Hoonah’s Mark Prpich (22) drives the lane against Juneau’s Doug Draowski (5) on Saturday during last year’s Gold Medal championship game for M bracket at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé on March 25, 2023. Prpich finished the game with 10 points. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)
Hoonah’s Mark Prpich (22) drives the lane against Juneau’s Doug Draowski (5) on Saturday during last year’s Gold Medal championship game for M bracket at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé on March 25, 2023. Prpich finished the game with 10 points. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

If you thought March Madness could not get any crazier you had better don your white coats and tie those sleeves tightly behind your back because the 2024 Juneau Lions Club Gold Medal Basketball Tournament began Sunday morning at the Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé gymnasium.

This year’s hoops magic is the 75th Gold Medal tournament, a number that may have seemed unlikely when first tipped off in 1947, but tourney instigator Del Hanks, a Southeast Alaska Boy Scout organizer, saw the love and conversations about basketball across the many communities and villages he visited and with the support of the Juneau Lions Club in 1946 the idea for play was born.

Petersburg won the first-ever Gold Medal Tournament in a single bracket that existed through 1960 (Ketchikan).

Since then Juneau has 35 titles, Hoonah 28, Kake 21, Haines 16, Sitka 15, Angoon 14, Hydaburg 11, Ketchikan 11, Klawock 9, Yakutat 9, Klukwan 8, Petersburg 6, Prince of Wales 6, Metlakatla 5, Fairbanks 5, Anchorage 2, Skagway 2, Mt.Edgecumbe 1, Nome 1, and Tenakee 1.

Over the years the brackets have included AA (1961, first won by Metlakatla), A (1961 Petersburg), B (1971 Nome), C (1981 Kake), Masters (2007 Juneau) and in 1999 first introduced a Women’s Bracket (Prince of Wales). The AA ceased after 1982, the A after 2005, and the Women’s stopped briefly after 2007 but returned in 2014.

The 2024 tournament opened with a thunderous roar echoing along both Egan Drive and Glacier Avenue as the top division of athletes, the B Bracket, features Haines and Kake at 10 a.m. and Metlakatla challenging last season’s runner-up Hydaburg at 1 p.m., with the winners playing at 2 p.m. Monday. Also on Sunday, Yakutat ran against Hoonah at 6 p.m. with the winner facing Angoon on Monday at 7:30 p.m.

Defending champion Juneau does not return, nor does defending champ Filcom in the C division. The two teams, along with runner-up Juneau in the Masters division, were fill-in teams last season, replacing teams that could not attend. According to the JLC, the board voted to not include fill-in teams this year.

The C Bracket began Sunday as well with Hoonah vs. Metlakatla at 11:30 a.m. and Kake vs. Yakutat at 4:30 p.m., with the winners meeting on Monday at 12:30 p.m. Hydaburg and Klukwan played at 7:30 p.m. Sunday with Angoon awaiting the winner at 6 p.m. Monday.

Defending Women’s Bracket champion Prince of Wales returns in search of their seventh GM title, as does runner-up Yakutat in search of their 3rd women’s and 10th overall.

The women tipped off on Sunday with Metlakatla facing Yakutat at 2:30 p.m. and Haines facing Angoon at 9 p.m. (those winners play on Monday at 4:30 p.m.). POW and Hoonah begin play at 11 a.m. on Monday with the winner welcoming Kake back into action at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

The four-team Masters Bracket, the older gentlemen with younger memories, has been awarded a much appreciated, by many of the team’s ointment-aided players, a later tip off as Sitka faces Angoon at 11 a.m. Tuesday and Hoonah elbows Klukwan at 7:30 p.m. The follow-up games for both winners and losers are on Thursday.

Play for all brackets culminates with championship games on Saturday (1 p.m. M, 3 p.m. W, 5 p.m. C, 7 p.m. B).

Highlights include Monday’s Opening Ceremonies following the 6 p.m. game, featuring color guard and comments Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson, president of The Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. The Taff Dancers will perform following Tuesday’s 6 p.m. game. Wednesday will feature a memorial service and Thursday the Douglas Island Indian Association Dance Group.

Following Friday’s 5 p.m. game will be the presentation of the GM Hall of Fame selections and the Dr. Walter Soboleff Award, named after Lion Monarch Rev. Dr. Walter A. Soboleff (1908-2011). Soboleff had been involved with the tournament nearly as long as it has been in existence and once said, “The importance of Gold Medal was not in the tournament games, but the pride it gave the communities who participated.”

The true highlights — aside from friends sharing herring eggs, fry bread and other delicacies — are produced on the court.

Last season, for instance, Prince of Wales’ Cassie Williams, the MVP of the women’s bracket, remembered traveling to the tourney as a kid and watching her mom Ann play and win a women’s championship, and over 20 years later two of her mom’s teammates were on the 2023 team, and her mom was in the stands, watching Cassie win a championship.

And Alex Heumann for Juneau’s Filcom, had dreamed of winning a Gold Medal championship with his youth and high school teammate Larry Cooper, plus he was playing for a family member who had passed, and his dream came true.

And Metlakatla’s Willie Hayward was playing with his son Colton and Hydaburg’s Matt Carle was playing with his son Jaren — and Jaren did not pass to a wide-open Matt in one sequence, drawing much merriment from the team and fans.

And Hydaburg’s Vinny Edenshaw, one of smallest players on the court who puts up the most points, in a double-overtime elimination game against Angoon last season. Hydaburg trailed 79-77 with 0.3 seconds remaining in the game with Edenshaw on the line, but he missed the first free throw so had to miss the second and the ball bounced back out and was tipped in the air by George Peratrovich for a basket to tie the game and save Hydaburg’s tournament.

And the fans. With flags and cheers and gestures, praising and chastising players and referees alike, the fans come together, like the teams, to honor their communities and the spirit of the tournament gathering.

And for every community represented by a team at Gold Medal the JLC offers one deserving student a $1,000 scholarship to the school of their choice.

When church ends this Sunday the religion of basketball will begin.

“Gold Medal is the grandpa of all tournaments,” Soboleff had said.

Soboleff saw the first Gold Medal in 1947 when Petersburg came by fishing boat to take the championship.

He would let teams sleep and eat at his ministry in the Presbyterian Memorial Church.

“As long as they didn’t make too much of a racket bouncing balls all night,” Soboleff said.

Soboleff knew the tournament was a great source of community pride and a gathering time for villages throughout Southeast Alaska, but he also maintained that suicide rates and alcoholism declined in villages as players became new people on the court.

“Sh yáa.awudanéiyi a kwáan,” Soboleff once said in Tlingit. “Respect People. Respect yourself, too, and other people will respect you.”

Brackets and rosters for this year’s tournament: