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Just a few feet from the chaotic scene sat Harriet Knudson, and she didn’t flinch. Sitting in her wheelchair just off the court, she kept her hands neatly folded in front of her chest. She has seen much stranger plays happen.
Hoonah native continues streak of seeing every Gold Medal game 032917 AE 1 Alex McCarthy, Juneau Empire Just a few feet from the chaotic scene sat Harriet Knudson, and she didn’t flinch. Sitting in her wheelchair just off the court, she kept her hands neatly folded in front of her chest. She has seen much stranger plays happen.

Harriet Knudson watches the Gold Medal Basketball Tournament from her wheelchair at Juneau-Douglas High School on Wednesday, March 22, 2017. Knudson's daughter, Irene, is seated behind her. Michael Penn | Juneau Empire

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Story last updated at 3/28/2017 - 7:32 pm

Hoonah native continues streak of seeing every Gold Medal game

Early in the second half of Tuesday’s Angoon-Yakutat women’s game at the Gold Medal Tournament, two opposing players collided as Angoon sought to push the tempo, sending multiple players to the court as the ball bounced away.

Just a few feet from the chaotic scene sat Harriet Knudson, and she didn’t flinch. Sitting in her wheelchair just off the court, she kept her hands neatly folded in front of her chest. She has seen much stranger plays happen.

After all, she asserts that she’s seen every Gold Medal game since the event began in 1946.

By the time Saturday night ends, the 82-year-old Hoonah native will have watched all 40 games of this year’s tournament. As she watches, she remembers back to when the tournament took place at the old Juneau High School on Fifth Street, and when Sam and Gim Taguchi were the standout players in the late 1940s.

Gold Medal has been a massively important part of her life, as she and her late husband Ralph ran the tournament for a few years in the 1970s when she and Ralph — who died in 2011 — were higher-ups with the Juneau Lions Club. Now, she carries no responsibility for the way the tournament is run. All she does is watch.

“It feels good,” Knudson said during a break between games Thursday. “I can lean back and enjoy myself.”

She’s been in that spot — by the southeast corner of the court, with her left wheel lined up with the free-throw line on that end of the court — for the past few years. Years ago, she and Ralph sat in that same corner, but on the baseline. Their daughter Irene, a retired nurse, took care of them both and continues to care for Harriet.

As Harriet sat and waited for the evening games to begin Thursday, she remembered back a few years to when she had a stroke. She points out that she might be the only one left who has seen all of the games, as many of the others have died.

“But I won’t give up,” Harriet said. “I’m an old die-hard.”

“I can’t keep up with her,” Irene added.

One key part

Sasha Soboleff, whose father was one of the founders of the tournament, launched into the history of the event when asked about Knudson. The story of the event and the story of the people surrounding the event are almost inseparable.

“Harriet’s one key part of it,” Soboleff explained. “Every community has extensive family ties.”

Harriet’s family has particularly strong ties, with her and Ralph running the tournament and her brother, Dennis Gray, being a 1992 Hall of Fame inductee for his play with Hoonah. The whole family, like many families represented at the tournament, is raised on Gold Medal.

Hoonah has perhaps the most passionate following, with almost half the stands full of Hoonah supporters at any given time. The village takes its basketball very seriously, with Harriet’s level of passion being the rule and not the exception.

That excitement has remained constant throughout the years, especially for Harriet. During the week of the tournament, Irene’s phone will sometimes ring at 8 a.m. or earlier, Harriet on the line.

“I’m up,” Harriet will say. “I’m ready.”

“We’ve got three hours,” Irene will respond. “We’ll go in there at 11:30.”

“But Hoonah plays at 12:30,” Harriet will respond.

“We’ll go in at 11, then.”

When they arrive, they always set up in the same spot. Harriet’s cousin Steve, who is also in a wheelchair, takes his spot next to her. She and Irene have their system down, usually bringing the same food to eat between games — bananas and a couple of peanut butter and tuna sandwiches for Harriet.

She has four sons and four daughters, resulting in numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She comes equipped with raisins and other healthy snacks for the youngest.

Harriet, who keeps her sentences short and voice fairly low, keeps an unassuming image but still has the awareness to survive on the sidelines.

“The ball comes at her a lot and she does pay attention,” Irene said. “She has fast reflexes. Going on 83, you can’t fool that old lady. You cannot.”

Irene always sits just behind her mother, ready to help at any moment. Her voice is hoarse by the end of the week after cheering for multiple teams. She’s a Hoonah native, but raised her boys and coached basketball in Metlakatla, so she tends to root for them as well.

She’s been attending these games her whole life. Her fondest memory is probably when Roy Howard Sr. made a half-court shot to win a game for Hoonah in the 1960s, but she’s also enjoyed the recent addition of the women’s bracket.

“It’s changed a lot,” Irene said. “I used to listen to my dad a lot, saying how things changed. You have to pass it on so it can keep going. People have their own ways of running things, so you either go with the flow or you get left behind.”

Living for it

On Friday afternoon, games didn’t start until 2 p.m. About an hour before tipoff, Harriet and Irene arrived. They were the only two passengers on a City and Borough of Juneau Care-A-Van bus, with Harriet getting off first.

Instead of her blue jacket that she wore the previous days, she donned a gray hoodie. As Irene gathered bags of snacks, Harriet took off for the front door at Juneau-Douglas High School, leaning on her cane but moving well. She got her wristband that granted entry, and someone called her name.

It was Mary Tarr, a Hoonah native who grew up knowing Harriet. Tarr bounded over to Harriet and slipped fry bread into the front pocket of Harriet’s hoodie, wrapping it in a paper towel first.

Harriet went into the gym as the Hoonah and Yakutat women warmed up, greeting Gloria McKinley, another older Hoonah native (“She’s my pal,” McKinley said of Harriet). On the speakers, Bon Jovi boasted about the “steel horse” he rides as Irene made her way into the gym, pushing Harriet’s wheelchair.

“One more day,” Irene said with a smile.

Harriet had already gotten to her spot, impatiently awaiting the 33rd game of the week.

“She loves Gold Medal,” Irene had said the day before. “That’s what she lives for.”