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BASKETBALL

East’s latest title era spurred by familiar name as Chuck Martin builds on Chuck White’s legend

by | Mar 28, 2024 | Basketball, Cover Story, Prep Spotlight

East coach Chuck Martin in the huddle during 2023 Class 4A state title game. Photo by Bryan Boyett/Alaska Sports Report

Seeing the East Anchorage boys basketball team winning state championships with a head coach named Chuck is a scene that’s played out in Alaska since 1970. For decades it was Chuck White, now it’s Chuck Martin.

Two coaches with a similar name and similar styles who’ve had similar success at the same school.

It’s easy to see how broadcaster Ken Vehemier inadvertently introduced Martin as “Chuck White” during an NFHS Network post-game interview at last week’s Class 4A state tournament.

Martin just smiled. “You’re not the first one to make that mistake,” he told Vehemier.

There’s no mistaking how much Martin’s T-birds have mirrored White’s East teams when it comes to carving up opponents. It’s hard to believe any East coach could mimic White’s off-the-charts success, but Martin has pulled off a spot-on impression.

The similarity is spooky when you compare Martin’s first six years to a six-year stretch White had in the 1980s when the state’s hoops hierarchy shifted from Southeast to East High.

“To be compared in any sentence with Coach White is obviously a tremendous compliment,” Martin said in an interview with the Alaska Sports Report. “That means a great deal because he was the standard.”

White was unlike any basketball coach in Alaska history during his 45 seasons, setting records for wins (921), state titles (18) and conference championships (23).

He also left an indelible mark on the national stage, with his .802 winning percentage ranking top 10 on the NFHS all-time coaching wins list.

White was a polarizing personality who seemed larger than life.

He won his first state title in 1970 and by 1978 he had four. His 1981 team finished 23-1 for title No. 5. Then came a string three in a row from 1983 to 1985 and then another in 1989. In 1991, East nearly shocked seventh-ranked Oak Hill. In 1992, East became the first Alaska team to earn a national ranking. Between 1992 and 1995, the T-birds won four straight state championships to get him to 13. His 14th and final state title at East came in 1999.

That’s when White left The Last Frontier for Eisenhower (WA), where he went 60-39 in four seasons and suffered his only losing season in 45 years, before returning to Alaska.

When he got back, he initially asked about his old job at East but was turned away, so he went to cross-town rival West Anchorage, where he resurrected the Eagles with won four state titles in seven seasons and a 157-32 record before retiring as a head coach in 2010 after pocketing his 18th state title.

White moved to Colorado in 2010 and passed away in 2019. He was 78.

Whether you loved him or hated him, the man kept hoops relevant in Alaska. His signature up-tempo style at both East and West ran opponents ragged and struck fear in opposing coaches.

“I woke up most days as a high school coach trying to figure out how we were going to beat East,” said Martin, who previously coached at Colony, Wasilla, Palmer and Houston.

Chuck White laughs during a 1994 interview. Photo by Erik Hill/ADN

These days, it’s Martin who’s piqued people’s attention. This year’s T-birds finished 28-1, suffering their lone loss to nationally ranked St. Joseph out of California and extending their winning streak against in-state competition to 30 games.

“He changed the entire program from the way we had summer training, to open gyms, to lifting, to the way we competed,” said former East all-state guard Kaeleb Johnson, now at Vancouver Island University.

Martin started his career in 1987 at 3A Houston, where he won his first state titles in 1990 and 1991. From there, Martin entered the 4A ranks by going to Colony, where he posted a 129-31 record from 1992 to 1997. Twice, the Knights lost to East and Trajan Langdon in the state semifinals; they also lost to Juneau and Carlos Boozer in the 1997 state title game.

“Those were fabulous teams I had at Colony,” he said.

By 2002, Martin had left Alaska for the college ranks. He was an assistant coach at Liberty University, a Division I school in Lynchburg, Va., before going to California, where he became the head coach at NAIA Master’s College and posted a 131-119 record with a national tournament appearance in 2012.

In 2014, he became athletic director at Wasilla and the next season was the coach at Palmer, where he went 59-28 in three seasons and guided the Moose to a fourth-place finish at state in 2016.

In 2018, Martin was hired at East in a move that initially raised eyebrows.

“At first, everyone had their skepticism,” said Johnson, a 2019 grad.

Martin knew what people were thinking.

“‘How is this Valley guy gonna fit in at East?’” he said.

Turns out, just fine, thank you very much.

“This experience at East has been one of the best of my career, and not because of the reasons people would people think it is,” Martin said. “I’ve had a group of kids in a community embrace me uniquely, unlike any other job I’ve ever had in terms of appreciating what I do, enjoying coming to practice every day. Coaching these kids, that really, really want to be coached.”

East coach Chuck Martin and Akeem Sulaiman celebrate their second state title together. Photo by Stephanie Burgoon/Alaska Sports Report

“I’ve never been around a group of kids – high school or college – that appreciate me more, appreciate the coaching more and are as enjoyable to be around as these guys are and I say that to everyone,” Martin added. “I have so many great relationships.”

Current East junior and newly crowned Alaska 4A Boys Player of the Year Muhammed Sabally said the best thing about playing for Martin is his consistency.

“He gets us prepared for every game, treats all of us the same. He loves all of us,” Sabally said. “He wants to get the best out of us, so I really appreciate him for that.”

Under Martin, East has been one of the most efficient defensive teams in the state. The T-birds gave up an average 37.8 points in 29 games this season, a number that dropped to 36.3 at the state tournament.

He preaches discipline and ball control, playing to his team’s strengths in an era without a 35-second shot clock in Alaska.

“We’re not trying to stall,” Martin said. “But we are certainly trying to shorten the game. We practice that stuff, making sure the right guys have the ball in their hands in case they get fouled.”

One barometer used to gauge a coach’s chops is the Alaska Airlines Classic, the state’s premier high school tournament that features elite competition from all over the country. White is the Classic record holder with 26 career wins, including a state record 17 wins over Lower 48 competition; Martin ranks second in both categories, racking up 11 wins including four over Outside teams.

Another cool stat that connects White and Martin is they were the only two Alaska coaches to beat Lower 48 teams during the tournament’s heyday between 1989 and 1995.

Chuck Martin has coached since before ACS had its infamous yellow carpet replaced in 1992. Photo courtesy Rebecca Martin

Among Martin’s 17 losses across six seasons at East, four of them have come against Lower 48 teams at the Classic; one to Dillard (FL), one to Heritage Christian (CA) and two to St. Joseph (CA), which both times was led by five-star recruit Tounde Yessoufou. On the flip side, the T-birds defeated Higley (AZ) and East Hall (GA) in the tournament, and advanced to the title game in 2022 and 2024.

East stacks up year-to-year thanks to a roster packed with next-level talent as this season saw nine former East players in the college ranks and all-state senior Akeem Sulaiman will be on his way this fall.

“Coach really fixed the culture,” said former T-birds all-state standout Hasaan Herrington, a sophomore guard at UAA.

Winning makes everything better and East wasn’t doing a lot of it before Martin arrived on campus. The T-birds had fallen on hard times since White left in 1999, winning just two state titles in two decades – 2000 under Geno Morgan and 2013 under Josh Muehlenkamp.

For some schools, winning two state championships in 20 years is something to celebrate. But, at East, it felt like the sky was falling, and Martin’s hiring initially didn’t move the needle with key returners like Johnson and Jaron Williams.

“It was funny because me and Jaron were thinking about leaving East and going to different schools like Bartlett or West since we had no idea who he was,” Johnson said.

East’s Jaron Williams and Chuck Martin celebrate a big win in 2019. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Martin

Looking back, Johnson laughs at how wrong he was. “All it took was some trust and now the rest is history. I love Chuck. He is doing legendary things.”

So legendary, in fact, it’s impossible to miss the similarities between the two Chucks. Not just at East, but overall, as Martin’s .784 career winning percentage (486-134) in 23 years is on par with White’s .802 career winning percentage (921-228) in 45 years.

To be clear, nobody is saying Chuck Martin is the new Chuck White – especially not Martin. When you consider White’s longevity, generational impact and mountain of state titles, there is no comparison with any coach in Alaska. However, it is significant that Martin has been able to imitate White’s success at East, at least for a six-year stretch.

“I know for a fact over the years as me and Coach White got to know each other, we had a good relationship,” Martin said. “Coach White respected strength, respected people that would compete against him, not people who whined about things they perceived were going on at East.

“The irony is now there mentioning my name with Coach White’s. Certainly, I’m proud of the long-term success we’ve had, but nobody will ever break the records that he set in Alaska. Nobody.”

Chuck White makes himself heard during a 1985 East game. Photo by Bill Roth/ADN

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