Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
The NBA Finals are currently playing out in Milwaukee and Phoenix, far, far from Alaska. Though it has been a long time, Anchorage does have a history with the NBA. Legends like Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone played here. The NBA’s local dalliances certainly created many enduring, cherished memories for the residents lucky enough to attend. However, apathy ultimately drove professional basketball away.
Anchorage’s first brush with professional basketball came all the way back in October 1967. The St. Louis Hawks, now the Atlanta Hawks, and Seattle SuperSonics, now the Oklahoma City Thunder, agreed to a two-game series at the West High School gym. The players included future Hall of Famers Lenny Wilkins, Zelmo Beaty and Rod Thorn, as well as past and future all-stars Joe Caldwell, Paul Silas, Walt Hazzard, Tom Meschery and Bob Rule. Hawks player-coach Richie Guerin, another future Hall of Famer, did not insert himself into either game.
The Sonics were set to kick off their inaugural season. As the professional team nearest to Alaska, team officials perhaps hoped to plant the seeds of local support, something enjoyed by the NFL’s Seahawks and MLB’s Mariners today. Despite long flights and a short turnaround, both teams went the extra mile and offered free public clinics and practices, the Hawks at the Elmendorf gym and Sonics at West High.
The Hawks and Sonics split the two-game series, and by all accounts provided an exhilarating product. Tickets were only $5, about $40 in 2021 money, though that was still enough to make locals complain of high prices. Whether suddenly frugal Alaskans were turned off by the cost or not, they did not show up for the games. Only an estimated 1,400 people attended the first game in a gym that could hold more than twice that number. For the second game, attendance dropped to 1,200. Organizers needed an $18,500 gross to break even. Instead, at $5 a ticket, they only took in about $13,000. In the immediate wake of the debacle, Anchorage Daily Times sportswriter Jon Jessar predicted, “The disappointing crowds undoubtedly means that no effort will be made for a long time to come to bring a regular NBA game to Anchorage.”
Jessar was correct. It took 15 years for the NBA to return to town. Within that gap was another noble if doomed experiment with professional basketball. The Anchorage Northern Knights, a member of the minor-league Continental Basketball Association, lasted from 1977 to 1982. They were league champions in 1980 but never made a profit or sold out a game at their West High home. In the summer of 1982, the team was sold back to the CBA and dissolved.
On Oct. 18, 1982, the NBA finally made its Alaska comeback with the R & R Classic, a one-game exhibition at the Buckner Fieldhouse on Fort Richardson between the Phoenix Suns and Seattle SuperSonics. A player for the Hawks in 1967, Lenny Wilkens returned to Anchorage as the head coach of the Sonics. He remembered little of his previous trip north, only vague memories of a “prairie town” with a springy-floored gym. He certainly did not recognize the post-pipeline boom city.
The NBA had also grown in national importance and from 10 to 23 teams. Wilkens told the Anchorage Times, “The biggest difference is in talent. When I came into the league [in 1960], only one team had abundant talent — the Celtics. Now just about every team has real talented ballplayers even down to the 9th or 10th guy on the roster.” Among the players who made the trip were future Hall of Famers Jack Sikma, David Thompson and Dennis Johnson, plus multiple-time All-Stars like Maurice Lucas, Larry Nance Sr., Walter Davis, Gus Williams and Phil Smith.
General admission tickets sold for between $19.50 and $28.50 (between $53 and $78 in 2021 money). Floorside seats went for $100, about $274 in 2021. Locals still complained about the pricing, but this time they paid up.
Tickets sold out in advance, admittedly for a small venue. On the night of the game, traffic snarled for 3 miles along the Glenn Highway, each car not-so-patiently waiting for its turn to enter the base. An hour before tipoff, the stands were already half full. And Seattle won, the preferred outcome for most in attendance. While insufficient parking and the single restroom slightly hampered the experience for some, the R & R Classic blew past reasonable expectations and was a complete success.
The exhibition was so successful that it inspired a bit of madness. On each seat, the promoters left a questionnaire gauging potential support for an NBA expansion team — not an exhibition game or minor-league team, but a full-time franchise based in Anchorage. The Sullivan Arena would open the following year and, unlike most new arenas, had not secured a permanent tenant. One of the promoters told the Anchorage Daily News, “If we’re going to do it at all, it would have to be done behind a statewide interest. One thought we’ve looked at is the Green Bay Packers football team. That team is actually under public ownership.”
A decade later, Juneau sports columnist Lee Stoops offered a similar proposal, using the Permanent Fund to buy the Seattle Mariners. Neither plan advanced beyond some extremely unofficial inquiries. There is a massive gulf between selling 3,850 tickets, the 1982 R & R Classic attendance, and supporting a top-tier professional team. During the 1982-1983 season, the Sonics averaged 14,000 fans a night. Meanwhile, some Northern Knights games had commenced in front of as few as 400 ticket-buyers.
On Oct. 11, 1983, the Sonics returned, this time facing off against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Sullivan Arena in the rebranded Godfather’s Pizza Classic. The Sonics were still led by coach Wilkens, making his third trip to Anchorage. Unfortunately, several players did not participate for a number of reasons, including Jim Paxson, David Thompson and future Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler, a rookie who had not yet signed. In addition, four-time All-Star Tom Chambers broke his hand during an in-game fight and missed the rest of the preseason.
As a game, the exhibition provided solid entertainment and another Sonics win. Beyond that were numerous warning signs. As fans arrived, only one door was open. The pedestrian traffic jam was such that many didn’t reach their seats until after the game had begun. The overwhelmed site management was the target of numerous criticisms during the Sullivan’s early years. Some of their other blunders included missing checks and running out of beer before the end of the first round of a boxing match.
Ticket prices remained high. In Seattle, Sonics tickets that season cost $3 to $16. In Anchorage, the tickets cost $15 to $50. Those in the know chose not to announce the number of tickets sold, possibly attempting to limit attention for the non-sellout. Estimates ranged from 6,000 to 6,400 in attendance, a number that would have roughly allowed the promoters to break even. A co-promoter declared, “Nobody’s going to make money off this except the teams,” who received a guarantee for their crucial participation.
In 1984, the annual exhibition became the Great Alaska Pro Sport Classic, an Oct. 12 and 14 series between the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. These were the Pat Riley, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-led “Showtime” Lakers who appeared in eight Finals and won five titles during the 1980s. While the Clippers did feature future Hall of Famer Bill Walton, the Lakers were the stars of the show, with Abdul-Jabbar garnering the biggest cheers. Despite the star power, the game once more failed to sell out.
In 1985, promoter Joe Capetti expanded the exhibition into a three-day, four-game, five-team NBA Pro Classic tournament featuring the Utah Jazz, Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets, New Jersey Nets and Phoenix Suns. He told the Daily News, “If we could get NBA teams to see the city, we could maybe get a couple of regular season games played here. A lot depends on whether this is a basketball town, whether the city could support it. We think it can.”
After possibly breaking even in 1983 and 1984, the 1985 series was a disaster. Declining coverage was a minor factor. It certainly did not help when an Anchorage Times columnist described the Suns, Nets, Nuggets and Warriors as “no-name teams.” Only 1,800 fans showed up for the first game, leaving cavernous empty sections in the Sullivan. Fewer attended later games, despite stars like Darryl Dawkins, Alex English, John Stockton and rookie Karl Malone, already known as the “Mailman.”
And that was that for the NBA in Anchorage. There would be no franchise, no regular-season games, and not even any more exhibitions. Anchorage could not sell out peak Showtime Lakers and failed to muster even 2,000 fans for a Nuggets-Suns game. In other words, don’t expect the NBA to ever return.
Capetti’s later shenanigans offer an appropriate footnote. Capetti, who organized the 1984 and 1985 NBA exhibitions, had the opposite of a Midas touch. His Anchorage schemes included a Johnny Cash concert during the artist’s popular nadir and a 1986 screening of WrestleMania II. The final and biggest bust came with a 1988 George Foreman boxing match. The former champion was long past his 1970s heyday and several years away from his 1994 title win and Foreman Grill return to cultural relevance.
Only 1,584 tickets were sold for the 8,000-seat Sullivan Arena. Frank “Gator” Williams was billed as Foreman’s opponent with a more than solid career record of 33 wins, 14 losses, and 3 draws. Instead, it was really Frank Lux who finished with the less stellar record of 20-36-1. For legal reasons, the fight cannot be described as fixed. To top it all off, Capetti abandoned Alaska after the event and left his innocent charity partner with the bill.
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