Going the distance: Alaska team makes long trip to tourney

Let's first dispel some misconceptions.

These guys don't live in igloos. And they don't run into polar bears on the way to school. Moose, maybe, but not polar bears.

Yes, Alaska is part of the United States. No, it's not over by Hawaii.

"Every time you tell somebody you're from Alaska, they have a list of questions that they've been wanting to ask somebody from Alaska, but they never got the chance to meet them," said Cordell Macon, a 6-foot-6 senior center on the East Anchorage High boys basketball team.

Hoops fans in Gwinnett have a chance this week to not only find out what life is like in the Last Frontier, but see how one Alaskan team compares to the local talent.

East Anchorage - perhaps not unknown after graduate Trajan Langdon became a star at Duke - made the 4,300-mile trek to Gwinnett to play in the prestigious Deep South Classic. It's the farthest any team has traveled in the tournament's 15-year history and the farthest most of these boys have ever been east.

Macon had never been past Minnesota and matched that when the team changed planes Monday evening. It was a six-hour flight from Anchorage to Minneapolis, Minn., and another two hours to Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

A long way to go - especially when airplane seats aren't designed for people the size of basketball players.

But after stretching out a little and adjusting to a four-hour time difference, the pluses for a trip like this far outweigh the minuses.

Basketball season in Alaska doesn't get going until after the holiday break. Coming in, East Anchorage had played in only one other tournament and posted a 3-1 record there. The Thunderbirds, who play in Alaska's highest classification and finished sixth in the state last year, won their first game of the Deep South on Tuesday against Landmark Christian and fell to co-host Brookwood on Wednesday.

"It's actually a real big thing for the kids to get out and for us to come down here," said Macon, who has committed to play football at Colorado State. "Then we get our team going against better competition, which makes us play better so when we go back to Alaska, we can bring something back.

"The season doesn't start until January, so if you don't get out, then basically in Alaska you're practicing for the month of December. You might as well get out and get some game experience."

Head coach Fred Young, who graduated from Northside (now known as North Atlanta) in Fulton County, and a couple of his players knew the competition here would be fierce.

Dennis and Damar Wilson grew up in Augusta before moving to Anchorage three years ago when their father was transferred to a military base there.

Young let his players vote on which tournament they wanted to go to during the winter break.

"The guys are pumped up," Young said. "They turned down a tourney in Hawaii to come here.

"For us, this is a stepping stone for our season. It's time to work out a lot of the kinks and come back ready."

The Wilsons talked up the Deep South, which they knew would feature ranked teams and plenty of college scouts.

"I just told them about how it is and the competition down here being better than in Alaska," said Damar, a junior forward.

It also gave the Wilsons a chance to spend Christmas with family and the rest of the team to check out some of the Atlanta sights. They were playing it by ear, but the aquarium and shopping were high on the to-do list.

It's mostly about what they can get done on the court, though.

"It's definitely about basketball, getting scouted and stuff like that," Macon said. "You've gotta get your name out on the street.

"It's good competition. We knew there would be some ranked teams here to play against. We wanted to come here and play against the big boys."

The Thunderbirds should be well prepared for the start of their season after this week's round of games - and maybe they'll be able to dispel some misconceptions about Alaska while they're here.

"It's nothing like here," said a smiling Damar, of Anchorage. "But it's civilized."

What, no polar bears?