Third-generation Lute takes the long route to PLU

By Nick Dawson
For Zach Klein, the old saying, “you can’t get there from here,” comes about as close to accurate as one can imagine.

A freshman guard on the PLU men’s basketball team, most people probably haven’t heard about him. After all, little is written about the team’s reserve players.

His story is compelling, nonetheless, because most of his growing-up years were spent in hard-to-reach villages whose populaces could be counted in the hundreds.

So how did this mature 19-year-old man, who grew up in places best described as “you can’t get there from here,” end up at Pacific Lutheran University, let alone playing for the resurgent Lutes men’s basketball program?

The story starts with his father, Stephen ’83, a PLU graduate and one of eight children of Dr. Richard Klein, a PLU regent from 1973-87, and Joanne (Bjork ’63) Klein. Stephen took his first teaching job at the high school in Gambell, Alaska, a village of 300 inhabitants on the far northwestern end of St. Lawrence Island. It sits in the middle of the Bering Straight, a mere 38 miles from Siberia. There Stephen met his wife, Shelley, a member of the Siberian Yup’ik tribe that has inhabited the cold, wind-blown island for hundreds of years.

Zach lived in Gambell until age nine when the family moved to Naknek, a town of some 700 people situated on Bristol Bay on the southwest coast of mainland Alaska. Stephen, who had taught high school biology in Gambell, took a job as a middle school math and science teacher.

No roads lead to Naknek, which survives predominantly on the summer salmon fishing industry. The only way to get to Naknek is by boat or plane into nearby King Salmon, Alaska, which at one time served as a U.S. Air Force base. The area’s one paved road is the 15-mile stretch of blacktop constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between King Salmon and Naknek. During the fishing season, the airport serves thousands of fishermen and cannery workers who come to make good money doing hard and dirty work.

Like most Alaskan youth who endure nearly 24-hour dark and cold during the winter months, Zach spent most of his free time in a gymnasium. In small communities like Gambell and Naknek, basketball and wrestling are the sports of choice for kids. In fact, they are about the only sports available because they take place indoors. To be successful in both sports is considered unusual in the lower 48 states, but it is a fairly normal occurrence in Alaska.

“About every kid gets in the gym whether he’s good or not,” Zach said. “We grew up in the gym. Especially on St. Lawrence Island, it was something to do inside.”

As a freshman, Zach embarked on a high school sports career that would earn him accolades not only in basketball but also in wrestling. As a 6-foot-1-inch junior at Bristol Bay High School, Zach averaged approximately 22 points and 12 rebounds and was voted as the state’s Class 1A-2A Player of the Year. That same year, as a 171-pound wrestler, he finished second in the state tournament.

The following year, Zach applied and was accepted to Mt. Edgecumbe High School, a state-funded boarding school in southeast Alaska. With an enrollment of approximately 400 students in ninth through 12th grades, the school offered Zach a higher level of athletic competition than he had at Naknek.

As a senior at Mt. Edgecumbe, Zach earned 2006 second-team all-state basketball honors, was selected to the all-tournament squad and led his team to a third-place state tournament finish. When not playing basketball, he turned to wrestling, where he won the state 189-pound championship.

PLU head coach Steve Dickerson first heard about Zach from his father, Stephen, who suggested his son might be able to play basketball for the Lutes. “His dad said he was a wrestler and a basketball player,” Dickerson recalled. “Right away you think, that’s an odd combination.”

Zach applied to PLU, but ultimately enrolled at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., because of a tuition waver for Native Americans. He did not plan to play collegiate basketball. His journey took a tragic turn, however, when his father drowned in July 2006, a month before he was set to leave for college.

He still left for college. But after nearly two months, he decided to leave Fort Lewis College. “It was too soon after my father’s death to be away from home,” he recalled. “I needed some time with my family.”

It was the Spanish teacher at Bristol Bay High School who convinced Zach’s mother to reconsider PLU. She did. So did Zach, who enrolled for the fall 2007 semester at PLU.
“I didn’t plan on playing basketball here,” Zach said. “I didn’t have a desire at first, but I got in the gym and shot around a few days. I watched some of these guys play and had a feeling that I could play with them.”

In fact, Zach is the only member of the 15-member team who was not actively recruited to play for the Lutes.

“He was unsure when he came out (for the team), but through the rapport he’s developed with his teammates, he’s gaining confidence,” Dickerson said. “The kids like him and he likes the team. It’s good for everybody in the program.”

What Dickerson especially likes about Zach is his maturity, which developed through adversity. In addition to losing his father, Zach’s 21-year-old brother Peter has Down syndrome. Zach often talks with his mother, who still lives with the family in Naknek.

 “I think she’s happy for me, but at the same time I think she misses me,” Zach said.

“He knows what real adversity is,” Dickerson added. “Real adversity is not how many minutes you play or don’t play in a basketball game. Real adversity is having a father die and having a brother with Down syndrome.”

As Zach adjusts to the competitive level of Division III basketball, he will likely see more playing time. “He has worked hard and he asks questions and tries to do what you tell him to do,” Dickerson said. “He does have the athletic talent that can make him successful at this level.”

For Zach, all of the hardships he’s endured and the long hours he’s spent in gyms on dark Alaska nights are worth it. “It’s an honor to play college basketball,” he said.
Even if he doesn’t achieve basketball stardom at PLU, Zach has already proven that while it might be hard to get to Naknek from here, it’s not hard to get to PLU from Naknek.

Photo top: For Zach Klein, all of the hardships he has endured and the long hours he has spent in gyms on dark Alaska nights are worth it. “It’s an honor to play college basketball,” he said.