By Jenny Neyman
When playing against the Harlem Ambassadors, being a good sport is better than being good at sports.
The professional show basketball team puts on charity games that are part basketball competition, part comedy act. They’ll perform at Skyview High School on Saturday, facing a team of central peninsula players, as a fundraiser for Cook Inlet Academy’s athletics department.
“It’s an event where you’ve got these players who are very highly skilled in what they do going up against folks that have maybe touched a basketball once or twice in their life. The crowd definitely falls in love with them. The local team kind of turns into the bad guys, in a sense,” said Matt Wilson, of Soldotna.
Wilson was part of a celebrity team that played against the Ambassadors in Kodiak two years ago as a fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity.
“At the time I was on the radio there, so they asked, ‘Do you want to make a fool of yourself in front of everyone in town?’ And I said, ‘Sure, why not?’”
On Saturday he can try that shot again, since he was recruited to play for the central peninsula team.
Wilson works at KSRM Radio Group now, and met with CIA Principal Mary Rowley when she came to the station to work out advertising for the game. He mentioned he’d played with the Ambassadors before. That was all it took to get him signed up to play again.
“She’s like, ‘You’re in.’ I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.’ She’s like, ‘No, great. We need another player, you’re in.’”
Wilson said he has no experience at basketball, other than the occasional weekend community pickup game. With the attention he’s gotten from his co-workers about the game, he’ll either have to acquire some skills or a thick skin before Saturday.
“Everybody’s making fun of the fact, ‘Come see Matt make a fool of himself.’ Now the pressure is building to either deliver or make a fool of myself,” he said.
Wilson isn’t worried about winning the game. That’s not really what it’s about. The score of the Kodiak game is eclipsed in Wilson’s memory by the tricks and skills the Ambassadors displayed, although the highlights of the game didn’t have anything to do with clean, straightforward basketball.
“I shot a 3-pointer and they smacked it out of my hands. The ref just kind of looks at me and says, ‘Oh, I didn’t see that,’” Wilson said.
Rowley said she’s looking forward to a fun night.
“Matt said they were just laughing so hard down in Kodiak, they just had the best time. You can’t take something like that too seriously,” she said.
CIA’s athletic director came up with the idea to host the Ambassadors as a fundraiser, Rowley said. Local businesses sponsor the event to pay to bring the team to Soldotna, and money from ticket sales will be used by the school’s athletic department. She said it’s turned out to be a positive fundraiser, but she was skeptical at first.
“Being a principal of a nonprofit school, you always look at the practical side of things, but as we’ve gotten into it it’s very exciting because they’ve been very helpful,” she said. “They’ve got a very comprehensive program that gives you timelines, good marketing hints. … I think it’s going to be really a fabulous, fun, family night for our community.”
The school invited some past CIA basketball alumni for the team, and others in the community who’d developed reputations around open gym for being good players. They didn’t get a single “no,” Rowley said.
Also playing are Noah Shields, Jacob Peterson, Jason Hofseth, Reid Kornstad, David Holloway, Ryan Baldridge, Matt Johnson, Kara Johnson, Nick Christenson, Chet Nettles, Rob Smithwick, James Arness and Jeremiah Taylor.
Wilson may have been tempted to turn down the offer, but he said he was willing to suffer some embarrassment for a good community cause.
“There sometimes isn’t a lot of activities to do in the winter to get the whole family out to participate in,” he said. “I think it’s a good opportunity, whether you’re 1 or 101, to go to something like this and enjoy this event.
“And the timing they picked for this is good because basketball season starts in the next couple weeks. With high school basketball starting, it’s a nice way to segue into the basketball season on the peninsula.”
The Harlem Ambassadors will perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Skyview High School. Advance tickets, available at CIA, are $10 for adults and $5 for kids ages 4 to 8. Tickets at the door are $12 for adults and $6 for kids.