OPINION: Mother's passion for youth basketball has touched generations
When I was 7 years old, I wanted nothing more than to be a ballerina. A pretty princess who traipsed through the village in my tutu and ballet shoes. And I might have done just that, if it weren't for my mom.
In high school, my mother led the Kotzebue Huskiettes to their first Regional Championship by throwing up a buzzer beater in the fourth quarter. She was wearing knee pads and a sweat band, as was the fashion back then. She was known for her fast hands and non-stop threes. Everyone assumed I'd be as great as her. Not so.
After high school, her basketball legend continued while she led several teams to the championship of several city league tournaments, my favorite being in Nome at the Iditarod. When I was growing up, we never missed a game. I specifically remember Lonnie O'Connor, who the annual tournament is named for now, asking me if I was going to be as good as my mom. I always said, "No, I'm not going to play basketball."
In 1985, while I was in the second grade my mother decided to put a kibosh to my attempt at prima ballerina status. With other parents like Harold Lambert, Pete Lambert and Richard Lincoln, and with tremendous support from the Lions Club, they started "Little Dribblers Basketball" for the elementary school. Way back in '85 there were two leagues; the 1st-3rd graders were in one league, and the 4th-6th graders were in the other. Of course, my mom coached in both leagues.
She remembers coaching against Caleb Pungowiyi and Richard Lincoln in the championship games. Caleb's team beat her. Richard and her went off and on every year battling in the championships against each other. His kids against her kids. They probably split 50/50, he won one year, she won the next!
If you grew up in Kotzebue, chances are, you played on my mom's team, or played against her in some games. She keeps several photos of her teams over the years, and likes to watch the Husky basketball games. I overhear her talking to herself, "I remember when he was in the 3rd grade, he was a great dribbler!" and, "she was so fast, I am glad she continued to play basketball."
Over the years the program has changed little, due to the overwhelming popularity. The only large change being the grade levels and leagues. Nowadays, there is only one league and you can play Lions Club Basketball if you're in 3rd through 5th grade only. It is still all about the kids, growing their love for basketball and encouraging them to stay active while having fun. The coaches show extreme sportsmanship, too, which is important for the kids to see. Coaches will frequently tell the other teams players, "Great job!" and "What a good shot."
To continue to improve the kids skills, she started a Saturday Clinic last year where kids rotate through stations where they hone skills like dribbling, passing, defense, shooting correctly, blocking out, and lay ups. Community volunteers and the Husky Girls team come together to offer their expertise, and parents and coaches alike say that it shows during the games after the clinic. The players travel less and block out more.
Another Saturday event was set up several years ago as well, aptly named "Saturday Fun Day!" The players get to compete in events like Hot Shot, three point shot, free throw champion, bump and fastest dribbler. Each winner takes home a trophy during the Cookout and Awards. The Fun Day this year took place on the 28th during the end of season tournament. Over 65 kids participated.
I asked my mom what she thinks about Lions Club Basketball, she said it was great to coach the kids of previous players. Pat Savok, Jade Hill and Mandy Hill, all coaching their children this year, played Lions Club basketball themselves with her. This year she is coaching Gabriel Stalker and Kaisa Kotch. Twenty-five years ago Gabe's dad and Kaisa's mom were on her team too. Two of her grandchildren also happen to be on her team this year as well. Gabe's tatta Pete Lambert was also a veteran Lions Club Coach.
In the 27 years that Lions Club basketball has run, only Harold Lambert and my mom have coached and stayed with the program each year. In the more recent years Cathy McConnell has been there assisting with refereeing, coaching and clinic days. Cathy also coaches basketball for the 1st and 2nd graders each year, focusing mainly on dribbling and shooting to get the kids ready for Lions Club.
Today, the Lions Club basketball program hosts over 75 kids on 8 teams in a six-week program of practices, games and the tournament. The Kotzebue Lions Club still supports the program with basketballs, t-shirts with team names and numbers for each child and coach, all the trophies, and an end of season Cookout for the community.
This year, the Awards Ceremony and Cookout will be on Saturday at 1 p.m. I'll be there taking photos of the kids, and to admire my mother for all her hard work and dedication she has shown for two generations of kids.
I think she believes that she is getting too old for this but I am sure she will be there next year, and the year after that, coaching, teaching, reffing and simply being there for our kids.