Eight, middle-school boys and their coach from the small village of Tanana in remote Interior Alaska were Thursday night in a van roaring down the Richardson Highway bound for the Valdez Hooping for Spring Basketball Tournament thanks to a basketball fan in Dallas.
But not just any basketball fan. This one just happened to be Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks.
And how did Cuban, a guy who made billions of dollars in electronic media of various sorts, end up connected to a basketball team in far off Alaska, a place at almost the opposite end of the continent from his Texas home?
The old-fashioned way, with a letter.
But to get to the end of this story, we have to go back to Arnold Marks Jr. at the beginning.
Marks is a teacher at the Maudrey J. Sommer School on the banks of the Yukon River in wild Alaska. His K-12 school is home to about 40 students. A 2001 graduate of the very same school who went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Marks has been a high school teacher in Tanana for about seven years now.
For most of that time, he has also been the on-again, off-again basketball coach for whatever group of kids has enough players to field a team – girls or boys, high schoolers or middle schoolers.
In a village like Tanana far off the Alaska road system, everyone sort of has to be a Jack of all trades. Along with coaching and teaching English, Marks takes charge of social studies, technology and art when he isn’t racing the Iron Dog – the world’s longest, toughest snowmachine race – or hunting to help provide moose meat to feed himself and some other villagers.
In this case, Marks said by cell phone from Glennallen on the road from Fairbanks to Valdez, he started coaching a group of middle-school boys (there are no middle-school-age girls in Tanana this year) “who kind of needed a guy in their life to step up.”
The guys proved to be a good group of young players, but it’s hard to tell how good when you’re only playing four-on-four against your friends. So when Marks’ daughter downriver in school at Galena mentioned the Valdez Hooping for Spring Tournament, dad got an idea.
He’d see if he could raise enough money to take the middle-school team to Valdez to play some real competition. He sent a letter home to parents asking for help, but the financial well in Tanana isn’t exactly deep. The median family income is less than $35,000, and that’s counting the stars of “Yukon Men,” a based-on-reality reality TV show that the Discovery Channel films in and around the village.
“Our village is only a couple hundred people, so you can only raise so much money,” Marks said.
Recognizing that some outside assistance was likely to be needed to come up with enough to pay for the trip to Valdez, some of the parents decided to start writing letters asking others for help.
A shot in the dark
One of those letters went from Christine Erhart, the mother of one of the boys on Marks’ team, to Cuban. The next thing Erhart knew, she was getting a call from Cuban’s personal assistant.
“She called me up to tell me, and I was kind of like, ‘No way!'” Marks said.
“She said, ‘All we need is a picture of the boys.”
Marks emailed it pronto, and not long after the funds for the Valdez trip were sent to the school account.
“I’d budgeted it out at the high end if we were going to stay in hotels and eat out,” Marks said, “and it budgeted out to $6,500.” He thought that was too much so he started calling around to see if he could find Valdez residents willing to host the boys. He eventually got the cost down to $4,000.
Cuban said not to worry about it and sent the full $6,500.
“But we’re still trying to cut as much cost as possible,” Marks said, because he’d like to take the Tanana high school boys to a Colony High School Basketball Team Camp, an NBA sponsored event, in Palmer in June.
Travel will be a lot cheaper then because the ice will have gone out on the Yukon River or should have. Once that happens, the team can travel about six miles upriver by boat to a new road that connects to the Alaska highway system.
That saves a lot of money. Marks said it cost about $2,000 to fly himself and the eight boys the 130 miles to Fairbanks, where he rented a van and started the 368-mile drive to Valdez.
Winners all around
Along the way, the Tanana Wolves stopped for a game in Glennallen – a wide spot along the highway home to about 500 people – and beat the local players 31 to 10.
“Our team is pretty good,” Marks said.
As for Cuban, Marks said what he wanted to say in his own words in a post on his Facebook page earlier this week:
“Mark Cuban is a hero!
“Now that I got your attention let me explain. As many of you know the middle school boys have all been working hard with their parents and other adults to raise money for the boys to go to a tournament in Valdez. We were coming up short, and I was beginning to worry that we wouldn’t have enough to make it. I mean, it’s all a good lesson. We want to work for what we get, but sometimes, no matter how hard we try, our best just isn’t good enough, and we have to be disappointed. It was looking like disappointment for us.
“It took the enthusiasm of a child and the help of his mom to turn it all around. John D and Christine wrote letters to people asking for donations. One letter was to Mark Cuban. He decided that he liked what we were doing, and that he wanted to help our little team. All that he asked for was a picture of the boys he was helping. With the stroke of a pen, he paid for the entire cost of the trip. I know prayers aren’t always answered, and disappointment is part of life, but this time we learned a different lesson. We learned that miracles can happen, and heroes do exist. Mark Cuban is our hero.”