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SI strikes again

Posted: Friday, March 05, 2004

The first thing I noticed when the Alaska installment of Sports Illustrated's "50 States in 50 Weeks" arrived in the office was that the musher on the cover wrap, identified as 2003 Iditarod winner Robert Sorlie, was not, in fact, Sorlie.

Oh boy, I thought. Here we go again.

For those not familiar with the magazine's "50 States in 50 Weeks" series, Sports Illustrated, celebrating its 50th year, is profiling a state a week. So far, topics have ranged from tobogganing in Maine to lacrosse in Maryland.

It was October of 2000 when Sports Illustrated was last in the neighborhood to do a piece about Alaska small-schools football.

The piece that ran was OK, but the writer -- who never visited Kenai -- certainly stretched the truth, making the peninsula sound about as dreary and desolate a place as one could find.

So what do the writers at SI have in store this time around?

A mixed bag, as it turns out.

Once I got past the cover wrap -- the musher in the photo is Jerry Riley, who scratched in Shaktoolik last year -- and my lack of surprise that they picked the Iditarod to feature, I was pleasantly surprised with the feature article about Nome musher Aaron Burmeister. Writer Chris Ballard, in a relatively small amount of space, certainly found a fresh angle on the Last Great Race -- or at least one that hasn't been overdone.

The next page features an essay by Trajan Langdon, the former East High School star who was a two-time All-America selection at Duke, played in the NBA and now plays professionally in Europe.

Langdon certainly has credentials as an expert on Alaska basketball. He does a good job in his description of both the popularity of basketball here in Alaska and some of the unique characteristics of the sport and the athletes here -- shooting baskets in the snow, for example.

So far, so good.

And then comes the stats page. Sure, they got a few things right. They included Les Anderson's 97.25-pound king salmon in the "Numbers" box, and it's hard to argue with their choices for the state's six all-time best athletes -- basketball players Langdon and Carlos Boozer, downhill skiers Tommy Moe and Hilary Lindh, musher Susan Butcher and hockey player Scott Gomez.

And Libby Riddles' 1985 Iditarod win as the state's greatest sports moment certainly is defensible.

They even mentioned Kasilof's Jay Hakkinen, an Olympic biathlete, and they got in a tidbit about Alaska summer baseball -- the Midnight Sun game in Fairbanks -- in their "Who & Where" box.

But that's where I start scratching my head.

First, a quick lesson in Alaska geography might be beneficial to the editors at SI. Mt. Marathon, for example, is in Seward, not, as SI shows, between Cordova and Yakutat.

They've also got Denali about 300 miles too far east, Mt. St. Elias too far to the northwest, and Alyeska Resort out on Montague Island -- great for fishing, not so good for downhill skiing.

Maybe they're just using a different projection than I'm used to.

Then there's "The Poll."

OK, of the 400 Alaskans polled by Harris Interactive, 22 percent were Seattle Mariners fans.

I'd like to know exactly who was polled. Was it mostly folks from Anchorage? Fairbanks? Did they contact anyone in Nome? Metlakatla? Soldotna? Are there really that many Mariners fans in Kenai?

And while I think Mike Cusack Jr., former owner of the Alaska Aces, is worthy as "Enemy of the State," how did George Steinbrenner top that category?

Indeed, just a few of the numbers in the poll seem to ring true to what I know of Alaskans: Fishing and hunting top the list of favorite sports in which to participate; football tops the list of sports to watch on TV; and the majority of Alaska sports fans have no favorite when it comes to picking pro teams.

When Alaska sports fans say they don't have a favorite pro sports team, don't mistake that response for indifference. Rather, take it for what it more likely means -- being a sports fan here means either heading to the local high school gym or hitting the trails, fishing streams and ski slopes yourself.

What the poll clearly illustrates is the same thing the piece on Kenai football from a few years back shows: When talking sports -- or just about anything else -- Alaska is a different world. On the one hand, things here are more normal than someone from the Lower 48 might expect, but on the other hand, the things that are different are very, very different.

Basketball is popular in both Anchorage and Barrow, but how many Anchorage kids rush home from hoops camp, as Langdon recounted in his essay, so they can help their father make jewelry from the teeth and claws of a freshly killed polar bear?

You can't quantify the landscape here -- sports and otherwise -- using preconceived standards that work well somewhere else.

A well-written piece can touch on the passions of Alaskans, but in a state as expansive and diverse as this, a poll doesn't even scratch the surface.

This column is the opinion of Clarion reporter Will Morrow. Comments may be e-mailed to clarion@alaska.net.



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