With the NBA season in full swing and March Madness winding down to the Final Four, basketball is on the minds of many people right now.
But for the people of the small community of Metlakatla, located in southeast Alaska, basketball is always on their mind.
Alaskan Nets, a documentary by two Oregonians that’s been four years in the making, explores the community’s relationship with the sport and makes its international debut at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival — and it has attracted support from one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
The documentary, by producer Ryan Welch of Eugene and director and producer Jeff Harasimowicz of Bend, follows a high school basketball team in Metlakatla, which is located on the Annette Island, the state’s only Indian Reserve. The film captures the team as they deal with tragedy while competing for their first title in 30 years.
When Harasimowicz first pitched the story of the Metlakatla high school basketball team to Welch, Welch tells Eugene Weekly he was intrigued as a sports fan — and sports stories run in the family. Ryan’s father, Bob Welch, was a longtime columnist for The Register-Guard and recently authored a book on Oregon State’s track and field legend Dick Fosbury. It became harder for Ryan Welch to say no to the project. “The story would be amazing, and I knew that one day I’d see it on Netflix and hate myself,” he says. “This was something that needed to be told.”
Like many places in Alaska, Welch says, the basketball court is akin to a town hall in Metlakatla. “It’s a warm place for a community to come together,” he says. “People would come together, and you could tell this is their connection point, their meet-up.”
The trip to Metlakatla, according to Welch’s production company AO Films’s webpage on the documentary, starts with a 90-minute flight from Seattle and then a 45-minute ferry ride south from Ketchikan. Welch says he was in Alaska once a week from September through December in 2017, and then from January to March 2018, he was back there every other week. Harasimowicz, basically lived there for a few months during the basketball season, Welch adds.
One of the executive producers on the documentary is Chris Pratt, a familiar name for those who’ve watched the NBC series Parks and Recreation or Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
Welch says halfway through the editing process of Alaskan Nets, Pratt saw a cut of the film and it resonated with him.. Now Pratt and his new production company, Indivisible Productions, is helping by using its brand to spread the word about the documentary.
“He’s from a small town in Washington. He knows what a small town team means to a community,” Welch says. “He’s just a really good dude that wants to tell good stories and hopeful stories — and that’s what this is.”
Because of Alaska’s geography, Welch says traveling with the Metlakatla high school team was a different experience than the usual away game travels in the lower 48. “They’d have to leave on a Wednesday for a Friday night game,” he says. “They’d get in Friday midday, exhausted, tired after being on a plane, a ferry and then a bus.”
The team would then play Friday and Saturday and then take two days to return home, he adds. The team would stay in opponent school classrooms and gyms, and players were prepared for it, often bringing along mattresses, extra clothes and even Xbox One consoles.
“It was something they were used to and reveled in,” he says. “It was a way for them to connect to the outer world that they wouldn’t be able to normally. They had friends in these towns. It was a way to get out and see the world a bit.”
But Metlakatla isn’t the only community in Alaska that is both drawn to basketball and committed to the sport enough to travel days for an away game.
“It’s all over Alaska,” Welch says. “When we went to the state tournament, we realized that there were some of these smaller 1A schools that were coming from villages all across the state, and sometimes it took them three days to get there. And yet they had fans there.”
Alaskan Nets has a limited number of tickets for a virtual screener available on the Santa Barbara International Film Festival website, SBIFF.org. Find Alaskan Nets on Facebook to stay updated on future screenings.