Out Of Alaska, One Great Kid

IT IS GETTING DARK. ITIS ALWAYS GETTING dark in Alaska. Through the alabaster dusk a huge, languid moose sashays across Northern Lights Boulevard out by the University of Alaska, Anchorage, where Steve Langdon is a professor of anthropology. "A real bull," says Langdon, who moments later pulls his fourwheel drive into the parking lot of East High School, where a couple of massive ravens alight onto the snow, then nibble on castaway potato chips. The birds are afterthoughts to all but wide-eyed tourists and the Tlingit and the Haida, Indian brethren who memorialize the raven on their totem poles as a supernatural trickster through whom functions most of the universe.

In this season, of all Alaska's geophysical fascinations, no single entity in the Great Land is more remarkable than Langdon's own son, Trajan Chaka Langdon. Named after both the Roman emperor who ended the persecution of Christians and the Zulu chieftain who developed the phalanx made of shields, young Langdon, 18, is serene and polite. He's a straight-A student who not only takes courses at three different schools but works at an engineering firm calculating solutions to a waste-water project in the Aleutian Islands. Oh, yes, the kid also happens to be an emperor and chieftain in his own right; in Alaska's sports world, the aurora borealis himself. A phenomenon since he was 14, Trajan Chaka Langdon is the best basketball player in the history of the Great Land.

Not that there have been a whole lot of others. There are barely 600,000 people in Alaska, most too old or too cold to jump for a rebound. But basketball has been at the core of the cultural fabric woven among the villages of the state since before 1900. While the game has thrived among the Aleuts and the Inupiat Eskimos in the north to the Athabascans in the interior, sheer small numbers and lack of competition would seem to dictate against what Langdon has become.

How good is he? So good that Kentucky coach Rick Pitino had his name emblazoned on a framed uniform when the kid visited the campus at Lexington last summer. So good that Indiana's Bob Knight threw his arms around him, ushering him into the team locker room to meet the Hoosiers themselves in Bloomington, Ind. "Knight as Pharaoh," remembers Langdon's dad, the anthropologist, who took a year's sabbatical from teaching to supervise his son's recruitment. Langdon's so smart that at Ohio State, the Buckeyes gave Trajan a seat in a class dealing with differential equations called "Philosophical Math." ("Ridiculous," says Trajan. "I didn't understand a thing.") He's so all-around terrific that coaches from UCLA, Vanderbilt, Kansas and Villanova visited Anchorage; Wake Forest's staff wrote 200 letters, seven in one day. Everybody wanted the All-American-next-door-far-away.

Langdon is a 6-foot-3, 180-pound sinewy backcourt player and a student-athlete in every sense of the words. His mere enrollment on most campuses would raise the basketball team's SAT average by triple digits. On the court, while lacking exceptional speed and leaping ability, he would bring with him a brilliant shooting touch as pure as a melting glacier. And what makes him more remarkable still is that this is a kid who plays within himself. a workhorse, not a show horse. "That someone with his skills comes from such a basketball wilderness is amazing," says Tom Konchalski, a basketball recruiting guru from New York. "Trajan Langdon is a freak of nature."

Actually, Langdon is the grandson of an Oregon psychiatrist who in "territorial days" established the state's largest mental-health facility. He's the son of a white father and an African-American mother, Gladys, an Alabaman wooed initially against her wishes to Alaska by her husband. And he's the brother of Trista ("Our deal," says Steve, "was I got to name only the boys"), 14, who is a freshman hoopster and the same color as Trajan, which is, as their father says, "like their mom, not me, cafe au lait."

Most of Langdon's classroom work is done at Stellar Secondary School for advanced learners and at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, itself Trajan takes calculus and Spanish and will have accumulated 11 college credits when he starts col]eve in the fall at--no surprise here--Duke the Langdon lottery winner, which beat out his father's alma mater, Stanford, and the dozens of others that groveled for his attentions. "We wanted Trajan in an academic atmosphere. None of that jock culture," says his father. Nonetheless the family has ended up raising perhaps the all-time jock celebrity in the state's history.

You can, in fact, if you wander into most any tavern from Captain Cook's lounge to what's left of the DEW line on the Arctic Ocean, get a fair argument on the most beautiful sight in the state this winter: the musk oxen circling their young on the tundra, Denali's Peak spiking through the clouds or Trajan pulling up his dribble, shooting and scoring. "Northern Exposure's" Chris, the loquacious disc jockey on fictional Cicely's K-BEAR, would have to reach for Robert Frost to talk about this man-child: Only where love and need are one, and the work is play for mortal stakes, is the deed ever really done for Heaven and the future's sakes.

"Celebrity?" Trajan says. "People say they talk about me even up in the bush. I see kids get bug-eyed when I walk by. But I don't like to think about it. I could get bigheaded, and that's no way to improve. I know there's lots of players around the country better than me." Not the Big Country, though. Not in most any sport. While Mark Schlereth of Anchorage has been a mainstay in the Washington Redskins' offensive line, and Tommy Moe of Palmer and Hilary Lindh of Juneau have crashed the big time in World Cup skiing, no Alaskan has made a dent in NCAA basketball, much less the NBA.

"Trajan learned simply by watching the game," says Steve. "From TV and clinic books we worked on all the drills and techniques. At 12 he was amazing compared with anybody around here. But so what? I call it the Marginal Alaska Syndrome. Most Alaskan kids raised here feel marginalized to all mainstream American culture."

But after Trajan started traveling on AAU teams through the Lower 48--as Alaskans refer to the rest of us, still refusing to recognize the existence of Hawaii--his natural, flowing talent emerged. In Seattle, Indianapolis, Las Vegas and New Orleans he did things like drill a dozen three-pointers in a tournament, finish third in a national shooting contest and prove himself to everyone, including himself. "I thought, 'Wow, I can play with the best guys in the nation'," says Trajan.

After leading East High to two Alaska state championships, Langdon is currently pushing coach Chuck White's 12-2 Thunderbirds to a possible threepeat averaging 31 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists. "To hear people talk about this kid, you think he's in his own Shangri-La," says White. "But it's all true. I've never seen anybody work like he does. When he has a bad game, Trajan will go to some gym that night and practice for another hour and a half People back outside (that is to say, in the Lower 48) doubt us up here. But Trajan has no fragile psyche. He's got a game plan nobody knows about."

"When I was younger, my dad used to challenge me to practice," says Langdon. "Did I want to only watch the games on TV or did I want to work hard and play in them? I've always prided myself on being smart, staying one idea ahead. Oh, I know Michael Jordan's talent is out of reach to duplicate. But just think of the ideas the guy had."

OK, sports fans, and old readers of The New Yorker: who does this guy sound like? A game plan nobody knows about. Practice, practice, practice. Ideas. Ladies and gentlemen, the Rhodes scholar, White-0, Dollar Bill, senior senator from New Jersey. John McPhee, call your office!

Trajan has a sense of where he is, and who he is, too. Back in Craig, Alaska, the tiny fishing village in which his father studied the natives and his mother was the first black to live, there were some hard times. "We were in between love and hate," Steve Langdon says. "So Trajan's been taught early he's both of us...black and white...and I think he's learned to deal with it.' Among the multitude of ethnic cultures romanticizing the Last Frontier, of course, that would have to be a lot easier than in, say, Durham, N.C. "Oh, I've heard the name 'Oreo' before," Trajan says. "And I've heard people shout my name as "Trojan' related to the condom, which obviously I don't appreciate either. But knowing about the fans at Duke"--who have on occasion hurled prophylactics onto the basketball court, if not dress up as them--"I'm just lucky I won't be a visiting player there."

Nearing his departure and the seeking of his destiny back outside, Langdon has no fear. "The cold weather has started to get to me anyway," he says. "In Alaska the winters nag on people. They get you down. I've traveled, so I've seen what it's like to get up in the morning and not have to scrape ice or freeze your butt or wait so long for the light. You don't think this dark world affects you. But it does. I'm ready to go."

In Juneau the bumper stickers say THE RAVEN CREATED THE WORLD. AND THEN HE GAVE BASKETBALL TO THE TLINGIT. Now that the Great Land has finally created a great player all its own, it is time for Alaska to give him up--and send the new Raven out into the basketball world.