Celebrations for high school graduates are usually festive events. But in Kipnuk, seniors graduated after a difficult school year, a year in which senior basketball star senior basketball star Keoni Aliralria passed away from cancer. At graduation, diplomas were awarded to all the graduates, including Aliralria, who was nicknamed “Keo.”
In the hallways of Chief Paul Memorial School, Keo’s name is everywhere. It’s on people’s T-shirts, it’s written on kids’ shoes. “Keo Strong” is the message of choice. It’s the mantra that all of Kipnuk adopted when Keo got cancer last October. His cousin, Deana Smith, talks about what Keo Strong means.
“We’re Keo Strong,” Smith said. “We fight, we never give up, we’ll keep going.”
When Smith says we, she means all of Kipnuk. When Keo took up his fight against cancer, so did the entire village. Chief Paul Memorial School Principal LaDorothy Lightfoot remembers the dark days following Keo’s diagnosis.
“It went on for a good three weeks,” Lightfoot said. “Where the students were… anything. The sound, a picture, his name, anything that reminded you of him, they would break down. And we would have to have them go home.”
Keo was special. To start, he was a basketball star, the likes of which Kipnuk had never seen before. Cut from the team his freshman year, by his junior year, Keo made the all-state tournament team and was scouted to join Team Alaska to compete in the Native American Basketball Invitational.
“He’s probably the best player in my five years I’ve seen play out in LKSD’s district basketball tournament,” said Keo’s head coach, Jacob Burley. “In Anchorage, Keo actually came to our first game, and this was two weeks before he ended up passing. And I’ll tell you, he did not look good. But he made that decision to come and show his team support.”
“And this is the one thing I’ll share about these last months,” said Keo’s mom, Carolyn Hoover. “He never asked ‘Why me? Why do I have cancer?’ He never got mad at us, or the doctors, or the nurses. He never lashed out. And that’s the kind of kid we raised.”
Hoover says that Keo’s battle with cancer is not what will define him, and that was never the first thing people talked about.
“He was open to everyone,” said his cousin, Julian Smith. “He liked to put on a show. He liked to make people laugh. He was just happy, always had a smile on his face, laughing. When we’d tease him back, after he’d tease us, we’d tease him back and he’d go ‘Nguhhhhss.’ He just used to do that. And we’d laugh about it.”
It was the end of the school year, and the school hosted the sports banquet to celebrate the graduating senior athletes. They played a slideshow of baby pictures and current photos of each student. At the end, Keo came on. Every head turned. Forks froze in the air and tears welled. Keo passed away two months ago, and had been battling cancer since October, but Kipnuk still has trouble moving on.
At graduation, a shrine to Keo’s No. 5 shone in the background. His jersey hung in the middle of the gym, watching over his friends, family, and teachers. He had a seat alongside his classmates, adorned with his graduation gown.
During the ceremony, Keo’s cousins, Julian Smith and Haley Aliralria, handed roses to his mom and dad. When they embraced, everyone in Kipnuk embraced.
“And we now ask that his parents come up to accept his diploma on his behalf,” announced Coach Burley at graduation.
Keo graduated. He completed his schoolwork even when he was in the hospital, refusing any special treatment. He finished all of it.
“I want you to take this with you. Keo Strong,” Principal Lightfoot concluded.
Immediately following Keo Aliralia’s death, his cousin, Clint Slim, had a baby boy with his girlfriend, Summer Brown. While Brown was pregnant, she had dreams of Keo. Of course, they named the baby Keo.
So Keo lives on: in his name, and also in memories of a joyful life, lived strong. Keo Strong.