High school basketball player Wallace Ungwiluk considered transferring this summer.
Gravitating toward the local power program or moving on to a national preparatory academy is hardly a sizzling headline in today’s prep hoops landscape.
But Ungwiluk’s story is different.
By leaving remote Alaskan outpost St. Lawrence Island to attend school in the Lower 48, Ungwiluk would be stepping out in the world like few have ever done from his tiny village of Gambell (Alaska) — and bringing some serious game with him.
St. Lawrence Island
Ungwiluk — a rising junior — attended a camp in Spokane, Wash., in early August, hoping to improve his game and drum up interest among potential college suitors.
While that’s standard protocol for many college hoops hopefuls, it was a journey of discovery for Ungwiluk. He’s taken plenty of trips off the island — including a trip to Japan (where his mother Yuka is from) — but never tested himself on the court against players from the mainland.
“It was a great experience,” Ungwiluk said. “Not only basketball, but just meeting new people from all over. I noticed I have a lot of work to do still, but I think I did OK. I played in the top division at the camp.”
The weather was an adjustment. Temperatures in Spokane pushed 100 degrees during his visit. A warm day back home this time of year might reach 50 degrees, while 10 degrees or below is considered a “good” whaling day in April.
St. Lawrence Island is less than 40 miles from Russia’s Chukchi Peninsula. Just over 700 people call his village of Gambell home.
There’s no industry or major employer on the island. Cell phones weren’t useful until three or four years ago, and cable television is considered a luxury.
Most families — like Ungwiluk’s — rely on subsistence hunting to put food on the table. Walrus (Wallace’s favorite) and whale are staples of the Yupik people’s diet. Wallace has joined his father Rodney Jr. on whale hunts since he was seven years old.
Ungwiluk has had little formal basketball training. His skill was developed through nightly open gym sessions in the village and YouTube mimicry.
A big fan of Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls, Ungwiluk would study the highlights he found online and attempt to replicate them during his next visit to the gym.
Ungwiluk averaged 27 points per game as a sophomore and became a full-blown basketball sensation locally. Gambell games became an anticipated community event.
While he will undoubtedly feel some pressure to succeed should he take his game off-island in the future, the expectations at home are also sky high. Ungwiluk’s talent and production has the Qughsatkuts (king polar bears, note the rug on gym wall in video above) dreaming of their first Bering Strait School District title since the late 1980s.
“It would be real big. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Ungwiluk said of leading Gambell to a district title. “But I know Seattle is the best for me, not only for basketball but academically as well. I think it would allow me to challenge myself a lot more.”
Ungwiluk spent the summer exploring the idea of attending Seattle Lutheran High School and even visited campus during a layover on his way home from Spokane. But eligibility concerns loomed over the decision — he doesn’t want to risk moving 2,000 miles away only to be told he can’t play basketball.
Can he play?
The highlights are impressive, but clearly Ungwiluk isn’t facing EYBL-caliber competition on the 113th largest island in the world (according to Wikipedia).
Having Wallace back is exciting for the school, team and community, but first-year Gambell head coach Alvin Aningayou fears it could be a negative for his development in the long run.
“We are such a small school,” said Aningayou, also an artist who put his skills to work in Gambell’s gym with an incredibly lifelike rendering of a polar bear. “Going to Seattle Lutheran probably would have benefited him with the longer season and better conditioning program — that’s not even something that’s in existence here.
“We can’t even start organized practice until December 2. It’s a blessing that he is going to be back here, but it might actually put him a step behind.”
Ungwiluk concedes that a smaller college might be a better fit, as much from a social and cultural standpoint than a basketball one.
Aningayou has no doubt about his star pupil’s ability to play anywhere at any level, however.
“He’s a very incredible player, a very special player,” Aningayou said. “He’s able to do things with the ball that not too many people can do.”