There’s a section of rubber tiles in the Hines family’s backyard called “Mario’s Spot.”
It’s about 20 feet from a basketball hoop, shaded slightly to the right of the rim and set against the backdrop of the Chugach Mountains. The mudflat shores of Cook Inlet are two miles away. Spectators are rare, save for the occasional moose, rabbit or goose observing from the sideline, a patch of grass that gives way to a thin grove of trees separating properties.
Mario is Mario Chalmers, and Ryden Hines and his friends spent many a summer day at that spot imitating “Mario’s Miracle,” the desperation 3-pointer that capped Kansas University’s comeback and forced overtime against Memphis in the 2008 NCAA championship.
Hines, like every teenaged Alaskan basketball player his age, idolized Chalmers. Super Mario was a beacon of hope, a living, breathing, championship-winning reminder that hoopsters could emerge from The Last Frontier’s remoteness and thrive on basketball’s biggest stage.
“Everybody thought Mario was the best Alaskan ever,” Ryden’s mother, Lisa, says, “and he is and was.”
Hines was a freshman at Dimond High School in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city and his and Chalmers’ hometown, the fall after Kansas won the 2008 championship. He was a burgeoning star in basketball and football, and had already begun setting his sights on Division I.
While his peers in the Lower 48 began drawing interest from schools around that time, Hines toiled under the muted beam of the Northern Lights. He played AAU ball for the Alaska Flight, which ventured into western U.S. summer tournaments, but nobody paid the exorbitant airfare — $494 is the cheapest roundtrip from Seattle even 10 months from now — to scout him at Dimond.
Not even Iona, where Hines is emerging as a role-playing 6-foot-8 sophomore.
They all missed out on seeing Hines in his natural habitat.
“I was always outdoors,” Hines says. “I was fishing, hunting. I lived for the outdoors. I was never inside. I miss it.”
Hines waded into shallow Ship Creek in downtown Anchorage and caught his first fish, a silver salmon, when he was in second grade. “I remember I felt something pulling on my line, and my legs started shaking,” Hines says. “I was like, ‘oh, my god, dad, I got a fish!” Remembers Brion, his father: “Seeing a 6-year-old kid trying to haul in a 15-pound salmon is pretty funny.”
Hines hunted and trapped small game. Goose meat, he says, tastes just like chicken breast. He also hiked regularly, and brown bears, black bears and wolves were common sightings along the trails. “I was pretty protective of the kids,” Brion, says. “If they ever went [hiking], make sure somebody goes with a gun.”
“It’s not even close,” Hines says. “A grizzly bear would tear me to pieces.”
Years ago, Lisa’s father bought 10 acres of land in Talkeetna, a small town about 2.5 hours north of Anchorage at the confluence of the Susitna, Chulitna and Talkeetna rivers. He constructed a couple of cabins to share with his children’s families.
Ryden makes the drive with his parents and younger sisters Lauren and Victoria whenever time permits.
“We go there, hang out, go hunting, go fishing,” Brion says. “It’s got a well. No running water, though. You’ve got to go pump the water. You can go snow-machining.”
You can also see Mount McKinley, not even 80 miles away from the base town for Denali expeditions.
“It’s beautiful,” Brion says.
Alaska’s pure beauty was the impetus behind Brion abandoning his Dallas landscaping business in 1985. He was 25 years old and paid a holiday-season visit to his father, a retired military veteran who had settled in Anchorage. “I ended up loving it and staying,” he says. A few years later he met Lisa, an Alaskan native whose grandfather had retired in the Last Frontier after being sent there by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
“The biggest reason [we’ve stayed] is because we like the lifestyle and the beauty,” Lisa says.
Hines says teammates, especially A.J. English and Isaiah Williams, marvel at his stories of growing up gutting fish and four-wheeling along the rugged terrain. “They want to come home with me,” Hines says.
“Oh my gosh,” Lisa says, “I wish we could have them all there, like last year’s team and this year’s team and all his friends. It would be so wonderful because until you’ve really been there and experienced it, you don’t really know what Alaska is.”
Most of his teammates are from the Northeast. By 9 p.m. on a summer’s eve, they don’t see more than the glowing remnants of the day’s sunset.
Summer days in the Land of the Midnight Sun are seemingly endless. In 2014, the sun peeked its head over the Chugach Mountains at 4:21 a.m. on June 21 and set at 11:42 p.m., giving Anchoragites 19 hours and 21 minutes of daylight. “You need sunglasses at midnight sometimes,” says Brion, who admits his neighbors have scolded him for mowing his lawn late at night. Even at the end of August, the sun did not settle beneath the horizon until after 9 p.m.
“It’s called Alaska Exhaustion,” Lisa says, “because you really do try to cram so much time into the day and you don’t really know what time it is.”
For children, that means extra hours of playtime. For parents, it adds an entirely new element to the former Fox catchphrase, “It’s 10 p.m., do you know where your children are?”
“You literally have to put watches on your kids’ wrists so they know what time it is,” Lisa says. “Not like with iPhones now, where you can set the alarm, but no, all the kids had to wear watches so they knew what time to come home.”
Sometimes Hines would lose track of time fishing, sailing, flying or playing sports.
“Because of that we had a basketball court put in our backyard,” Lisa says, the logic being she could keep an eye on her son. If he weren’t home at a reasonable hour, he would be shooting hoops, imitating Chalmers and improving his game in the backyard.
Hines grew five inches in the five months between Chalmers’ heroics and his first year under Rob Galosich’s tutelage at Dimond. He was already tall, but he sprouted into a 6-foot-4-inch freshman.
“One day he came into the kitchen,” Lisa says, “and I used to kind of just visually figure out how tall he was next to the cabinets and all of a sudden he was taller than the kitchen cabinets. I’m like, ‘Ryden, what the heck happened to you?’ Because we’re all pretty tall, and then all of a sudden he’s up way taller than the cabinets.”
Hines kept playing football, becoming an almost mythical creature as northwestern Division I programs got wind of a 6-foot-8-inch Alaskan quarterback towering over his foes on the snow-covered tundra. “He was like a giant amongst boys there on the football field,” says Brion, a former defensive back at Oklahoma and Texas Tech.
Hines, however, realized he could become an impact Division I basketball player after his sophomore year, when he made varsity and then traveled the AAU circuit over the summer.
“I noticed I could possibly do it when I was playing AAU against so-called top recruits, and I noticed that they’re not anything special,” Hines says. “All you’ve got to do is put the ball in the hoop at the end of the day.”
He did that and more.
“When he was going down to the Lower 48 for AAU tournaments,” Brion says, “he would get the most valuable player in some of them, or all-tournament player in the tournament.”
Even so, drawing interest from a Division I coach requires a fortuitous confluence of factors other than sheer size and skill: timely success and a program’s needs, to name a couple. Hines returned to Anchorage late every summer throughout high school empty-handed, not a single Division I offer to his name.
“I think it was hard for his dad and I sometimes to get on the same train with him because he had terrific opportunities at other places,” Lisa says, referring to non-Division I offers, “and you wonder if they’re going to pass by and there won’t be anything else.”
Division I opportunities don’t materialize often at the high school level in Alaska.
Hines is one of nine Alaskans suiting up for a Division I program this season — for perspective, 12 ESPN top 100 recruits in Hines’ high school class (2012) hail from Texas — and only Liberty’s Calvin Hoffman transitioned directly from an Alaska high school.
The talent pool exists, but Alaska is the Last Frontier. You’re more likely to have your boat capsized by an endangered humpback whale than to bump into a Division I basketball coach.
A postgrad year or JuCo stint is almost always necessary, though stars like Chalmers and Carlos Boozer have had handfuls of Division I suitors out of high school.
Rather than settle on a Division II program after his senior year at Dimond, Hines elected to go the prep route and packed his bags for Impact Academy in Las Vegas.
Bill O’Keefe, an Iona assistant, was in Vegas to scout another recruit at an Impact Academy game, but Hines’ size and shooting ability portended success in Tim Cluess’ run-and-gun system. When O’Keefe saw Hines again, he invited the postgrad to visit Iona’s campus in New Rochelle, N.Y.
“The rest,” Brion says, “is history.”
Hines played sparingly in his first season with the Gaels, but broke into the rotation around Christmas time as a sophomore. He had appeared in each of Iona’s first 10 games, only logging 10-plus minutes three times. Then Cluess felt his lineup could benefit from Hines’ hustle and his abilities to stretch the floor and rebound. In his second start of the season, Hines scored three points and grabbed eight boards in Iona’s 86-67 win over Florida Gulf Coast on Dec. 23.
“The kid always works hard,” Cluess said after that game. “If I was going to tell you one guy who gives us a chance in interior defense, he’s going to work the hardest to do that… Ryden’s not going to block shots, but he’s going to get in the way, whether trying to take a charge or just having his body there. And he follows a gameplan very well.”
Since then, Hines has continued to impact the lineup. He’s averaging 5.2 points and 4.0 rebounds in Iona’s 11 games dating back to the FGCU tilt. He nailed a backbreaking 3-pointer in the Gaels’ 74-58 win over Fairfield on Jan. 13 and converted a clutch layup in an 80-79 win at Niagara on Jan. 16.
His family made the trip to see him compete at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, 13 months to the day after their previous visit, when they saw Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook pummel the Knicks on Christmas.
“That was just crazy,” Lisa says, “especially because last year … all five of us were watching that and talking about how neat it was to play in a historic place for the Knicks and that whole thing, and then for him to be on the same court playing 13 months later was almost surreal.”
His five points and two rebounds in 16 minutes were rather inconsequential in Iona’s 87-64 win over Niagara. The performance was far from scintillating, unlike Mario’s Miracle.
But while Chalmers served as a role model for Hines’ generation of Alaskan basketball players, Hines has a following of his own back home.
“It is nice going home and having little kids know who you are and remember certain games that you don’t even remember,” he says. “Kids coming up, saying congrats and they’ll know your stats here at Iona and they’ll ask you for gear, stuff like that. It does mean a lot.”
“There’s a lot of kids that want to do the same thing Ryden does,” Lisa says. “He’s a real role model to them. When Ryden comes home and goes to the grocery store everyone knows who he is.”
“Anchorage is a big, little, small town,” Brion says of the municipality with a population of 396,142 people (2013 census).
Small and remote as Alaska may be, Hines achieved his goal and became the first Division I basketball commit out of Dimond. He’s a reminder to the next generation of hoopsters from the Last Frontier that they can bring their dreams to fruition while allocating invaluable time to live like an Alaskan.
“I want kids to have the same opportunity that I’m having because it is hard to make it out of Alaska because it is so far away and so isolated,” Hines says. “I’m just hoping that they can have the same chance as me.”
Like he said, it’s all about putting the ball in the basket at the end of the day.
One day, maybe, they’ll do that from Ryden’s Spot.
Ari Kramer is a New York-based writer who covers the MAAC for One-Bid Wonders. Follow him on Twitter at @Ari_Kramer.