Telling Alaska’s Story: Alaska Native receives surprise recognition in Colorado

Published: Mar. 28, 2022 at 3:53 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - An Alaska Native resident of Shishmaref received an unexpected gift in Denver, Colorado during a National Basketball Association game on Thursday. While celebrating his 21st birthday, Kevin Nayokpuk was spotted by Denver Nuggets photographer Taylor Vincek in the stands, holding a hand made sign that read “21st b-day from Alaska.”

Vincek, who is also from Alaska, gave Nayokpuk a birthday celebration he will never forget. Vincek has worked behind the camera for Altitude Sports at the Ball Arena in Denver for the last five years, but has never had the pleasure of seeing someone from her home state attend a game. After spotting the sign, Vincek said she had to introduce herself. She asked where in Alaska Nayokpuk was from, and he immediately suggested she wouldn’t know where it was. Vincek is from Anchorage and her mother is from Nome so she responded with “try me.”

Nayokpuk was shocked to learn that Vincek did in fact know of his small village in Shishmaref, Alaska — a small community on the northern side of the Seward Peninsula on the shores of the Chukchi Sea with just over 600 total residents. Even though she is from Anchorage, Vincek understood how difficult Outside travel can be. For rural Alaska, travel often includes a minimum of three to four flights.

Realizing this trip was a significant journey, Vincek went above and beyond to make Thursday night an experience Nayokpuk will never forget. Nayokpuk, who was attending the game with 11 friends and family members, were all sitting in different sections of the arena. Vincek went to all the different sections where the Shishmaref group were sitting and let them know to meet her on the floor after the game. She had gotten each person security clearance to get them onto center court for a photo.

“I just couldn’t believe it, just knowing legendary people of the NBA step on that court, and it made me and everyone else feel so excited,” Nayokpuk said.

Despite the Nuggets suffering a 140-130 loss to the Phoenix Suns behind 49 points from All-Star guard Devin Booker, the Alaskans in the audience got to leave feeling like winners. The gift that Vincek gave has set the foundation for a lifelong friendship with Nayokpuk.

“We added each other on Facebook and we follow each other on Instagram, and he was just the sweetest soul,” Vincek said. “There’s something really special about people from Alaska.”

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