In Newtok and Mertarvik, nothing gets in the way of basketball

In Newtok, Byron John and some friends stand back up the village’s outdoor basketball hoop (right). In Mertarvik, kids play on a portable hoop that has already seen some wear and tear in its first year (left). (Katie Basile/KYUK)

An ongoing relocation effort caused by climate change-fueled erosion has separated friends across 9 miles of river. But if there’s one thing that unites them, it’s their love of basketball. In Newtok and Mertarvik, during a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has closed school gyms, kids are still finding a way to play the game they love.

In Newtok, there’s a basketball court made out of boardwalk, but there’s no hoop. Kids say that it fell down years ago. In this village, the ground is eroding and most of it is soft mud. Anything driven into it, like telephone poles and basketball hoops, tilts and falls over. That’s left many kids without their favorite hobby.

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“I’m pretty bored,” said Newtok resident Byron John. “I want to play basketball right now.”

John said that he would have more friends to hang out with in other years, but that’s changed since the phased relocation to Mertarvik began last fall.

“Lesser friends,” John said. “Most of them went to other side.”

11-year-old Johnny Carl says that sometimes he plays basketball late at night when most other kids have gone home so he can practice his shot more. (Greg Kim/KYUK)

John is taking matters into his own hands. He and a few of the friends he has left in Newtok plan to stand the fallen hoop back up. He pounds in a couple more nails to connect the hoop to the boardwalk, and within a few hours the court draws in over a dozen kids, transforming it from a barren platform into a stage for giggles and memories.

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Over in Mertarvik there’s no boardwalk basketball court, but kids still play the game. 

“I’ve been making the shots from the basketballs,” says 11-year-old Johnny Carl.

Carl says that he and the neighborhood kids play a lot.

“Yeah, every day,” Carl said.

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In Mertarvik, they play on a portable basketball hoop that someone bought and put next to their house. It’s not the prettiest hoop.

“The net is missing and, uh, the rim is kinda wiggly,” Carl described.

But he says that it doesn’t matter that it’s a little bit broken.

“The basketball court is beautiful, like full of gold,” Carl said. Asked why he thinks it’s beautiful, he replied, “Because it’s my favorite game.”

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Johnny says that his hook shot is his deadliest weapon, and that he’s the best 11-year-old basketball player in Mertarvik. He says that he hopes a school is built soon with an indoor court, but he’s also happy with the one he’s got now as long as he gets to play the game he loves.

The Newtok Village Council invited KYUK to see how its relocation efforts are going. Before traveling, KYUK reporters consulted with medical professionals and received negative COVID-19 test results. While in the village, reporters wore masks when invited into peoples’ homes.

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