There will be no boys’ basketball season in Yakutat this year. The school district cancelled the season in late November, when two students failed to meet academic requirements, leaving only four eligible to play.

Like many remote communities in Southeast, Yakutat has a strong basketball tradition, and the school’s decision has been the subject of some heated debate. At least two families have decided that playing basketball is important enough to enroll their children elsewhere.

One family brought their son to Sitka.

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Despite their relative isolation, Yakutat's 700 residents have a strong tradition around basketball. (City of Yakutat photo)

Despite their relative isolation, Yakutat’s 700 residents have a strong tradition around basketball. (City of Yakutat photo)

Cancelling a sports season is a difficult decision.

My name is Robin Gray and I’m the superintendent of Yakutat School District.

Robin Gray made a choice to hold a line that often gets blurred nowadays. The reason we have schools is not really so that a few kids can play varsity sports.

“We want our students to be able to go forward after graduation and make choices for whatever they want to do in their life — wherever they want to do it — and do it successfully.”

Gray says it wasn’t an easy choice. Abruptly relocating your child so that he can play basketball also isn’t an easy choice. But Rhoda Jensen is clear-eyed and candid about giving her son Jonathan this opportunity in his senior year.

Rhoda Jensen introduces herself in Tlingit.

Jensen is not abandoning Yakutat. It’s her home, and basketball’s importance — as a part of both school and cultural life — cannot be overstated. Yakutat is a small-school powerhouse: Both the Yakutat girls’ and boys’ basketball teams are regular contenders at state.

Jensen doesn’t deny that bad grades are part of the problem; it’s just that she believes they’re not the heart of the problem. Yakutat is downsizing.

“You know, it goes back to the bell curve. Everything statistically, when you have a small number, there are going to be some who are struggling always. And so it’s put a lot of pressure on some of the kids and that’s what’s breaking my heart about this whole situation. I just hope everyone can know that it’s not the kids. There are a lot bigger issues than that.”

There are just 23 students in Yakutat’s high school, down from 95 in the not-too-distant past. Jensen works as the Health Director for the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe; her husband is a manager for Delta Western.

Good jobs are scarce. And it’s a tough cycle: as Yakutat shrinks, it becomes harder to maintain institutions, like school activities, that root people here.

“A lot of our Southeast communities are getting hit with hard economic times, and a lot of families are having a hard time making it in our rural villages. And some families are having to make the decisions to leave.”

Living this close to the edge — of economic survival, not to mention the survival of a varsity sports program — feels like it’s becoming the norm.

“Two ankles and the flu, and you’re there,” says Andy Lee, head Basketball coach at Sitka High.

“It’s a recognition of where we are. And I think schools and communities have to have that partnership to make sure that the things you can control, you control. Whether that’s academics or disciplinary issues — you can control to some extent those things. The flu, injury, not so much.”

Lee has been coaching at Sitka for 8 years, but he’s worked across the state in villages. His basketball clinics in Yakutat are one reason the Jensens settled on Sitka. On the one hand, he brings his rural background and significant perspective to the problem. On the other, he’s the coach of successful 3A program that already has 41 players. He says Jonathan Jensen has been welcomed, but varsity sports are competitive.

“It’s tenuous at times. If he didn’t have talent, is it worth his move to come and be a junior varsity player, or a C-team player? I think they had to weigh those factors. And I was very up-front with them when I got the call. I know the family but I haven’t seen Jonathan since basketball camp four or five years ago. So very different as a senior, and where does he fit in?”

In order to relocate Jonathan, the Jensens had to obtain a waiver from the Alaska School Activities Association, which ordinarily prohibits athletes from transferring between schools and participating immediately in varsity sports. They were out of town when the Yakutat School District cancelled the season; they literally made the decision to move Jonathan to Sitka, where he will live with relatives, over the course of about 72 hours.

Rhoda Jensen says her personal interaction with the district was brief, to obtain Jonathan’s records. She has not had an extensive conversation with the superintendent over the cancellation, its timing, or whether parents had sufficient warning that their students were in jeopardy. But that day is coming.

“I always believe that when these things happen, healthy discussions have to happen. And it’s sad that it’s through the media that some of this has been happening. That’s not my choice. I’m here because I made a decision — my husband and I made a decision — that we want other opportunities for our son. It’s his senior year.”

Jensen says she, like Yakutat superintendent Robin Gray, believes in academics first, and you have to earn athletics. If there is a silver lining, Jensen says her son will have some good opportunities in Sitka.

Her other two children are already grown and gone from home. She’s not excited about leaving Jonathan in Sitka, even though she says he’ll be in good hands with family members.

But she is excited that Jonathan will be part of an activity that makes him more engaged in school, and connects him to a tradition she feels strongly about.

“A long time ago, when it used to be the traditional ways, the clans going against each other. It’s like that on the court, too. They take it seriously. When they’re on the court, they’re defending their community. And they have a lot of pride where they’re from. But off the court, they’re the best friends. I’ve seen amazing, amazing relationships form between Yakutat and Klawock, and just the camaraderie through our Southeast communities. I love that. I love the sport of basketball. I am and always will be the biggest fan of Yakutat, and will always be cheering them on.”

And there’s still something to cheer for: though the boys’ season has been cancelled, the Yakutat girls’ basketball season will continue, as planned.