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A Warm Reception

Anchorage locals see to the needs of USC's basketball team during its six-day stay for the Great Alaska Shootout

November 27, 2005|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

ANCHORAGE — His cellphone didn't have service, and his bags were on a plane in Spokane, Wash.

Arriving here last Monday afternoon, Bob Cantu felt snowed under, and the winter storm that would drop an inches-thick blanket of slippery powder over the next few days hadn't even hit.

To a guy like Cantu, the USC men's basketball assistant who coordinates recruiting, a cellphone isn't a luxury. It's a lifeline.

"How do you function without a cellphone?" Cantu later asked. "There's kids calling and coaches and follow-up calls."

But Trojan fans fearful that Cantu might have missed a call from the next Harold Miner need not fret. Helping USC during its stay here for the Great Alaska Shootout was Ron Pollock, who was always ready to assist.

Pollock, a commercial real estate broker, found Cantu a working cellphone and trekked to Anchorage International Airport at 7 Tuesday morning to check on the coach's bags. And even though the airline had already delivered the missing luggage to the team hotel, Pollock said he didn't mind the trip. He considered it part of making sure the Trojans remembered their six-day stay for all the right reasons.

As USC's designated host through a program called the Seawolf Captains, Pollock also chauffeured Coach Tim Floyd from practice to a tournament luncheon and arranged for a meeting room at the team hotel so the players could watch film.

"We like to take pride in that when people come here, there's a real connected person that can kind of guide that whole process and deal with any issues and problems -- missing suitcases, dry cleaning, you name it -- to make it smooth, because you come into a new town and you don't know anything about it," Pollock said.

In this city of about 260,000, which holds nearly half the state's population, Pollock wasn't the only local with a vested interest in the Shootout participants.

Area high schools opened their gyms for practices and sent their cheerleaders and bands to Sullivan Arena in support of whichever of the eight men's and four women's teams they had "adopted." Cheerleaders from Anchorage Service High were thrilled to temporarily trade their green and gold uniforms for cardinal-colored USC T-shirts and black skirts. The girls cinched their sleeves at the shoulders with gold string and wore their hair in ponytails tied with cardinal-and-gold ribbons.

"We were really excited to find out we were cheering for USC," senior Katie Fox said.

Did they know anything about the school?

"They have a really good football team," sophomore Paloma Field said.

The basketball team is a work in progress. The Trojans defeated Alaska Anchorage, 57-56, Saturday, and Eastern Washington, 69-51, Friday, but in a first-round game Wednesday lost by 20 points to Oral Roberts, giving the cheerleaders little reason to emerge from their seated positions along the baseline.

The girls kept their chants fairly generic, encouraging the Trojans to rebound and play defense.

Sara Thompson, Service High's cheerleading coach, said she had searched the Internet looking for specific cheers used by the Trojan spirit squads but couldn't find any. None of the girls knew about the two-fingered Victory Salute, either.

"I think we're going to have to teach them that, for sure," Cantu said before the game. "It would be kind of fun."

USC was not among the schools serenaded by a high school band at its opening game, so a taped recording of the Trojan fight song was piped through loudspeakers.

The Trojans were supposed to experience live contemporary Native American music at a cultural event Tuesday but, running late from practice, arrived to find the musicians packing their instruments.

With so little time, players watched an eight-minute film on Alaska, glanced at exhibits and munched on native fare such as reindeer sausage and wild-berry cobbler -- organizers had once served whale blubber, but most players only picked at it -- before returning to their hotel.

For Thanksgiving dinner, teams were given the option of pairing two or three players with a local family for the holiday meal, but most, including the Trojans, chose to gather for a team meal.

"It was an official part of the program in the '80s," Pollock said of the Thanksgiving dinner, "and we still do it, but it got quieter because fewer and fewer teams wanted to participate."

As coach at New Orleans, Floyd had taken his team dog-sledding during the 1991 Shootout. But his Trojans spent most of their time shuttling between practices, games and film sessions.

There was, however, time for an impromptu snowball fight outside the team hotel, with several players displaying better aim than they had against Oral Roberts.

"I feel like I'm back in Idaho," said junior center Abdoulaye N'diaye, a transfer from the College of Southern Idaho.

"I had seen snow before but not like this," sophomore guard Gabe Pruitt said. "This is a lot of snow."

Players said the strangest thing about Alaska was that sunrise didn't occur until after 9 a.m., leaving them groggy much of the morning.

"I woke up and I looked outside and it was still dark, so I just kind of went back to sleep ..." Pruitt said.

Pollock, a former Shootout chairman, said he was especially delighted to assist the Trojans because of his ties to Southern California. The Alaska native attended Chapman on an athletic scholarship and had played the Trojans in baseball, "winning as much as we lost."

Even though USC won't take home any championship hardware from the Shootout, Pollock is helping to ensure that its stay would be considered a winning experience.

"There's icy roads, you have no clue where you're driving," Cantu said. "If you don't have someone from here kind of organizing it, you're really lost."

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