Noie: Only Notre Dame basketball visit to Great Alaska Shootout certainly memorable

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

It was a long journey into an abyss of bad basketball.

Or so it seemed.

It was the first season of what now is 19 and counting on the Notre Dame men’s basketball beat. That year – 1998-99 – sent the Irish far away on their only visit to the Great Alaska Shootout.

That meant the Tribune also headed for Anchorage. Four games into my first beat season, I’d be gone for six days over Thanksgiving week. Notre Dame would play three times in three days at the eight-team tournament. It was the longest trip I’d ever made to date and the longest I’d been away from family. Ever. The first time I’d spend a major holiday alone.

And to where? Where the NFL games kicked off at 8 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning. Where the sun didn’t rise until 10 a.m. Where night fell shortly after 3 p.m. Where it was cold. Really cold. Where it was dark. Really dark.

Where it seemed like the end. Of everything.

The end for the Great Alaska Shootout arrived Thursday with the announcement that this season would the tournament’s last after 40 years. Once college basketball’s premier November event, it has quietly slipped into the shadows of irrelevance.

At its peak, the tournament could bring in close to $2.5 million to the Anchorage economy. Many sessions were sellouts. Once able to lure the likes of Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan State and North Carolina, this year’s field includes Cal Poly, CSU Bakersfield, Idaho and San Houston State.

It’s been seven years since a team from a “power” conference won the Shootout. In 2010, the champion was St. John’s out of the Big East. The old Big East.

Thanksgiving week now provides power teams a plethora of options from the Bahamas (Battle 4 Atlantis) to Hawaii (Maui Invitational), Orlando, Fla. (AdvoCare Invitational) to Southern California (Wooden Legacy). Twenty years ago, there were basically two – the Maui Invitational and the Great Alaska Shootout.

Notre Dame headed north. So did the Tribune.

Three flights and nearly 14 hours of travel were required that Thanksgiving Tuesday to cover the 3,660 miles between South Bend to Anchorage.

Near midnight Alaska time, a 737 out of Seattle touched down at Ted Stephens International Airport. As it did, a flight attendant accidently unlatched the rear emergency door. That caused the plane’s cabin to depressurize and a few anxious moments.

It was the first sign of the weirdness to come.

Sights and sounds

Wednesday was an off day. Irish coach John MacLeod allowed the Tribune to tag along to practice at a local high school. As the team bus idled outside the downtown Hilton on the corner of Third and E streets, Thanksgiving dinners with all the fixings were being sold in red cardboard boxes out of a Volkswagen van. Its rear hatch was open from where the Blues Brothers’ “Gimmie Some Lovin’” blared.

Jake and Elwood. In Anchorage.

Made sense.

The team bus driver wore only shirt sleeves. All week. No coat. No gloves. No hat. Out to practice, he steered the bus deeper and deeper along winding roads and into the wilderness. There were signs warning of moose and bears. One Irish feared the bus breaking down and the traveling party being eaten. By foxes.

Then, out of nowhere, a high school appeared. And calm returned.

While the Irish worked out, two high school students, a boy and a girl, stood in an adjacent hallway. They argued. They talked. Then they kissed.

It was right out of a John Hughes movie.

When the bus returned to the downtown Hilton and the team headed to a conference room for film session and dinner, it was time for the Tribune to find some food downtown. This was long before cell phone apps could point people in the right food direction.

Back then, you followed your nose.

A small bar and grill nearby featured seafood. Really good seafood. But the interior was as dark as the Anchorage night. The walls were made of wood. There was a lot of smoke. A group of guys – it may have been Sig and Jonathan and Keith from Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch series – were at the bar.

“Sweet Home Alabama” bounced around the building.

Lynyrd Skynyrd. In Anchorage.

Made sense.

Time to play

Thanksgiving Night paired Notre Dame against No. 1 Duke. Tip-off was just after 8 p.m. local time, midnight back in Indiana. Pre-game dinner was a room service hamburger and bowl of chili.

The three Irish efforts at the old Sullivan Sports Arena were rather forgettable. Or, in some ways, forever memorable.

Notre Dame trailed Duke by 28 points at intermission, scored 48 in the second half but still lost 111-82 to drop to 2-17 all-time against the Blue Devils. Nearly two decades later, Notre Dame would beat Duke five of six in one stretch. As conference colleagues.

Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins, whose team beat Duke for the tournament title two nights later, wandered to press row to watch some of the second half. At one point, assistant Mick Cronin, now the Bearcats’ head coach, jumped up and headed up into the arena concourse. He returned with a large cup of ice cream, which he handed to Huggins.

Hugs attacked it the same way West Virginia’s press smothered Notre Dame last March during the NCAA Tournament. The Irish had no chance that day in Buffalo, N.Y.; neither did the ice cream that night in Anchorage.

The next night wasn’t much better. Playing host Alaska-Anchorage, Notre Dame was taken to overtime. With a sellout crowd sensing something special, a young Irish team never had a chance. They lost in overtime. To a Division II team. The game featured 37 turnovers, 51 fouls and 65 free throws. A classic.

The Irish were one more loss from finishing eighth in the eight-team tournament. Twenty-nine points and a pair of late free throws from freshman small forward David Graves helped dodge another disaster, this time to Southern Utah.

A red-eye to Chicago awaited later that night, but the drama still wasn’t done.

With my United Airlines flight to O’Hare somewhere over Montana, the Notre Dame traveling party was on a Delta one to Sea-Tac International Airport. Then and there, in Seattle on a Sunday morning, was where former power forward Hans Rasmussen decided to transfer out of the program.

That pretty much put a period on a wild week in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

Then, I couldn’t get home soon enough.

Now, I wish I could go back.

The Great Alaska Shootout soon will be gone, but not forgotten.

Noie: 

Phil Hickey and Notre Dame participated in the 1998 Great Alaska Shootout and returned home with two losses, including to a Division II team - Anchorage - in overtime. (AP File Photo)