”
Aniteye was rewarded for her persistence last month, when she won the 800-meter title at the NCAA Division II indoor track championships. – By Beth Bragg