Arts & Entertainment
Review: 'Eagle Blue' a winning tale of Gwich'in team

"You can't help losing your heart to the Gwich'in kids of Eagle Blue , Michael D'Orso's captivating literary documentary of the 2004 Fort Yukon High School basketball season. The Gwich'in are Indians, not Eskimos or Inuit; though nowadays many of them are children or grandchildren of interracial marriages, they are related to the Navajo and the Apache. Their town lies just inside the Arctic Circle, 150 miles northeast of Fairbanks, Alaska, and in 2004 their high school had an enrollment of 32. Fort Yukon is not free of the alcoholism, cultural confusion and defeatism that poison so much of Native American life. "That's one thing that really sucks about life here, [a student named Matt Shewfelt] will tell you straight up. Whenever someone tries to do something worthwhile, to make something of themselves -- and this is true of the grownups as well as the kids -- it seems like everyone else tries to pull them back down."

But the town has a tradition of good basketball, thanks in no small part to coach Dave Bridges, who has repeatedly taken his boys to Anchorage for the state tournament in their small-school division. The 2004 crop showed exceptional promise. They weren't tall -- only two players were a bit over six feet -- but they were fast, with some standout shooters, especially from beyond the three-point line. They had bench strength, and, at Bridges's insistence, they were in terrific shape. (Before the season was over, they came from behind to win more than once, their stamina helping them overtake wobbling opponents.)

D'Orso is such a spirited writer that he could surely make the reader empathize with boys from any of the teams Fort Yukon played over the season, including the one from a town of Russian Old Believers where the people still wear Amish-like garb. But he persuades us that there was something special about these Eagles, a blend of selflessness and maturity that kicked in when the boys took the court. Many of them came from broken homes, or had grown up seeing their once-athletic fathers go to seed, or had themselves already gotten into trouble. The boys might claim that they shot hoops to attract babes, but for virtually all of them, basketball -- with its excitement, its wholesome relief from domestic anxieties, its opportunity for travel outside of bush Alaska -- was the most enriching part of life. Previous teams had come so close to winning state so often that a current of hope seemed to ripple through the cold Fort Yukon air: This might just be the year."

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