Every town in Southeast Alaska, if not regions farther north as well, should have a basketball venue named after George Houston. His impact on the game, and on those who play it, coach it and watch it has been borderless.
George Harold Houston, born Dec. 9, 1950, died of a rare form of vasculitis — Granulomatosis with polyangiitis — on Oct. 26. He was 72. According to family, he became ill in July and was medivaced to Anchorage for two weeks. After a brief return to Juneau he was medivaced to Seattle’s Virginia Mason, where he spent three weeks before passing. Doctors noted they may have found it earlier, but Houston was in such good shape it was hard to diagnose.
A public celebration of his life will be held at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé on Sunday, Jan. 7. The family plans a remembrance in June.
“George never considered himself a ‘big deal,’ but I’m finding out that he was a big deal in Juneau and around the state,” sister Heather (Houston) Drapeaux said. “I still am amazed at how he could remember so many of his students. His players I understand. But he could be stopped by a former student and typically he would remember them and things they did…When he took over as head coach, it was something he wanted his whole life. I don’t know many people who knew what they wanted to do when they were 14 and actually did it.”
Houston graduated from JDHS in 1969, playing on the Crimson Bears state champion team that season coached by Clair Markey.
He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks, graduating in 1973. While at UAF, Houston and college teammate Phil Jordan assisted Markey, who had moved on to coach Lathrop High School.
“Not sure where to start as George has been a part of my life for 53 years,” said Jordan, who has coached teams to state titles at Bartlett, Service and Lumen Christi. “It is hard to try and capture all that I have experienced with George over the years. George was one of the first people I met when I came to UAF from Southern California.”
The two lived in rooms next to each other in UAF’s Stevens Hall.
“I grew very quickly to value George’s friendship due to his openness to new experiences off the court and his incredible love and knowledge of basketball,” Jordan said. “With George you got what you saw — he was very genuine and rock solid in his values. I could see he was a born coach as it was not uncommon to hear him calling out directions to the players on the floor when he was on the bench. I came to appreciate what he was saying was very insightful — and correct.”
“I will be forever grateful that George was the one that introduced me to the coaching legend Clair Markey. George and I had our first coaching experience as Coach Markey’s assistants at Lathrop High School in Fairbanks. It was a crash course in coaching as we spent hours together learning on-court fundamentals but also countless hours off the court talking about all the intricacies of the game. I think this was where George started to formulate his idea of how the game was to be played.”
“George then went on to add to his coaching philosophy by becoming an avid student of the game as taught by Bobby Knight. When George went from loyal assistant head coach at Juneau I remember he was so into the program even his truck had to be crimson and black! After I became a coach in Anchorage, I always looked forward to competing against George’s teams as I knew they would be tough competitors (just like their coach), well-disciplined, and would play tough man-to-man defense (which was the Juneau trademark). I always looked forward to working at George’s camps in the summer as they taught the fundamentals essential to being a successful player and the chance to be with some of the best coaches in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest who all came because of the great respect they had for George and his program.”
The world of Alaska basketball has lost not only one of the best coaches to ever have coached in the state, but also one of the most loyal, trustworthy, humble and just downright good guys.”
Houston returned to Juneau after his college graduation to begin a 32-year teaching career. His first job was as a Gastineau Elementary School physical education teacher for the 1973-74 school year. In 1974, Houston also became a JDHS assistant coach to Jim Hamey. He was an assistant for 18 years, part of nine region titles and one state title (1982 over West Anchorage).
Drapeaux was a junior cheerleader when her brother started teaching in the Juneau School District and on the Crimson Bears bench as an assistant.
“We had a trip to Anchorage and while there we were invited to a party with the Fairbanks hockey team,” Drapeaux said. “Unfortunately for us, George looked so young they invited him to the party, too, thinking he was a player…It was weird having him be the coach/chaperone on trips. I tried not to tell people he was my brother even though we had the same last name. I think he was pretty supportive but just enough that I realized he knew I existed.”
At some point in his career, Houston taught at all levels in the JSD, including coaching sixth grade at Harborview Elementary, seventh-ninth at Floyd Dryden, 10 years as an ‘A’ team coach at Dzantik’i Heeni and head coach for Team Alaska at the Arctic Winter Games in Yellowknife.
“He was everywhere and did everything,” Alaska School Activities Association (ASAA) Associate Director Sandi Wagner said. Wagner came to Juneau in 1984 and was hired at Floyd Dryden Middle School the day before school was to start. “I didn’t know what the curriculum was but George said, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ll work together.’ He was the most giving person I have ever met. I don’t think people realize all he did. He taught JDHS math, taught at the alternative school, taught gymnastics, was a high school track starter for years…he would sweep the gym floor 10 times a day, he would fix things…”
Houston became the head coach of the Crimson Bears in the 1992-93 season in a seamless transition from Hamey.
JDHS 1995 graduate Chris Hamey, Jim’s son, had grown up in the gym and noted Houston was always willing to teach whether a player was in fifth grade or high school.
“He lived one street up from the high school, but I am sure he spent more time in the gym than he did at his house,” Chris Hamey said. “And what I remember of his house was his black lab C-Bear (for Crimson Bear) and his extensive library of game film, which back in the day consisted of VHS and Betamax tapes. When he wasn’t in the gym coaching he was dedicated to film study to figure out ways to help his teams and his players get better…He demanded his teams play fundamental basketball like his mentors Bob Knight and John Wooden…Team basketball was taught and players understood that you sacrifice individual accolades for the good of the team…The style of play he taught — team comes first -—has benefited his players throughout their lives. I know it is something I cherish and try to instill in my kids.”
Houston did not appreciate players making plays that were overly flashy. A behind-the-back or no-look pass earned a “There’s too much mustard on that hot dog!” from Houston. His teams were physically fit. Every player dreaded the end of practice when Houston proclaimed “Guards up!” That meant all guards would line up on the baseline for sprints, alternating with the forwards and centers until lungs burned and legs felt like jello.
Houston was also approachable. While he could come across as direct or demanding, there was a side to him that was also very caring and gentle. He was a great communicator.
“One of the years I was playing for him he knew I was disappointed that I was not on the starting five,” Chris Hamey said. “He pulled me aside on the bleachers before a game and explained to me my role and why he made the decision he made. He said that every great team needs a John Havlicek (famous sixth man for the Boston Celtics in the ‘60s). By the end of the conversation I was energized and confident and ready to be the best John Havlicek I could be for the team.”
In Houston’s 14-year tenure as head coach, JDHS compiled 279 wins (85 losses), 11 conference championships — including eight straight from 1993-2000; two state titles (1997 over Colony and 1998 over East) with future NBA star Carlos Boozer (1999 grad); and was runner-up twice (1994 to East, 2002 to Bartlett). Of Houston’s 11 conference titles, JDHS won the additional crossover game against the 3A champ 10 times, only losing to Craig in 2003. Houston was also selected the Alaska Coach of the Year three times.
“I don’t think in our lives we have too many people in which relationships are based on a profound, mutual respect,” East Anchorage coach Chuck Martin said. “When I heard of George Houston’s passing I was struck not only by the passing of a great coach and competitor, but also by the enormous impact he had on my professional career and the sheer enjoyment of competition that our paths allowed us to be a part of.”
When Martin first started coaching high school basketball in Alaska in the mid-‘80s, he was obsessed with competing with one program, East, then coached by Chuck White. Everything Martin did for his teams, first at Houston, then Colony and Wasilla, was based upon finding the best way to compete with East.
“Little did I know when I started that there was someone else who had that same obsession of trying to build a program to serve the kids of his community and compete with the best teams in the state,” Martin said. “It didn’t take long for me to realize George was doing the same thing in Juneau and many of our philosophies about the game of basketball were the same. Our programs were both built on man-to-man defense and motion offense, and our teams were similar in many ways. As we got to know each other we talked about how many of his basketball philosophies were shaped by Bobby Knight, the great Indiana coach, and mine had been shaped by Dean Smith, the great North Carolina Hall of Famer.”
From the early ‘90s to early 2000s, despite being in different leagues, Martin’s Thunderbirds and Houston’s Crimson Bears would meet 10 times, either in regular season or the state tournament.
“I can’t remember any of those games that weren’t just epic battles and meant so much to the coaches and kids,” Martin said. “George and I used to joke with each other that our teams could play in a barn with nobody watching and they would always turn out to be knock-down, drag-out fights. I’m not sure if in my 36 years of coaching high school and college basketball there was anyone I wanted to beat more than George and Juneau-Douglas. Not because there was the usual hatred you had for some opponents, but because of the respect we had for them. You knew you were going to be going against a tough, talented, supremely prepared team that in order to beat you had to match in every regard. There was tremendous satisfaction when we came out on top, and still, some of my most disappointing losses are to George and the Crimson Bears.”
Martin said the hardest thing to remind people, but shows the deep respect and regard for George as a coach and colleague, is that in those 10 games their record against each other was 5-5.
“Now I wish everyone would think we finished even against each other,” Martin said. “But my teams were 5-0 against George in the regular season, and his teams were 5-0 against mine in state tournaments, including the 1997 state championship game. And don’t think that was the only one that really hurt. The 2002 overtime semi-final loss when I was coaching Wasilla may be the toughest loss of my career. We led by seven with two minutes to go and the Crimson Bears found a way to get us in overtime. And while I’m sitting here let’s just get all of them out of the way for my mental health. Don’t forget in 2000, Juneau upset my Wasilla team in the first round of the state tournament when we were the No. 2 seed and Juneau was No. 7. There, I’m glad I am done with that part.”
“I was lucky to have known and competed against George Houston. I wouldn’t say we were close but we certainly were ‘professional friends.’ Thank goodness neither of us missed too many state tournaments as coaches over the years, but George and I would talk on the phone on the years that we did miss it and I always felt he hurt as badly as I did. Hurt is always directly proportional to the amount of time and effort you put into something and the people you do it with. It was therapeutic for me to talk to him in those years we didn’t make it. We understood each other.”
“What I have learned over the years as a basketball coach is that the people that you respect and admire the most are the ones that stretched you the most, and contributed in their painful way to many of the successes you get to enjoy in your own life. George stretched me as a coach, he made me a better coach. I’m not sure I ever slept the night before a game with Juneau. I knew what was coming and what we had to do to have a chance. I am going to miss our paths crossing occasionally. I also am acutely aware that a highly valued part of my life has passed with the passing of George. I’m going to miss Coach Houston, but I am profoundly thankful that our careers crossed paths and the impact he had on my life.”
As a 1999 JDHS grad and former NBA player, Carlos Boozer wrote on social media that he had lost one of his best friends. According to Boozer, they had met when Boozer was 13 years old and Houston came to watch one of his middle school games.
“He saw my potential and had the courage to put a 14-year-old scrawny kid on varsity at JDHS back in 1996,” Boozer posted. “Coach Houston wasn’t just a legendary Hall of Fame high school basketball coach, he was a pillar in our community and a man that embodied all the characteristics of a leader…Selfless, honest, loyal, with high integrity and was tough as nails…all the qualities I aspired to be…Thank you for everything coach.”
Houston retired as head coach and from the JSD after the 2006 school year but continued coaching at the middle school and club level and volunteering in camps, including the running of Houston’s Hoop Camp — a three-week-long camp each June for Southeast students ranging in age from second to 12th grade.
“It is hard to formulate words that do justice to the impact Coach Houston had on so many people, basketball community and beyond,” Seattle Storm general manager and JDHS 2007 graduate Talisa Rhea said. “Growing up in Juneau and playing basketball was a unique and special opportunity filled with tradition, expectations of success, competitiveness, and a bond that brought so many of us together. Much of that is due to the leadership, care and impact of Coach Houston. Whether it was lunchtime at the school gym, watching him in his infamous red sweater on the sidelines or spending weeks together during the grueling days of Houston’s Hoop Camp, Coach Houston taught us to respect the game and each other, demanded a high level of discipline, challenged us all to be the best we could be and did it all while caring deeply for the people we were off the court. Coach Houston helped establish Juneau as a respected and well-known basketball community, and there are so many of us, boys and girls alike, that benefited and were affected by the culture he created. Thank you for everything, Coach Houston. Although I never played for you, the way you impacted my life in such a positive way is an experience I know I share with so many others. We are forever grateful.”
It is often overlooked that Houston was a member of the Juneau Volunteer Fire Department, one of his many community activities.
Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon, a 1983 JDHS graduate, noted his legacy.
“I grew up playing basketball in Juneau and I don’t remember a time that George Houston, or just Houston, wasn’t an icon in the basketball world,” Weldon said. “In those days basketball was king and no other sport compared in popularity. I know that he played basketball but I only remember him as a coach: first as an assistant, then as head, and finally as advisor. There were very few boys games that were played at JDHS that were not played without Houston at the bench or standing guard outside the office. He was a popular coach, crafty with his playbook, emotional on the court — which could involve kicking the bleacher — and was forever talking to his players on and off the court. His legacy will live on in the players that he coached. bringing them into men.”
After graduating from Mt. Vernon Nazarene University, current Thunder Mountain coach Andy Lee, an Ohio native, came north seeking a teaching position and was a substitute at Gastineau. After a few open gyms, Houston befriended Lee, inviting him to help coach at Hamey’s basketball camp. Lee would get to see the softer side of Houston.
“In the late ’80s, George and I were both assigned to the current district office, then the home of the ‘alternative school,’” Lee said. “We all know about the voice and the intensity, but I got to witness on a daily basis George ‘the reading teacher,’ listening patiently while encouraging in words wrapped around praise for the smallest improvement, one struggling reader at a time. I am glad I got to see the ‘Gentle General.’”
Current JDHS physical education teacher, activities director and head baseball coach Chad Bentz, a JDHS 1999 graduate, returned to Juneau after his professional baseball career in part due to early experiences with Houston.
“I never played for him in high school, which is one of my biggest regrets, but I was always with him in the gym whether it was as a student or as his teaching assistant,” Bentz said. “Coach taught me how to make a solid pot of coffee, which was by far the most important job I had as his TA. One of my favorite memories was my senior year. I always mentioned to Coach that he needed to come watch me pitch sometime and he finally made it to my last home game. I just remember being more excited that he was there to watch me pitch than I was for the NY Yankees scout that was also there to watch me. That’s the kind of impact he had on me and anyone and everyone he came in contact with. I will always be thankful for that and the many more heart-warming, fun memories I had with Coach Houston, the Educator, the Coach, The Legend, The True Juneauite.”
After retirement from high school coaching and teaching, Houston continued his full-time commitment to Juneau’s middle school and AAU Hooptime Alaska programs.
“Coach Houston made you feel a personal special connection with him,” Hooptime coach Bob Saviers said. “Everyone had their own special relationship with him whether you were a player, a coach or a friend. You felt you counted. His standards were high and they made you a better person for it. I was proud to call him my friend. He needs to be our example and remembered for his contribution to our community and in the lives he touched, and the players he turned into great adults and the special place in history he placed in the Crimson Bears. Forever.”
Houston often biked to AAU practices, games or referee gigs. During middle school tournaments it wasn’t unusual for him to bike from town, referee five games in a row, then bike home. Often Houston would call a technical on a player who was showing disrespect or poor sportsmanship, stop the game, explain why to the offender and admonish coaches for allowing it to happen in the first place.
“He told it like it is to coaches, players, the stands and referees too,” said Saviers. “He never took a dime for himself. He made my long camps and clinics bearable and he drew the template for coaches to become. He would be early and even though he was already a legend, would start sweeping the floor in preparation for the game. He was humble, never tooting his own horn. Even when he quit coaching, he continued to teach the game. He was the best coach, my friend…I coach now because of him. We made each other laugh. When he got to practice I’d tell him I taught everything I knew to these kids over the years. He would say, ‘Well, when that 10 seconds was over then what did you do?’ We all have great memories. I was there watching his neck bulge when Coach Jerry Krause told him he wasn’t a big motion fan. I was there when he was inducted into the hall of fame and I mentioned I would like the honor someday to which he replied ‘it is inducted not indicted.’”
In 2007 Houston received a Gold Lifetime Pass from the Alaska School Activities Association, given to individuals who have demonstrated “significant service to high school students of Alaska through leadership for at least 20 years at the state or national level.”
Current Monroe Catholic coach Frank Ostanik said the loss of Houston will be felt throughout Alaska.
“He was truly one of Alaska’s great coaches,” Ostanik said. I remember being the head coach at the University of Alaska and Coach Houston bringing his boys to our practice to watch. For me, a young coach, it was such an honor to have someone of his stature watching MY practice. I think this in many ways demonstrates what made him special — he was always trying to help his own players grow and he was always trying to learn something new…the first quality that comes to mind when I think of Coach Houston is ‘competitor.’ He was a tremendous competitor and his teams embodied this quality. In a world that has become increasingly devoid of standards, expectations and accountability, Coach Houston demanded all three and therefore his teams represented these qualities at the highest levels…Great coaches are judged on the impact they have on the lives of those they coach, not wins. Few, if any, can say they were more successful than Coach Houston in this regard.”
Outgoing Sealaska CEO Anthony Mallott, a 1992 JDHS graduate, was first introduced to Houston’s teachings in sixth grade.
“Coach Houston was a very serious and fairly scary person to interact with,” Mallott said, remembering that time. “His love of basketball and coaching was expressed with intense focus and, until you got used to the level of intensity he maintained, even with sixth graders, you always had a feeling that made you want to do what he said. It takes a full understanding of how much he loved the game of basketball and how much he loved coaching youth to understand that the intensity he portrayed was truly an expression of love.”
“Once you take a few sharp barbs of humor and sarcasm from Coach, and then feel the caring humor he was able to express when you needed it, you start to understand what a thoughtful human being he was. Every player ever coached by George knows that he was a basketball fundamentalist who could study the game day and night, go to coaching camps year after year, to better understand the game he loved. His players were keenly aware that he knew what he was talking about in all situations, and trusted his coaching like no other coach I’ve played under. It can’t go unnoticed that he was also a dedicated teacher, and his ability to both educate youth and coach added to his effectiveness.”
Mallott now has a senior son, Alex, who is receiving the Crimson Bears philosophy started by Houston. Mallott’s high school teammate Toby Lockhart has a senior son, Samuel, at Thunder Mountain. Houston helped Anthony and Toby coach their sons’ Hooptime team from 2016-19.
“I recall trying to explain to my fifth-grade son what it would be like to have Coach Houston help in our practices, but stopped myself, as the only way to understand Coach is to be coached by him,” Mallott said. “As a player I was used to him on the bench fully engaged in the game at hand, and as a parent it was comforting to see him still in the gym, either calling a game or standing by the coaching office he spent so many hours in. I will always be able to see him standing on the baseline waiting for the moment to share his knowledge of basketball, make us players better and, most importantly, improve the team.”
Houston also impacted the Juneau Lions Club Gold Medal Basketball Tournament for roughly 20 years. He was vital to championship teams in the now disbanded A and AA brackets with the Breakwater Knights, the Arctic Knights and the Green Team. Although he amassed just 90 points, he was the quintessential feisty point guard teams covet. He was known for “the weapon,” a solid elbow that let taller, heavier opponents know he would not be posted up easily. In retrospect Houston’s GM days were paying the tournament back, as he was an initial winner of their Gold Medal Scholarship, receiving $500 toward his first-year tuition at UAF in 1969-70, which at that time was a third of his tuition.
In 2017 Houston was inducted into two halls of fame: the Alaska Association of Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame — which selects just one coach and one player each season — and the Alaska School Activities Association Hall of Fame.
In a HOF interview Houston said having coached Boozer was an honor: “But it is not just about Carlos, and he would tell you the same thing. He played with some really good players and through the course of my career I got to work with some really good players and some really good kids…a number still live in Juneau and they’re successful in whatever career they’ve gone into. To me that’s more gratifying than what they did on the basketball court.”
AABC HOF dignitaries said at the time: “We had many coaching nominations but it became clear the favorite was Houston…”
ASAA dignitaries said: “Coach George Houston is a true legend…his name is synonymous with outstanding performance, both on and off the court.”
Former JSD superintendent Bridget Weiss, now the liaison for the Alaska College of Education Consortium (ACEC), spearheaded the HOF nominations calling Houston “the consummate Crimson Bear.”
“There was a ‘spirit’ of the old school classic Southeast basketball energy, focus, discipline, competitiveness, drive and glory that he held,” Weiss said. “George held players to high standards, expecting a lot, but only while giving a lot of himself. Everyone was better after any sort of exchange with George.”
Weiss’ parents and Houston’s were good friends, each living in the Flats along with the Bavards, and also owning cabins at Amalga. Nine kids were among the three families.
“I was the youngest of the nine,” Weiss said. “I grew up in the JD gym watching basketball games with the likes of George and my cousins Mike and Steve Bavard playing. When I was a senior in high school, I ended up with George as my PE teacher. There was no shortage of teasing and fun there. I remember once he gave a quiz and one of the questions was who won the World Series game the night before. Luckily my dad was a baseball fiend, and I was one of a few who knew the answer. When I moved back to Juneau in 2014, George used to tease that he ‘changed my diapers’…while I don’t think he actually did, he sure could have and loved to ‘take credit for that.’”
Weiss was also an athlete and a cheerleader for Houston’s Crimson Bears and recounted her “one and only” traveling mishap. When a ferry was late arriving at a Southeast community, in a time of no cell phones, Weiss and another cheerleader opted to wait at another housing option with basketball players rather than the terminal. When they arrived on time for the ferry Houston and Hamey were not impressed and the offenders were assigned a section of the vessel to ride out the return trip. The cheerleaders were hungry and believed a quick sneak around the corner to the cafeteria would be timely.
“We literally came around the first corner and BAM, there was Hamey and Houston, both,” Weiss said. “While now I am sure they had a really good chuckle after we headed, head down, back to our ferry space, George worked so hard to be the tough guy in that moment. I never so much as blinked out of order the rest of the season…”
Weiss credited Houston for her career, the first 17 years of which she spent teaching and coaching, spending her life observing or participating in activities, spending more time in gyms and on fields than most human beings and yet, way less than Houston. Her two sons competed four high school years in multiple sports — one playing in college and becoming a coach and teacher.
“Coaches and teachers are not all created equal,” Weiss said. “If we could bottle the ‘good ones’ we could conquer all ills that plague so many of our young people. George was a good one. Life is short…we all say…but this isn’t right. George did everything right, had more to give, we all deserve more of George! He would likely be horrified with all this attention. It was NEVER about George which is one of the things that made him special.”
Weiss’ husband Pat Costello, a JDHS 1979 graduate, noted that “George Houston was stern, tough but fair, and a great teacher of the fundamentals of basketball. Looking back, I recognize what a positive force he was in my life. He pushed me to be my best. George wasn’t all business, though. He appreciated a good laugh. That smile and laugh was a big part of who he was and if you could put a smile on his face at just the right time in practice you might not have to run all those 30-second drills at the end.”
Senior Director of Corporate Communications for Sealaska, Matt Carle, a 1993 JDHS graduate, moved from Hydaburg to Juneau to play for JDHS the summer before his senior year to challenge himself for college. The Crimson Bears would place second at state that season, falling to East Anchorage led by future NBA player Trajan Langdon.
“Looking back now, it was exactly the right move for me,” Carle said. “I think about the positive experiences I enjoyed; the friendships that I gained there were amazing. Now, 30 years later, it all seemed like it was meant to be. One of the key reasons why it was such a great move for me was because of Coach Houston…Coach Houston demanded the same from every player – there was no favoritism and he treated all of us equally. When I arrived there my basketball skills were pretty raw. I could score and knew how to play on the offensive side of the ball but I didn’t know much about the fundamentals of defense and how to play the team game. That would quickly change because I wasn’t going to play for Coach Houston unless I developed an overall game that fit with the Crimson Bear system…I felt pressure to live up to the expectations of the character and the commitment to teamwork that he set for us.”
“I learned more in that year about basketball than I had in the previous 15-16 years of my life…just about the fundamentals of the game, the nuances of how to play as a team. He was the right person for me at the right time of my life. I can honestly say that my experience playing for him and the people I would meet because of my time at Juneau literally changed the entire trajectory of my life. I will be forever indebted to Coach for the love he showed me and the lessons he taught me far beyond the basketball court…Rest easy, Coach Houston. You will be missed.”
Coach Houston never married, but many said his charges were his children and for that reason he had one of the largest families in Southeast Alaska.
“In our tight-knit basketball community spanning the past four decades, if you grew up in this region, you knew of Coach Houston,” ASAA Region V President and Mt. Edgecumbe High School Residential and Activities Principal Andrew Friske, a 1996 Haines graduate, said. “If you knew Coach Houston you were also a fan even if you never won a game against him. In high school Coach Houston had a huge influence on my life indirectly. Motivating me to practice and play hard so when the chance came for the Glacier Bears we would beat the Crimson Bears.”
Haines had a chance in Friske’s junior and senior seasons as they won the 3A Region V title, but lost to Houston’s JDHS 4A Region V champs in the crossover game.
“We came up a few points short each time, which I am reminded of by a few of my Juneau friends,” Friske said.
As time passed Houston’s influence on Friske evolved from indirect to direct.
“Over the past decade and a half, I was fortunate to have numerous chances to learn from him and witness his dedication to youth activities and supporting others through the avenue of basketball. Ironically, I might have learned more from Coach Houston in my role as a coach than during my time at the Houston Hoop Camp back in middle school.”
“The year he retired from coaching I remember thinking why would you leave such a loaded team filled with talented upperclassmen? I get it now…it wasn’t about him winning a possible state championship the next year. It was Coach Houston doing his best to empower the next coach and ensure that the program had the best opportunity for success moving forward. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
Friske last spent time with Houston in March.
“I walked into the Floyd Dryden gym and observed Coach Houston running up and down the court officiating youth games,” Friske said. “He was energetic, engaging and had a quick response to every parent who disagreed with his call. He was the best official Juneau had. After the game I went up to Coach Houston and asked if he would be interested in coming over to Sitka for a youth tournament the following weekend. Without hesitation he said, “You bet!”
The following weekend Coach Houston arrived on a packed catamaran alongside 120 youth ballers and in three days officiated 30 games.
Said Friske: “Again, he was the best official there. He said he had a great time catching up with folks from Sitka and spending his time on the court and he also agreed to come over next year. This was the last time I saw Coach Houston in person. Although I would have hoped for many more years of working together I can’t think of a better way to see a person for the last time. A person that I have admired and worked to impress most of my life. Coach Houston was in his element that weekend. Living, breathing basketball and continuing to model a lifelong commitment to mentoring our youth and inspiring the adults around him. Coach Houston will be missed but his love for the game of basketball and his commitment to supporting the youth of Alaska will continue through all people he has touched.”
In a Hall of Fame nomination letter to ASAA, 1983 JDHS graduate Steve Potter, an assistant under Houston for 10 years and now a retired JSD coach/teacher, wrote of Houston’s camp, saying: “Although running the camp required countless hours, George thought it was important to provide skill-building opportunities to all kids — regardless of the community where they lived…I never tired of seeing kids respond to the message of hard work and preparation that was repeated as he cited Bobby Knight and John Wooden when he addressed campers…”
Potter then described watching a former assistant of Coach Houston’s working with a group of young people, “When lo’ and behold retired George dropped by saying, ‘I saw somebody was in the gym and thought I should check it out.’ No more than a minute after we began talking, a group of adults approached him to see if he had been contacted to referee the upcoming Icebreaker Middle School Tournament. Houston replied that he had not but added, ‘Just let me know when and where and I’ll be there.’”
Coaches and players statewide have responded to Houston’s death.
Petersburg coach Rick Brock (1982 Wrangell graduate) has been coaching the Vikings since 1990.
“I was very fortunate as a young coach to have the opportunity to be surrounded by top-notch coaches like Houston that helped me learn the business,” Brock said. “His teams were always well prepared, played extremely hard and competed at the highest level. He demanded excellence of himself and his teams. I was a player when I first met Coach Houston, playing against JDHS and attending his and Coach Hamey’s summer camps. They didn’t care if you were a Crimson Bear or not, you were expected to play like one. It was a great experience. Playing with and against the best from around Southeast made you better. I remember being nervous the first time I talked to him as a coach, asking if he remembered me playing for Wrangell. He said he did (I was not the type of player you would remember) and from there I had a true friend and mentor. He always had time to talk hoops, answer questions and provide guidance. I will miss seeing him standing on the baseline watching the action on the floor, and the times I was lucky enough to be able to share time talking basketball.”
JDHS 1978 graduate David Ignell first played for assistant coach Houston in 1976.
“By then he was already affectionately known to us players as ‘The General,’ even though he was just a few years out of college,” Ignell said. “George lived and breathed basketball. Every practice and every game he gave it his all to make us better players. He drilled fundamentals into us — defense, passing, blocking out, moving without the ball, proper spacing, dribbling with our heads up, and filling lanes on the fast break Most importantly, he taught us how to act and play like a team.”
When it was time to work, The General didn’t accept slacking off or excuses. When anyone tested that, the consequence for everyone was sprints. But Houston also made the game fun, was approachable and was a coach players could trust to confide in.
“We not only learned how to be successful on the court, but also how to deal with defeat,” Ignell said. “What we didn’t realize back then is that we were also learning how to be successful in life. There’s a saying that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. With The General in charge, success meant 100% perspiration.”
Ignell remembered a junior varsity practice almost 50 years ago, during Christmas break when most kids were enjoying the holidays skiing, hunting or just goofing around.
“Normally practices would go two hours, but George was running a little hot that day,” he said. “George brought out the sticks — round wooden dowels about a foot long that we had to hold between our knees when doing defensive slides. The dowels were meant to teach us to quickly slide our feet without bringing our knees together. So we could stay in front of the person we were guarding. For the next 30 or 45 minutes we did those slides — left, right, forwards, and backwards -—all in unison at the command of The General’s hand. Sometimes he would stop us and have us patter our feet in place. It was excruciating.”
“We finished practice with 15 minutes of sprints. At the end, we were so tired we could barely stand up. That was by far the hardest practice of my athletic career. But it was worth it. In looking back on my three years with The General, there’s nothing I wish he had done differently as my coach. He was that good of a man. Over the last few years I’ve attended a few high school and Gold Medal basketball games. George would usually be standing up against the wall at the end of the court underneath our championship banners. I’d walk over to say hi, he’d smile and then before long our conversation would drift towards the game in progress. Basketball was in his blood.”
Ketchikan coach Eric Stockhausen has felt the impacts of the Houston legacy.
“I did not compete against him but I stepped into a basketball world, when I moved here in ’02, that George Houston was the epitome of coaching in Alaska,” Stockhausen said. “You can see that in the respect that his former players and staff and the community has for him. He is a legend in the basketball community and that is well earned. Knowing the success they had under him and then hearing him do radio games and comment on video, to me it’s the wealth of knowledge which he obviously possessed. The respect given statewide speaks volumes. His legend will live on because, with people like me who didn’t compete against him, there is still no question that he represented what was the best in coaching. Juneau is steeped in history with a great pride in all the things they have achieved and in no short form is that attributed to Coach Houston and continued on by (Steve) Potter and (Robert and Kevin) Casperson…It is very hard to lose a mentor and friend but as they know respect is deep and wide throughout the state, especially in Southeast, especially here in Ketchikan.”
JDHS 2004 graduate Alex Huemann was on Houston’s 23-3 team in 2002.
“Coach Houston’s compliments were earned, his jokes were perfectly timed and would leave the whole team belly laughing in the middle of a tough practice, and his love for his players and those close to him always showed through his tough exterior,” Huemann said. “Coach Houston truly prepared his players by teaching accountability and holding teams and players to an exceptionally high standard and work ethic. Coach stuck with me the most when I needed him the most and had let him down, that meant more to me than anything. A perfect example of Coach’s basketball brilliance was the beautiful chess game he played with the 2002 state runner-up team. He maximized the abilities of a unique group to dominate the state, that coaching staff was phenomenal and had the team fully engaged and united.”
Mt. Edgecumbe High School boys basketball coach Archie Young (1991 Wrangell graduate) has been coaching the Braves since the 1999-2000 season.
“It seemed like every time we played Juneau I would run into him at Fred Meyer,” Young said. “It was almost comical for a few years when we would bump into each other and he would always ask if we were still playing that damn zone…I always had the utmost respect for him and his teams and appreciated the brief conversations we did have…I would have moved to coach against him but never had that chance.”
Ethan Billings, a 1982 JDHS graduate, went from being taught by Houston in 1974 Gastineau Elementary School PE classes to playing under assistant coach Houston and head coach Hamey for three years, including the Crimson Bears state championship team of 1982 — undefeated in Alaska.
“George Houston was an educator, teacher, coach, athlete, volunteer, friend and proud member of the community,” Billings said. “If there was one word to describe George Houston it would be ‘dedication,’ because in my opinion George dedicated his entire life to the Juneau community…I consider George one of the greatest influences in my life. George was a master motivator of young people. He was a dynamic, tough and demanding coach and teacher who wanted each of his players or students to reach their potential. If you moved your feet, learned from your mistakes and played defense you had a good chance of having success under Coach Houston. George helped instill characteristics in me that I use every day such as pushing yourself to be your best, focus and work hard to reach your goals, attention to details, be a good teammate, respect your opponent, be on time and ready to work and learn, and be able to adjust quickly and intelligently to any situation.”
“Some of these characteristics I didn’t realize until later in life, but looking back I know exactly where and from who I learned them…A testament to George Houston are the generations of thousands of players and students that have had success on and off the court in their own lives, lives positively impacted from life lessons taught by Houston.”
1994 JDHS graduate Ryan “Reno” Behbahani said: “Coach Houston gave his heart and soul to the youth of Alaska. He could have easily been leading a major collegiate program but chose to be a mentor for the grassroot level. His consistency, passion and attention to detail was off the charts. He had a special way of teaching and not a day goes by without a reminder of him. What he taught and stood for will never be lost. I’ll never forget the time I figured out a way to sneak into the gym in the dark with a headlamp in order to see the hoop. Coach Houston “The General” barged into the gym and was concerned a burglary was going on. He then shared with me that I was wasting my time with the headlamp and should be working on my defense instead!”
Current Crimson Bears coach Robert Casperson, a JDHS 1996 graduate, was a youth instructed by Houston during basketball camps, a teen coached by Houston and an adult on his coaching staff.
“Coach Houston was a reluctant, humble leader that gave his time and expertise freely,” Casperson said. “He was never one for the spotlight and didn’t chase or even want accolades. That just wasn’t part of his DNA. Instead, where he saw a need or opportunity to help someone, he stepped up. This was his consistent approach as a teacher and basketball coach. The community of Juneau, the region of Southeast, and those across the state — in particular those in the basketball realm — benefited greatly from his continued involvement in the lives of young people. I have no doubt that Coach’s impact will be felt for generations to come.”
That impact was started in the ’60s, when Robert’s dad Bruce was Houston’s JV coach at JDHS.
“My first memory of spending time around Coach Houston was as a 4- or 5-year-old Crimson Bear fan watching my brothers play. That sparked my interest in the sport and led to receiving guidance from him as a basketball camp attendee of six or seven years old and eventually as a player in the JD basketball program. Just like so many students and players before me, Coach helped me learn discipline, the value of a strong work ethic and how to set goals. For that I am eternally grateful…Our relationship changed just a few years after I graduated high school, when he brought me on to the JDHS coaching staff in 2000. The time I spent with Coach Houston as my coaching mentor proved invaluable in my life and has served me extremely well in my role as a coach. But the greatest joy for me in regards to my time spent with Coach was that the relationship between a former player and then a colleague grew into a friendship. I know that scenario is not always common and I am so thankful that was my experience. Coach Houston was so many things to so many people and he will be remembered for all the ways he had a positive impact on those that knew him. What this comes down to, the bottom line in all of this for me, is that I miss my friend.”
In interviews over the years Houston always deflected his achievements, for instance saying: “To me, the success we had with the program was because of the kids we had here… watching their improvement and progression throughout their career. Watching how they would improve as players physically but also in the mental side of the game and go into being young adults…There are a number of former players that still live in Juneau and they’re successful in whatever career they’ve gone into. To me that is more gratifying than what they did on the basketball court…”
JDHS 1983 graduate Kevin Casperson coached with Houston 11 years — eight straight region championships and two state titles when Houston was head coach — and was a city league teammate and lifelong friend.
“When you spend that much time of your life with someone, you get the opportunity to know them,” Kevin Casperson said. “Attempting to sum up a man’s life in a few words or even a few sentences is not possible, especially when you’re talking about Coach Houston. I know this, many people judged Coach Houston by what they saw during games he coached. George even told me that his mom would give him a hard time about how he was on the sideline — but it’s who he was, his passion was on display, and he wasn’t going to change. To say that Coach Houston was passionate about the game of basketball and coaching it, is an understatement. Yes, when he was coaching practices or games, he was passionate, dedicated to the craft…But what would be good for people to know is that he was so much more than just basketball. And my attempt to list out or try to convince others, all the things that most people don’t know about Coach Houston, I don’t think I could do him justice…I know this: George was one of a kind. He never wanted recognition or accolades for what he did with basketball. He did what he did because he loved and enjoyed it, and he was always looking for ways to do it better…I was fortunate enough to have been a part of his life, to have learned from a master, and at the same time, a constant student of the game of basketball. Before Coach Houston’s passing, I was able to let him know what I believe to be the best compliment I could give him: that he made a tremendous difference in my life. The state of Alaska has lost an ambassador for the game of basketball but more importantly an incredible person.”
Legends inspire myths and it was told Houston’s players were 10 feet tall; that he became coach when Hamey was lost in an ice fog in Fairbanks and Houston came out of the stands as emergency coach; that when Hamey said, ‘Jesus,’ on the bench Houston filled in the blank with ‘Christ’ and prayers were answered; that JDHS had costumed mascots because real Alaska bears feared Houston’s sideline.
My first interactions with George Houston were terrifying.
I was a four-year starter for the Petersburg High School Vikings (1975-78). My freshman year the Crimson Bears were rebuilding, but they always seemed to have senior guards that stifled my PHS ball handling. Each off-season I trained harder, but each season it was not enough as each game with JDHS became more difficult, a “back to square one” scenario as Houston’s “defense-first” mentality was proudly displayed on red and black uniforms.
Yes, Head Coach James Hamey would bark out loudly during the games but each time I looked toward their bench it was Houston who glowered back, who with a red face instructed whichever of my opponents was glued upon me, who thwarted my title hopes in the Region V championship on the Crimson Bears home court.
My next interaction with Houston was at a JDHS open gym in my mid-20s. It is simplest to say I had no easy shots. Our compliments were in how tired and sore we were.
I moved to Juneau in 2009, and my time around Houston was covering camps or games.
The givens at any JDHS basketball game in the past decade featured a crowded gym, a loud pep band, acrobatic cheerleaders, a Crimson Bears team that would drip every ounce of sweat in honor of defending home court, and standing in a corner, former coach Houston looking on, collecting Xs and Os in his mind.
My last recollection was asking, “What do you think?” as his alma mater chased an opponent into halftime locker rooms.
“Not the Vikings,” Houston replied.
That meant he acknowledged where I came from and I responded, “And not having to worry about Crimson Bears in my jock.”
And George Houston smiled. And for once I could relax on the JDHS court.
Great coaches and teachers don’t retire. They continue molding lives, often unseen. Their values learned and passed along to another sneaker-clad or tie-wearing lover of the game.
Somewhere, in a downtown gym, or on a remote village court, an undersized underclassman guard is shouting instructions to his teammates in a pick-up game, “the general” calling for the ball down in the post, giving some muscular senior “the weapon” and loving every moment on the hardwood.