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Wally Leask was a man ahead of the times when he played basketball at the University of Washington in the early 1940s. His ballhandling skills were light years ahead of the norm, making him the perfect floor-general for Huskies coach Hec Edmundson, who is widely credited for originating fast-break basketball during those years.
Southeast Alaska was the state’s basketball hotbed when Leask grew up in Metlakatla, the son of a Haida mother and a Tsimshian father. He was a star at Sitka’s Sheldon Jackson boarding school, showing so much talent his parents sent him to Seattle for his final two years of high school. That’s how Edmundson found him.
Leask was, by most accounts, the first Alaskan to play big-time college basketball. Newspapers throughout the Pacific Northwest heralded his roundball resume with colorful terms: The 6-foot Leask was “as cool as the Alaskan winters he grew up in,” a “dribbling dervish” with a “howitzer shot.”
Problem was, real howitzers were being fired as World War II raged across the globe. It was 1943. The week before Leask and the 24 - 5 Huskies were due to travel to what’s now known as the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament, the US Army Air Corps came calling. Leask, the team’s captain, was about to become a private.
Leask missed the tournament, and the Huskies missed Leask. Without their spirited leader, they lost to Texas by four points. “Loss of Leask Was Too Much, Says Hec,” a Seattle headline reported.
After serving three years in the Pacific theater, Leask left the military. He played three seasons in the Pacific Coast professional league but turned down chances to play at higher professional levels with the Minneapolis Lakers and the Washington Generals, the sidekick team for the Harlem Globetrotters. By then Leask was married with children. An air-traffic control job in Alaska promised a $4,500-a-year salary; the Lakers offered $3,800.
Leask returned to Alaska, helped raise five kids with his wife Marcella and worked as an air controller. He died in 2004, at age 83.
Sometimes he’d play recreational basketball, but family members say he seldom talked about his time with the Huskies or the basketball opportunities he turned down. Having accepted duty to his country and chosen duty to his family, Leask was content to let his glory days fade quietly.
– Beth Bragg
photo courtesy of Gil Truitt
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