Jack City

My name is Scott Miles. I'm a Cleveland native and a die-hard Cleveland sports fan. I am in my second year at Capital University where I write for the school paper, work in the Sports Information Department, and used to play baseball and golf. This blog focuses on Cleveland and Ohio State sports, along with Capital. Feel free to give me feedback!

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Legend of the Alaskan Assassin

In the summer of 1998, my friend Steve Valentino and I attended a basketball camp at Duke University. This was back in the "hey-day" of my athletic career, when I was bigger and stronger than most kids my age. I was 11 years old.

It was a phenomenal experience, and though some memories have grown hazy over the years, the week at Duke played a major impact in the course of my life.

I remember Steve's mom driving us down the day before camp started, because Steve's grandparents lived in North Carolina - we would just spend the night there to shorten the drive. We stopped and ate at a Ponderosa on the way down. Once in North Carolina, Steve's grandparents took us on a brief visit to the campus of Wake Forest University. That night, we had watched an NBA playoff game with Tim Duncan and the Spurs, (I can't recall if they were playing Phoenix or Utah), and slept in their living room.

The next day, we drove out to Durham. That's where the legend begins...


Steve and I had gone to plenty of basketball camps together in those days, through the Shooting Stars basketball program. Of course, those overnight, weekly camps were held at places like Oberlin College and Hiram College - not Duke University.

I had never had any particular feelings towards Duke's men's basketball team beforehand. Didn't like 'em, didn't dislike 'em. A lot of sports fans around the country dislike Duke because the basketball team is always, well, really good. Steve had always been a big fan - before our YMCA or travel games, he'd always be checking the score to their games. That's why we ventured out of Ohio's borders and went to the camp down there.

As soon as we walked onto campus, I became hooked. It felt like the biggest place in the world, much larger than Oberlin or Hiram, larger than the two together, it seemed to my young eyes. The buildings were beautiful, historic. The weather was perfect. I was in love - and we hadn't even seen the Holy Grail of our trip.


Duke Indoor Stadium opened in 1940. It cost roughly $400,000 to build and at the time was the second-largest gymnasium in the country, with 8,000 seats and standing room capability to hold 12,000 fans. In 1972, the building was renamed Cameron Indoor Stadium after legendary coach and athletic director Eddie Cameron. Throughout the years, the men's basketball program, Cameron Indoor Stadium and a rabid student fan base known as the "Cameron Crazies" have become synonymous with the name Duke University.

The building reminded me of a cathedral, an interesting comparison, I thought, for an 11-year old who had never really gone to church all that much. The exterior, comprised of beautiful stone, was stunning. Stepping inside, the halls contained memorabilia and memories from over 60 years of basketball tradition - you could feel the history and tradition wash over you. The gym itself was tiny compared to many of the new structures around the nation, but it felt like just the right size to me, being there and imagining playing a game on that court in front of thousands of fans.

If you couldn't tell the age of the building from looking at it from outside, or from the years of wear and tear at places on the inside, you could certainly tell from stepping into the men's bathrooms. They didn't have individual urinals, just a giant trough to relieve yourself. I haven't been back since, so I don't know what the current bathrooms look like, if they've changed. What I do know is that I'd never peed in a trough until then, and to my recollection have never peed in one since.


After we got ourselves checked in, registered, moved into our dorm room for the week and all that good stuff, Steve and I headed back to the gym. With all the campers sitting on the hallowed court, Mike Kryszewski ("Coach K") gave his opening speech. I don't remember what he said, but I remember feeling the goosebumps run through my body as I soaked in the atmosphere and thinking about how awesome it would be to receive instruction from the legendary coach. Alas, the only other time we saw Coach K that week was during the closing ceremonies of the camp, but that didn't really diminish much from the entire experience.

Like I said before, I can only recall a few specific memories from the rest of that week. Steve and I had messed around with the air conditioning in our room, and the room was frigid, colder than a January breeze off Lake Erie, the entire week. I was a pretty big kid back then, and was actually about as big as any of the kids in our age group, which surprised me. I also remember coming away from the camp not overly impressed with any of the other big guys, though some of the guards were pretty quick and could shoot.

(Of course, I ended up getting cut from the seventh and eighth grade school teams, stopped growing, and never really played competitive basketball after that point. I'm sure a lot of those kids at that camp had much more illustrious basketball careers than me, and some are likely still playing in college somewhere. I did end up second in scoring in our intramural basketball league senior year of high school, though, one of the finer achievements of my athletic career. For his part, Steve ran the point guard on the most successful boy's basketball teams in Solon High School history and now plays football at the University of Dayton.)

One memory, though, remains sharper than a steak knife in my mind, a memory that has helped define my life and who I am today. That, my friends, is the arrival of the Alaskan Assassin: Trajan Langdon.


A famous sports quote says that while amateurs practice until they get it right, professionals practice until they can't get it wrong. While some certainly can get by and achieve greatness purely through superior skill or athletic ability, the factor that sets most professional athletes from the rest of the pack is their willingness to spend extra hours in the gym, the weight room, the batting cages, honing their craft, improving their strength, milking everything they can from their bodies to become the best.

One night during our week at Duke, the daily session was running a little long, games were going late - pretty typical for a camp. My team - we were "Iowa", I don't know why, nor was I very happy about being on a Big 10 team that wasn't Ohio State - had already finished our games for the day, so I was just sitting around, watching some of the action on the court, and waiting for us to be dismissed for the evening.

As things were wrapping up, whispers began circulating throughout the assembled campers. "Trajan's here", "He's in the hallway", "They're kicking us out so he can play".

Trajan Langdon had arrived. Nicknamed the "Alaskan Assassin" because he went to high school in Anchorage and had a reputation as a deadly shooter, Trajan was one of the biggest names in college basketball at the time.

Streams of kids exited the court into the main lobby outside the gym. Never the quickest nor the slightest of foot, I was caught near the back of the crowd, but still managed to reach the hallway.

He was out there, all right, smiling and shaking hands. Some of the instructors tried to ebb the flow of kids swarming him, but he didn't mind. It was late at night, probably 10 or 10:30, and he had come to work out after we finished. At the time, I was shocked that someone would be so willing to sacrifice his time, to come to practice so late, and to be so generous as to spend some time with us - it amazed me. Never before in my life had I been so close to an athlete of his stature. Flush in my newfound Duke glory and desperate to meet my new hero, I struggled to make my way up to him.

But it was too late. Our instructors had essentially formed a wall around him, and he made his way into the gymnasium, likely one of his countless summer workouts, preparing for his senior season. Discouraged but not disappointed, I resolved to be the most faithful follower of Duke basketball and of the team's star player, Trajan Langdon.


The rest of camp passed rather uneventfully. As part of our package, we each received a Duke Basketball T-Shirt and a hardbound yearbook for the upcoming season, with Trajan gracing the cover. I hoped, prayed, he would make another appearance before the end of the week, but those hopes and prayers went unfulfilled.

I watched as many Duke games as I could that season (and have continued to do so now). Trajan ended the season as the team's second-leading scorer, and the Blue Devils advanced to the NCAA championship, losing 77-74 to the University of Connecticut. With just a few seconds left, Duke had to go the length of the court to attempt a shot to tie the game, and Trajan was called for traveling near halfcourt. My heart went out for him, and I felt like crying.

Now, here's the part of the story that would be remiss without me telling it. As I'm sure most of you know, I'm a diehard Cleveland sports fan. The mid-to-late 90's was an interesting period in Cleveland sporting history, just as I came into my own, if you will, as a person who lived and died with the successes and failures of his sports teams.

The Cleveland Indians, longtime doormats of Major League Baseball, had suddenly emerged as perennial contenders, playing in two World Series in three years (1995, 1997 - should have won it in 1997, but that's for another time). Art Modell ripped the heart out of the entire city, the entire Cleveland Browns fanbase, moving the team to Baltimore after the 1995 season. And the Cleveland Cavaliers were on the tail-end of some great teams from the late 80's and early 90's, trying to regain that identity as the NBA struggled with labor issues and the re-retirement of Michael Jordan.

The 1999 NBA Draft approached, and the Cavs held two first-round selections, the number eight and number 11 picks. I didn't think there was anyway that the Cavs would take Trajan with one of those picks, because everyone was talking about his limitations on defense, and how his only offensive threat was the three-point shot (17.3 ppg, 44.1 percent three-point shooter as a senior). Everyone figured he'd get taken in the late first round, maybe second round.

With the first pick, the Chicago Bulls took Duke forward Elton Brand, who left school early as a sophomore. Before the Cavs' eighth pick, other notable players to go included Steve Francis (Maryland - Vancouver), Baron Davis (UCLA - Charlotte), Lamar Odom (Rhode Island - LA Clippers), Wally Szczerbiak (Miami, OH - Minnesota), Richard Hamilton (UConn - Washington).

With the eighth pick, the Cavs took Utah point guard Andre Miller. Watching the draft, I was happy because we really needed a point guard. But who would we take next?

Two more very good players, Shawn Marion (UNLV - Phoenix) and Jason Terry (Arizona - Atlanta) went ninth and tenth, respectively (Man, what a draft class!) This put the Cavs on the clock with the eleventh pick.

They took Trajan Langdon.

Now, there were plenty of good "Dukies" available in that draft - in fact, a total of four (Brand, Langdon, Corey Maggette, William Avery) would be selected in the first 14 picks. What were the odds, I mused then, that the Cavs would not only take a player from my favorite college basketball team, but my favorite player of all-time? It was a fairy-tale moment for an adolescent - the only bittersweet moment came when I realized that Derek Anderson, who played the same position as Trajan on the Cavs and was my favorite player on the team, would be traded. But I figured that Trajan would easily fill his shoes. I mean, it was a lock, right? Right?


In his rookie season, 1999-2000, Trajan played in 10 games off the bench, averaging 4.9 points per game in less than 15 minutes per ballgame and shooting 42.1 percent from beyond the arc. An injury ended his season, though, and the Cavs, coached by Randy Wittman and led by an out-of-shape Shawn Kemp, finished with an inglorious 32-50 record.

His second season, though, seemed poised for a breakout. Despite his continued limited minutes, Trajan played in 65 games, with five starts, and bumped his scoring average up to six points per game and shot 41.1 percent from three-point range. I clearly remember his best game of the season, a 31-point outburst against the Pistons, because I was sick that day. So sick, in fact, that I went to bed early and didn't watch any of the game. How did I remember the game, then? Well, I stayed home from school the next day so I could watch the replay of the game on Fox Sports that afternoon.

But the Cavs once again finished with a 30-52 record, and there were grumblings not only about the coaching staff, but also about the lack of production out of the organization's eleventh pick from the 1999 draft. How could that be, I wondered, that everyone complains about him when he doesn't even get a chance to play? How can you just carelessly discard a deadly outside shooter? Didn't they watch him at the All-Star game, playing in the "2-Ball" competition with Eva Nemcova of the WNBA's Cleveland Rockers, where they finished in second place?

During the course of the 2001-2002 season, it became evident that Trajan's days as a Cavalier were numbered. John Lucas took over the team, which managed to finish even worse than it had in the past few years, with a 29-53 mark. Trajan played in just 44 games, averaging fewer minutes than he did during his rookie and second-seasons, and his numbers dropped slightly. I remember Lucas being quoted in the Plain Dealer, saying that Trajan was the best "Monday-Wednesday-Friday" player on the team - NBA teams usually have those days off, meaning that Trajan excelled in practice but not in the game. But coach, you only played him 10 minutes a night, giving backcourt minutes to guys like Bryant Stith, Jeff Trepagnier, and the immortal Bimbo Coles? Was I the only one to see this, to realize this?

My friend Stu and his dad had season tickets, around halfcourt, maybe eight rows up on the same side as the team benches. Now, in those days of Cavs basketball, you had maybe 9,000 fans showing up to games. Maybe. You could hear the players and coaches talking, swearing at the refs, laughing...it was pretty cool, and back then at Gund Arena, they didn't overwhelm you with artificial sound and noise like they do now at "The Q".

Anyway, Stu and his dad took me to a game at the end of the season, when not only was the writing all over the wall for the end of Trajan's career in a Cavs uniform, you might as well have been staring at a graffiti-covered building in the Bronx. I decided to make a sign, the first sign I'd ever made for a sporting event, to bring to the game in homage of Trajan's career. My sister helped me with the lettering, which read "SAVE TRAJAN LANGDON", colored in the blue and orange that the Cavs wore on their jersey' at the time. In addition, I printed out some pictures I could find of Trajan from the internet and glued them on, and brought my Duke yearbook with me from camp, the one with Trajan on the cover, in hopes that he would sign it.

Fans at the game loved my sign. Rest assured, they'd never seen anything like it, nor will they likely ever see anything like it again. I waved my sign at every opportunity I could (during timeouts and such, so as not to disrupt anyone's view - I was very conscience of that) towards the Cavs bench, towards my hero. It went unnoticed, and as the game clock wound down into the fourth quarter, I doubted that anything would come of my efforts.

A timeout was called sometime in the fourth qaurter. The Cavs, who were probably getting killed at that point, huddled around Lucas as he went over some strategy that hadn't worked before nor would work again for the rest of his tenure as Cavs coach. I stood up, as always, and pointed my sign directly at the bench.

Cavs guard Wesley Person, paying no mind to Lucas' clipboard, was gazing into the audience and saw me. He smiled and laughed. He tapped Trajan, who was also somewhat outside the interior of the huddled players, on the shoulder and pointed directly at me.

I almost fainted.

I locked eyes with my hero. He smiled and laughed, too. Oh my God, I thought. He's looking right at me. Me!

The huddle broke up and the game resumed. I sat down, unsure of what to say or think. Stu and his dad were laughing, I think a bit shocked at what had just happened, drawing the attention of two NBA players into the stands, looking at us.

The huddle broke up and the game resumed. But I had stopped paying attention to the game and just focused on the end of the Cavs bench where Trajan sat. I caught him peeking at me and I waved. He peeked again, later, and I held up the Duke yearbook.

He laughed yet again. I felt like crying.

The game finally, mercifully, drew to a close, and I hustled to the Cavs bench, trying desperately to get Trajan to sign my yearbook. But I was too late - the players had already entered the locker room. I pleaded my case to a security guard who was standing nearby, and he just stared blankly right back at me. We waited around for a few minutes, hoping he would reappear, finally giving up and heading back home.

As expected, the Cavs did not re-sign Trajan after the season. The dream was over.


I don't know when exactly, but it was some time long after the season had ended and Trajan had left that my dad and I went to Champs Sports in Solon, the one by where Tops used to be, when it was having its big closing sale. They were basically giving stuff away, and the inside of the store was a mess. We were just looking around when my eyes caught a glimpse of a rack full of "21" Cleveland Cavaliers jerseys. It couldn't be, I thought. No way.

Yup. They were Trajan Langdon jerseys, dozens of them, on sale for like $5 or $10, I can't remember exactly how much. My dad asked me how many I wanted to buy, three or four. To this day, I'm not sure if he was joking or not. I bought one.

Around that time, I wrote to "Glad You Asked", a part of the Plain Dealer's sports section where fans would ask questions about old Cleveland teams, players, trivia, etc. In my Duke yearbook, I had noticed that Trajan was drafted by the San Diego Padres out of high school and played minor league baseball for a few seasons, and I wanted to know what his stats were.

The writer misinterpreted my request, thinking that I had said "minor league BASKET-ball", not "baseball". He printed it anyway, making a crack about me calling college basketball a minor league sport, and reproduced Trajan's collegiate stats.

A bit miffed, I wrote back, explaining the true intentions of my request. This, too, was also published, with a very brief retraction and Trajan's minor league baseball stats. I was a minor hero in the eyes of some of my family and friends for having my name in the Plain Dealer not just once, but twice.


It was at that point that I decided to write Trajan a fan letter. It had been many years since I'd sent one to an athlete (I think Grant Hill, in his Pistons days, was the last one I had sent prior to Trajan - as it would turn out, I wouldn't send out another until a few weeks back, to Browns receiver Joe Jurevicius). I explained how much I thought of him as a player, my near-encounter with him at Duke, and disclosed that I was the fan at the Cavs game with the sign and yearbook. I thanked him for his time in Cleveland and wished him the best of luck down the road. To top it off, I enclosed a picture that my sister took of me at home, posing with my yearbook and sign.

I sent it care of the Cleveland Cavaliers, not really sure how or if it would even get to him. A few months later, I received a letter back, addressed to me in a plain white envelope, with a return address from Alexandria, Virginia. Inside, there was no note, no letter, nothing - except for a handful of Trajan Langdon rookie cards.

In my sophomore year of high school, my friends and I started an intramural basketball team. There were only a few team names that we were allowed to choose from, and we ended up being the "Hawaii Rainbows" with green jerseys.

We decided to get our names and numbers put on the backs of our jerseys. One of our friend's mom did the lettering and it only cost a couple of bucks to get it done. I wanted number 17, my baseball number, and the name "Alaskan Assassin" above it on the back.

A few days later, my friend called me. I wasn't allowed to put "Assassin" on the back of the jersey. I think the school felt I was going to go around shooting up the hallways that week or something. I opted to put "AA" on the back instead. Parents watching our games must have thought I was a recovering alcoholic.


After leaving the Cavs, Trajan spent some time in Italy and Turkey, playing professional ball there. In 2003, the Clippers brought him in during the preseason, but he didn't make the final roster and went back overseas. As the Cavs roster continued to turn over more than an insomniac at night, and as fans cried over the lack of an outside shooting threat, I constantly wondered what if we still had the Alaskan Assassin in a Cavalier uniform. But with LeBron now in town, Trajan slowly slipped from the forefront of my mind.

Last fall, a lot of NBA teams played exhibition games overseas against top European clubs. Gazing through those pre-season boxscores and stories, I laughed when I saw the Clippers got smoked by some team called CSKA Moscow. Then I read the rest of the story to see this...

"Trajan Langdon scored a game-high 17 points..."

I showed that clip to everyone who would look. The list was limited to my dad and my friends Stu and Rosen. I didn't care. He was back. My hero was back.

Poking around today for some more information on him, I saw that he's twenty-fourth in the league in scoring (14.5 ppg), leading CSKA Moscow to a 12-1 record, first place in their group, and a spot in the Euroleague Final Four. Here's an interview with Trajan that I found: http://www.euroleague.net/news/fanmail/i/732/184/fan-mail-trajan-langdon-cska-moscow?smid=223

After reading that, I smiled and laughed a little, fondly thinking back to my exuberance with every shot he hit, cheering louder than a drunk fan in the Dawg Pound.


We all have our heroes, our role models, the people we look up to the most. Over the years, it's amazing how much grief I've gotten for the fact that Trajan Langdon is not only my favorite basketball player, but probably my favorite athlete of all-time. People also laugh when I suggest that Trajan could still compete in the NBA.

(For the record, Trajan was a career 39.6 percent three-point shooter. As of Jan. 26, Larry Hughes is shooting 40.6 percent from three point-range for the Cavs this season. Damon Jones, the player on the Cavs who most closely resembles Trajan's game in terms of strengths and weaknesses, is shooting 39.6 percent from beyond the arc and is in the middle of a $16.1 million contract. For his career, he's a 38.7 percent three-point shooter, not too mention the fact that his defense is shakier than a dog in a thunderstorm- not picking on Damon, but just proving a point because he is supposedly the team's sharpshooter.)

It's tough hearing your idol get ridiculed constantly, people telling you to get over him, telling you that he was never that good to begin with. That's fine - I've heard it all before and will likely hear it again. It bothers me a little but I'm used to it.

I think back to that quote, that amateurs practice until they get it right, while professionals practice until they can't get it wrong, and think back to Trajan on that summer night in Durham, working tirelessly on his jump shot and trying to improve his game.

That's the kind of player I look up to the most.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an excellent piece. Thanks for the read.

8:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was a very good piece. The Alaskan Assassin is by far one of my favorite basketball players of all time.

6:38 PM  

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