March 25, 2006
By George Bryson
The Anchorage Daily News

It was the story of a book, a basketball game and the pride of Fort Yukon, and there were several possible endings, as the fans filled the stands Thursday at the University of Alaska.

Not the one where the village kids from Fort Yukon, mimicking the popular film "Hoosiers," win the Alaska 1A boys state basketball championship for the first time ever. That scenario slipped away the night before, when the Eagles fell to the perennially powerful Noorvik Bears from Northwest Alaska in the state semifinals.

For Fort Yukon fans, that second-round loss was painfully reminiscent of how their team fell at the state tournament the year before -- an episode documented in the new nonfiction book, "Eagle Blue," by Virginia-based author Michael D'Orso.

Still waiting to be resolved, however, were a couple of stray plot lines, among them: How would the team from Fort Yukon, the mostly Gwich'in village south of the oil-rich Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, fare that afternoon against Kaktovik, the mostly Inupiat village at the north coast of ANWR, in the battle for third place (or, if you wanted to really hype it, the "Battle for ANWR" between the generally anti-drilling Gwich'in and the generally pro-drilling Inupiat)?

What would Fort Yukon's fans think of "Eagle Blue," the book now gaining national attention (which generally honors the village's 2004-2005 basketball team and its passionate supporters, while shining a sidelight on some of the community's social ills)?

More specifically, what would those same fans say in a face-to-face encounter with the author -- who lived among them for five months while gathering material for his book, then disappeared to write it -- as he joined them in the stands to watch Fort Yukon's final game of the season, during a break from a national book tour?

D'Orso wondered too.

A 52-year-old journalist who'd written and co-authored about 10 books of nonfiction, he'd already heard a few compliments from Fort Yukon since "Eagle Blue" was released in Alaska two weeks earlier. But his publisher had also received a couple of pointed complaints. So he fully expected to receive a few more during the reunion, he said -- and invited a reporter to join him.

"Some people will probably come up and they'll be like, 'What a great book!' " D'Orso said the day before, speaking by telephone from Seattle. "And some might come up and pull a knife. You know, you'll get some good action."

But most of the action in the gym that afternoon was down on the court, at least during the first quarter -- as Fort Yukon center Aaron Carroll sank five of his first six shots to pace the Eagles to an early 12-point lead, recapturing some of the team's midseason magic. Fort Yukon coach Dave Bridges, who's now led a succession of Eagles teams to the state tournament eight straight years, appeared pleased but focused at the end of the bench. The year before, D'Orso said, he'd sat right next to Bridges at every single game, after receiving first the village's, then the team's, permission. Some of their opponents thought Fort Yukon had upgraded their arsenal, adding a second coach.

Now, however, he was just another spectator -- on the wrong side of the gym as it turned out, having arrived a little bit late to accommodate the reporter. At the quarter, D'Orso walked to the opposite bleachers to join the fans from Fort Yukon. Passing behind the team bench during the break, he caught the eye of a few of the subs, who swiveled their heads and smiled at D'Orso. The coach's wife, Diane, walked over and gave him a welcoming hug. So did a couple of old friends.

"Will you sign my book?" one of them asked.

Play resumed and the momentum on the court began to seesaw. Early in the second period, Fort Yukon forward Tim Fields sank a long three-pointer from the corner -- "Sweet stroke!" D'Orso said -- and the Eagles stretched their lead to 26-11. But three straight Fort Yukon turnovers in the minute that followed allowed Kaktovik to battle back. Just before the half, one of Kaktovik's subs grabbed a rebound and dropped an uncontested layup at the buzzer -- cutting the Eagles lead to seven. Bridges isn't a yeller -- he coaches with a sense of humor, D'Orso said. But just then he didn't look happy.

"Dave's pissed," he said, as the two teams walked off the floor.

On the other hand, none of the Fort Yukon boosters who walked up to D'Orso during the halftime break to shake his hand or ask him to autograph their copy of his book appeared likewise.

"I thought the book was great," said Sue Johnson, the school's new principal, who transferred to Fort Yukon last fall from another village in Alaska. "He just really captured the spirit of these kids: as players, as kids, as human beings," she said. "I know what they have to overcome to be as successful as they are."

It had been a long trip. After winning the Golden Heart Conference title two weeks earlier in Fairbanks, the players and their coach had continued down the highway in a team van to Anchorage, passing new copies of "Eagle Blue" among them.

"They all liked it," Bridges reported before the Kaktovik game. "They all dove into the book to find 'their' paragraph, as they called it, where it specifically talks about them."

He'd read it too, the coach said. He thought D'Orso tried to portray the community as honestly as he could, though he imagines at least some of his fellow townspeople will disagree.

"I guess warts don't look good on you," Bridges said. "And if you have a wart, you don't want it shown to the whole world necessarily. But that's the way life is. Everybody has warts."

Even the fighting Eagles, whose high-speed game had overwhelmed their small-school opponents all season long en route to Anchorage, where they started the state tournament with a record of 23-2.

They'd improved on that mark with an easy opening night win over Kwigillingok, 79-57, with five players scoring in double figures. But then they fell just as hard themselves, losing game two to eventual 1A division champion Noorvik, 57-39.

"We just couldn't find the bucket," Bridges said. "I was ready to put dollar bills on the rims to see if that would help."

In the second half against Kaktovik, all those warts began to vanish, however, as silky-smooth senior guard Johnny Adams sank 10 points from the field, and the "towering" Carroll brothers (6-foot-0 Derek and 6-foot-3 Aaron, the only Eagles taller than 5-11) dominated underneath, combining for a game total of 38 points.

With a half minute to go, Fort Yukon led by nine -- and Bridges and D'Orso were smiling. The game got a little closer, as Kaktovik sank a buzzer-beating three-pointer. But Fort Yukon captured the third-place trophy, 69-63. In the post-game celebration that followed, more fans sought out D'Orso to shake his hand and get him to sign their books. A few players posed with him for pictures, recounting their favorite passages: A memorable game. A celebration on the road. That time with the girls from Tanana.

But best of all was the book's general portrait of a dedicated coach and a dedicated team, principal Johnson said.

"The book doesn't really come out and say this, but Dave is like a parent, a dad, to all these guys," she said. "He teaches them how to be polite in restaurants. He teaches them how to work together as a team."

The same goes for his wife, Diane, she said. "So she's a 'mom' and he's a 'dad', and beyond that he's a really great coach. ... So yeah, I loved it. I thought it was a wonderful book."