In its 75th year, Juneau’s Gold Medal Basketball Tournament transcends the court

a basketball game
Kake and Metlakatla teams face off at a game during the Gold Medal Basketball Tournament on Tuesday, March 19, 2024. (Clarise Larson/KTOO)

Marcelo Quinto was just six years old in 1947, when the first-ever Juneau Lions Club Gold Medal Basketball Tournament took place in Juneau. He’s in his 80s now. On Tuesday, he was one of hundreds in the stands to watch this year’s tournament, which kicked off last weekend. 

Throughout this week, more than 500 people from across Southeast Alaska will attend to watch nearly 50 games. Quinto said he doesn’t remember much about that first tournament — beyond one very clear thing:

“It was jammed. Because there was no TV back then,” he said. 

The location of the tournament has changed since then. Instead of the cramped Capital School, it’s now at the Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé gymnasium. He said other things have changed too.

“These kids are faster I think. You know they’re faster and a lot of the rules have changed,” he said.

This year’s tournament is special. It marks 75 years of competitions, disrupted only by the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit the pause button for a few years. For Quinto, the tournament — which is older than the state of Alaska — represents decades of memories. 

“The greatest thing about this tournament really is being able to see all your friends from all of Southeast — from Ketchikan and all the way up,” he said.

The first game kicked off Sunday morning, and games will continue daily throughout the week. Twenty-five regional adult teams will play a total of 48 games, competing for titles in four brackets.

Tim Wilson, a Lion’s Club co-chair for this year’s tournament, said for many, this tournament represents something much greater than the game of basketball. In 1947, it started as a way to raise money for Boy Scouts. But now, Wilson said it transcends the court. 

“For it to be in the 75th year is really special to us — I don’t think when they started 75 years ago, I don’t know if they envisioned it lasting 75 years,” he said. “I always say that the Gold Medal is one big, huge family. I honestly believe that.”

Orion Dybdahl is a player on the Hoonah B-Bracket team this year. He recently graduated from JDHS, where last year he was selected by coaches around the state as a senior all-star. Now, he’s playing basketball at Centralia College in Washington, but he says he couldn’t resist coming home for spring break and playing on his home court again. 

“Probably since birth, I’ve been here at these games, watching my dad play, and just watching all these teams battle,” he said. “It’s kind of a dream come true — been waiting to play for Hoonah for a long time.”

Dybdahl said Gold Medal’s roots run deep — not just for his family, but for Southeast Alaska. His family is from Hoonah. Many teams have players who don’t actually live in the communities they represent. But they still have close connections to them. 

For many, Gold Medal is the one time of year they can connect with loved ones. 

“It means everything just to see family members and friends from other communities,” Dybdahl said. “It just I don’t know, this tournament is more than basketball. It’s kind of like a reunion.”

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