Friday, March 26, 1999

Following his father's vision, Alaska's Trajan Langdon made it to Duke by . . .


Learning to take the road less traveled

BY JILL LIEBER
USA Today

        Steve Langdon instilled a deep and expansive vision in his only son, Trajan, continually reminding him not to scale back his goals or minimize his dreams just because he was growing up in faraway Anchorage, Alaska.

        And that even a child who practiced shooting baskets in wool mittens and clunky snow boots in the dead of winter could make it to a big-time college basketball program, if he worked hard enough.

        Yes, Steve always told Trajan, you can get there from here. “Anchorage is a modern city, but it's still an awful long ways from the rest of the United States in terms of time, climate and a sense of connectedness,” Steve said, having moved with his own parents from Portland, Ore., to Anchorage in 1958 at the age of 9, when his father, a psychiatrist, pioneered the development of mental health programs in Alaska.

        In those days, Alaska was still a territory, with dirt roads and TV programs that were telecast a week after the rest of the Lower 48 had seen them. Most live U.S. sporting events could be received only by short- wave radio.

        “Living in Alaska can make you feel marginalized,” said Steve, who can recall listening to the 1964 NCAA Championship game between Duke and UCLA over the crackling airwaves. “There's a sense that you're out on the edge. Everybody thinks Alaskans live in igloos. You can feel so far away.”

        On Saturday evening, about 3,800 miles and four time zones away from his hometown, Trajan Langdon, 22, will be standing right at the red-hot center of the college basketball universe, leading his top-seeded and top-ranked Duke Blue Devils against the Michigan State Spartans in the semifinals of the NCAA Final Four at Tropicana Field in St.Petersburg, Fla. Tip-off is 8:17 p.m., or 4:17 p.m. in Anchorage.

        If, as expected, Duke wins the championship, the fifth-year senior guard who battled back from what was considered a career-ending knee injury to become a two-time All-American, a two-time team captain and the Blue Devils' best three-point shooter ever, will cement his own unique place in history: He'll become the first Alaskan to play on an NCAA Division I championship basketball team.

        It means a lot to folks like Emil Nelson, a Haida Indian from the remote village of Klawock, tucked away on Prince of Wales Island, in southeastern Alaska.

        Five years ago, he and hundreds of Alaskan natives all across the state installed satellite dishes, just so they could follow Langdon, a.k.a. The Alaskan Assassin, during his career with the Blue Devils.

        Nowadays, everybody from Anchorage businessmen to three generations of Tlingit Indians, such as Richard Dalton and his family from Hoonah, gets decked out in Duke attire.

        Langdon's such a beloved Alaskan folk hero that when he was sidelined at the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament three weeks ago with a sprained left foot, Dalton, a retired fisherman and respected Tlingit elder, sent him a special healing salve made from spruce pitch and a spiritual herb called Devil's Club.

        It's safe to say Langdon's the only player in St.Petersburg, Fla., this Final Four weekend — or in any other city in the United States — whose parents met at a Black Panthers rally; who toiled as the eighth-grade biology lab partner of a girl who later would become the music star Jewel; who completed the brain-busting calculus sequence at the University of Alaska-Anchorage before he'd even graduated from high school; who played minor-league baseball for the San Diego Padres for two summers; who became close friends with Alex Rodriguez after the Seattle Mariners superstar saw him on TV, declared “He looks like my brother!” and gave him a call; and who twice has been recognized as the most out standing student on the Duke basketball team.

        “Why have I had such incredible experiences?” he said. “Because I've been blessed to be surrounded with such a wonderful family.”

        A double-major in mathematics and history, Langdon recently was awarded a $5,000 ACC post-graduate scholarship, and this June, he's expected to be a first-round pick in the NBA draft. Some time after that, he'd like to launch a series of summer basketball camps throughout Alaska.

        “Trajan's a special guy,” Duke sophomore forward Shane Battier said. “I've never met a person as genuine and good as he is. He's got a stoic, calm demeanor on and off the court. It provides such a soothing sense of peace to everybody around him.”

        Added junior forward Chris Carrawell: “We can't win without Trajan. Everybody knows he's a great shooter and scorer, and that's intimidating.”

        Offered Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who's in his 19th season and his eighth Final Four: “I've not had a leader who has done a better job with my team. He was the bridge to get us back to our elite status, and I'll be forever grateful to him. He did more than play — he led, worked and committed himself to me and to Duke basketball. I feel a special bond with Trajan.”

        So, how did Langdon keep from getting lost out there in the hinterlands?

        Well, from Day 1, Trajan's parents gave him a detailed road map to help him reach his potential, not just as a basketball player but as a well-rounded human being. Steve, who has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Stanford and is an authority on Alaskan Native Indians, and Gladys, a social worker, demanded that Trajan take a challenging route, that he stay on the straight and narrow and that he make every minute count.

        First Steve armed the child with names that evoked a strong sense of leadership and a warrior's passionate spirit. His first name, Trajan, came from the Roman emperor (98-117 A.D.) who ended the persecution of Christians; set up a food distribution program for the poor, and built bridges, aqueducts and malls. His middle name, Shaka, belonged to a noble Zulu chieftain, who organized his tribal peoples into a nation in South Africa and was credited for developing military tactics that were unprecedented in their sophistication.

        Next, Steve opened the child's mind, taking him along on anthropological research studies in remote Native Indian villages on the west coast of Prince of Wales Island, a three-hour ferry ride from Ketchikan, for the first four summers of his life.

        Then Steve introduced his son to basketball. The game had been adopted in Alaska in 1910, beginning with the Tlingit and Haida Indians, the same peoples Steve was studying. In those days, the Alaskan natives went from village to village, playing organized games in their community meeting halls with teams of all ages.

        Since 1947, squads from the Inner Passage have gathered every March in Juneau for the Gold Medal Tournament, Alaska's recreational-league version of the Final Four.

        While conducting his research, Steve grew closer to the Tlingits and Haidas by fishing with them and playing on their traveling basketball teams.

        “Basketball is the central organization institution in Alaska,” he said. “It's deeply rooted in the communities. When I went out to Eskimo villages in Western Alaska, in late summer after fishing season was over, I'd find two nights of open gym, and the entire community would be there. You'll hear natives telling basketball stories that sound very similar to those in Indiana.”

        During those four summers in southeastern Alaska, Trajan listened to his father and the elder Alaskan natives reminisce about the great games and the amazing players, and basketball sounded like so much fun that he wanted to give it a try.

        So when Trajan was 8, Steve taught him how to shoot free throws, emphasizing putting the correct arc on the ball. While the rest of his Rogers Park Elementary classmates went sledding at recess, he would hit the playground, all by himself. From ages 10 through 13, he won all of the state Elks Hoop Shoot free-throw contests and once finished third in the nation.

        “I couldn't feel the ball because of my mittens,” Trajan recalled, with a smile. “Looking back, it was great practice learning to dribble in the snow.”

        Realizing that the children in Alaska needed to be exposed to a higher level of organized basketball, Steve and his friends started a statewide youth program when Trajan was 12.

        A Team Alaska trip to Seattle gave Trajan his first look at a three-point line.

        When Trajan was 13, Steve put him on a rigorous weight training program, hauling him to a nearby sports medicine facility at 6a.m., three days a week, and assisting him in the 90-minute lifting session. He understood that his son had the physical skills to play, but he didn't have the size or the strength, and he didn't want Trajan to get pushed around the court when he got into high school.

        In Trajan's freshman year at East High, Steve added an hour of shooting practice to the early-morning training routine.

        After school he pored through instructional books and videos, and on weekends, he'd watch NBA games endlessly, trying to learn the game.

        “I had no one to work against, really, so I worked out against myself,” Trajan said. “It made me mature faster.”

        The following season, Steve hooked Trajan up with Muff Butler, 32, a legendary transplanted phenom from the Bronx, who once starred at the University of New Orleans. Every Saturday and Sunday, they'd play one-on-one together. And they'd dream.

        Whenever Trajan questioned his future in the sport or became frustrated that Alaska had provided him with few role models, Butler told him stories about the level of play in colleges in the Lower 48, and he'd make the teen-ager believe that he was talented enough to get to the NBA one day.

        “It was difficult envisioning where I fit in the scheme of things, because I didn't have any competition. For the longest time, I was afraid to give in to my passion for basketball. I had the fear of failure.”

        Steve was also careful not to let Trajan limit himself. Whenever East went on long road trips, he encouraged Trajan to take along his bat, ball and glove, and on off-days, he'd take batting practice or pitch to his father. In the summers, Trajan was involved in academic enrichment programs. During his junior and senior years at East, Trajan enrolled in college calculus, Spanish and engineering courses at Alaska-Anchorage.

        While outsiders criticized Steve for pushing too hard, Trajan saw his father as his faithful guiding light.

        “Every great performer has to have someone who can visualize for them to raise their level,” Steve said.

        Added Trajan: “In the end, it was up to me to dig down deep inside. For me to achieve, I had to push myself.”

        Who knows what would have happened if Steve hadn't sent a letter and tape to then-Duke assistant coach Tommy Amaker in the spring of 1992, Trajan's sophomore year? Lo and behold, 11/2 years later, on a crisp, clear September night illuminated by a phenomenal display of northern lights, there was Coach K, standing right there in Trajan's front yard, underneath the basketball hoop on the garage, making a pitch for Duke.

        Trajan had seen the northern lights only one other time.

        “I thought they might be a sign,” he says now. “But deep down, I already knew I was going to Duke.”

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