Prep Basketball: Palin was no pushover on basketball court
By Adam Goldman
WASILLA, Alaska ó Long before she became a pit bull with lipstick in politics, Sarah Palin had another moniker: Sarah Barracuda.
A tough defender and sturdy point guard, the Republican vice presidential candidate helped lead the girls’ basketball team at Wasilla High School to a state championship in 1982, grabbing a piece of hardwood lore in the small town that all but worships her.
“The final game was kind of surreal,” said Katy Allers, who played in the backcourt with Palin. “We never thought we would make it that far. It was just unbelievable.”
No. 22 didn’t have a lot of natural ability when it came to basketball. Unlike the publicity tied to her ascent in politics of late, she didn’t get a lot of ink in Alaska’s newspapers when she played hoops.
Like Barack Obama, who played in high school, Palin was not a star.
“She wasn’t a great athlete,” said Donald Teeguarden, Palin’s high school coach. “She wasn’t blessed with exceptional athletic ability.”
Palin, who also ran cross-country, struggled for three years before finally landing a starting spot on the varsity and becoming co-captain.
“The girl is proof that practice pays off,” a 1982 profile in the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman said.
“She was a hard player,” Teeguarden said.
He said the team’s strategy was to get the ball to its two dominant frontcourt players, and that job fell to Palin.
“She was always a leader and led by example,” teammate Amy Backus said. “She always worked very hard, whether it was at practice or a game. She was very disciplined. You could always rely on her. She was always very consistent.”
As her senior season progressed, Palin got better, and Teeguarden said she learned from her mistakes.
Even the local paper noted her improvement: “Sarah has been making some real clutch free throws for the team in the past weeks,” one story said.
And none would be more important than when Palin’s Warriors played Anchorage’s Service High School. With 30 seconds left in the title game, Palin, nursing a bad ankle, hit the front end of a one-and-one but missed the second.
It was her only point of the game, but it was enough, putting the Warriors up by 5 with just seconds to play. They won 58-53 and finished the season 26-5.
“She made the free throw that more or less iced the game,” Teeguarden said. “That’s when everybody exhaled.”
The next day, the Frontiersman’s front-page headline said, “Cinderella team tops state,” and the game story noted that Palin “showed the Service Cougars what defense is all about.”
While campaigning, Palin has said the lessons learned while playing basketball have served her well in life.
“I’ve said this before, that everything I ever needed to know I learned on the basketball team,” she said. “All about setting goals and working hard and having self-discipline and knowing what strengths were in the team members and then assembling those team members and tasking the team to fulfill missions. That’s what you learn in sports.”
Today, the game ball, which carries Palin’s signature, sits in the school’s trophy case. The school had to get the actual trophy back from a sports bar that also displays a picture of Palin’s oldest son in a hockey game.
Principal Dwight Probasco said a steady stream of people ó especially the media ó have visited the school to see the trophy. Palin returned in 2007, on the 25th anniversary of the championship, and talked to players before the state finals.
And when they won, the first time since 1982, she handed them the trophy.
“It was big,” Probasco said. “She bleeds red as a Warrior.”
After all, she was the one who nailed the two free throws to win the game, he said.
Not exactly. Even Palin’s biography omits her missed shot and neglects to mention that the game was never really in doubt after halftime, as the Frontiersman’s account pointed out.
But that’s what happens as time passes and people remember the big game.
“I think it’s one of those things where the legend grows when a person’s stature increases,” said Anthony Jensen, the school’s last four-sport athlete. “Everybody’s role gets remembered bigger than it might have been.”