When Mike Krzyzewski flies from Durham, N.C., to your hometown
to recruit you to play basketball at Duke, you think, He must
be crazy. When your hometown is Anchorage, you know he's nuts.
So it was in the summer of 1993 that Coach K came for a visit
and took me out to dinner. We talked about Duke, basketball and
Duke basketball. Afterward, standing in the driveway of my
parents' house, we looked up and saw the Northern Lights--waves
of blue, green and yellow illuminating the sky. It was only the
second time I had ever seen them. "Trajan," Coach K said, "this
is a sign that you've got to come to Duke." ¬∂ The next year I
left Alaska for Durham, and since then I've lived around the
world: Ohio, where I played for the Cleveland Cavaliers; Italy
(Benetton Treviso); and now Turkey (Efes Pilsen). I visit
Alaska at least once a year, and each time I go back I realize
how lucky I am to have grown up there. My father, Steve, an
anthropology professor at the University of Alaska-Anchorage,
taught my younger sister, Trista, and me to appreciate the
state's landscape and way of life. He took me on many of his
research trips, including one on which he made a documentary
about the use of fish traps in early native cultures. Over time
what stuck in my mind was how everyone who lives in Alaska
loves it there.
Alaskans' passion for basketball--without question the most
popular sport in the state--is just as strong. Because of the
long, cold winters, it's difficult to play baseball and football.
And though many like to play hockey, the money needed to buy
equipment and to build and maintain rinks makes the sport too
expensive for the small villages that dot the state. I've
conducted basketball clinics and summer camps in some of those
villages--Barrow, Kotzebue, Seward--and the people there are just
as fervid about the game as any in the Lower 48.
Two years ago, at my camp in Barrow, I met a 15-year-old Inuit
girl who had tremendous basketball skills and could hold her own
against the boys. Later that day I watched as she helped her
father make jewelry out of the claws and teeth of a polar bear he
had hunted down that day.
In Anchorage, I attended East High and played in three straight
state championship games at high school gyms which were always
packed. And whenever we played our crosstown rival, West High,
fans had to be turned away at the door because East High's
5,000-seat gym would be sold out.
Trying to improve your game takes a little more effort in Alaska
than in any other state. Many times during the winter I would be
watching an NBA game on television and get the urge to work on my
jump shot. The temperature outside would be 0° if I was lucky,
and there would be at least six inches of snow on the ground. So
I would throw on a hat, boots and gloves, grab a ball and start
shooting at a driveway basket that had a frozen net. As my skills
improved, especially in high school, I wanted to play in adult
pickup games, but there were never enough guys at the gym to go
three-on-three, much less five-on-five. So games always had to be
organized by someone with a lot of phone numbers and
Even playing high school games wasn't easy. In some conferences,
teams had to fly to their away games. Carlos Boozer, who followed
me at Duke, told me that his high school team, Juneau Douglas,
had to take a 90-minute flight to Anchorage and then drive an
hour to get to three schools in its conference. For Carlos, ACC
travel must have seemed like walking to the mailbox.
So there is much more to Alaska than the images that are
typically beamed around the world. Sure, it snows a lot and it's
dark for as many as 18 hours a day during the winter, but if you
take a good look, you can see light through the gloom--and it's
probably coming from a crowded arena or school gym where Alaskans
are enjoying their hoops.
Trajan Langdon was a three-time All-ACC guard at Duke and reached
the NCAA championship game as a senior in 1999.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JOE CIARDIELLO