Farewell, Great Alaska Shootout, and Thanks for the Memories

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Anchorage, Alaska seems an unlikely spot to be rich in college basketball history.

And yet, it’s there an Arizona basketball team led by Sean Elliott, a one-time Pac-10 career leading scorer and the first Wildcat to have his jersey retired; Steve Kerr, Arizona’s second jersey retiree; and coached by Hall of Famer Lute Olson, took its initial steps toward the program’s first Final Four as champions of the Great Alaska Shootout.

The Wildcats outlasted a field that included the Michigan Wolverines, one year shy of winning the national championship with Glen Rice, Loy Vaught and Rumeal Robinson; and topped Syracuse in the Thanksgiving weekend tournament’s title game.

Just seven months prior to that championship round matchup, Syracuse was locked in another against Indiana at the 1987 Final Four. A Keith Smart corner jumper was all that kept the Orange with Sherman Douglas, Rony Seikaly and Derrick Coleman from winning the national title.

The preceding illustrates just how important the Great Alaska Shootout once was in the landscape of college basketball. But this was 30 years ago, when cable TV was in its infancy and ESPN was the only channel dedicated exclusively to sports, and the preseason basketball tournament market hadn’t yet been saturated.

The proliferation of tournaments at the turn of the millennium — most of them in much warmer or more glamorous locations than Anchorage — rendered the Great Alaska Shootout a shadow of what it once was.

Wednesday’s reveal of the 2017 field made that abundantly clear, as the eight-team tournament features no participants from the last NCAA Tournament. The closest is Cal State Bakersfield, which won the WAC regular-season title, but lost the conference tournament championship and automatic berth to New Mexico State.

One day after the bracket of Bakersfield, Cal Poly, College of Charleston, a Marcus Keene-less Central Michigan, Idaho, Sam Houston State and Santa Clara was revealed, longtime host Alaska-Anchorage announced the 2017 Great Alaska Shootout is to be the last.

“The Shootout has been an iconic event at UAA for 40 years, but unfortunately we cannot sustain our funding of this tournament in the current budget climate,” said UAA chancellor Sam Gingerich in a statement issued Thursday.

This closure is the natural culmination of a long and unfortunate decline. Launched in 1978, the Great Alaska Shootout rose to prominence in the 1980s — commensurate with ESPN propping up college basketball as a major pillar for the network’s growth.

A premier event at the Thanksgiving weekend — a time when eyeballs are glued to the TV and hungry for sports — the Shootout lured marquee programs and star players to the Great White North.

In 1983, fresh off its underdog national championship, NC State beat powerhouse Arkansas in the championship game. Dean Smith and North Carolina topped Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV Runnin’ Rebels two years later. Seton Hall began its run to the 1989 national championship game with a Great Alaska Shootout title.

So it continued through the 1990s, when college basketball’s preseason holy trinity was the NIT Tipoff, the Maui Invitational and the Great Alaska Shootout. Programs including UCLA, Duke, Cincinnati and North Carolina came to Anchorage; stars like Glenn Robinson, Elton Brand, Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Don MacLean and Ray Allen shone bright as Aurora Borealis.

The ’90s were perhaps the Golden Age of college basketball, both in terms of quality and popularity. The same was true of the Great Alaska Shootout.

And, much as the turn of the millennium saw a regression in the game collectively, the Shootout also began to fade. It wasn’t an immediate decline; stars such as Nate Robinson, Dwyane Wade and Klay Thompson won Most Valuable Player honors in Anchorage, and quality teams made the trek north.

The star power dipped with each year, and so did the caliber of team. The emergence of tournaments in Las Vegas, Orlando and other destinations thinned options for participants. Originally built up through the exposure and revenue offered as a major event in the ESPN calendar, the loss of the Worldwide Leader’s coverage began the final stretch in the Shootout’s demise.

Neither Fox Sports nor CBS Sports Network could restore the Great Alaska Shootout to its past glory — even if an NCAA Tournament participant like Nevada delivered one helluva championship matchup with Iona last season. Thursday’s announcement just felt inevitable.

College basketball has seemingly entered into the early phases of another boom period. The game has seemingly adjusted to the NBA’s age requirement, and the quality of play has improved dramatically over the last two seasons.

Unfortunately, the Great Alaska Shootout won’t be around for a similar rejuvenation. But Anchorage will forever be a landmark in the lineage of the game.