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Hoopfest, the world's largest 3-on-3 tourney, turns 25 this weekend

One of the highlights of Hoopfest is the annual dunk contest. Photo:

One of the highlights of Hoopfest is the annual dunk contest.

SPOKANE, Wash. -- They might as well call this Basketball City, U.S.A., considering the rabid support for midmajor Gonzaga, the always well-attended NCAA tournaments (which has played a subregional here four times since 2003) and the residence of John Stockton, a Hall of Fame point guard and Zags alum who can still be found dishing out pick-and-roll advice to college players.

But for evidence that this is truly a basketball junkie’s paradise, one would need only to take a stroll through downtown this weekend and notice the 42 city blocks that have been turned over to streetball. Hoopfest, the world’s largest 3-on-3 basketball tournament, celebrates its 25th year this summer, with nearly 7,000 teams, 458 courts, 3,000 volunteers, 200 walkie-talkies and eight miles of road tape to block off courts. The event draws so many locals and so many out-of-towners --an estimated 250,000 people -- that it brings in a staggering $46 million annually for the economy. It features some of the best and worst pick-up ball one can imagine, and a few wild costumes. Snowsuits in 80-degree heat, anyone?

“We don’t have a professional sports team, so here, basketball has become everyone’s sport,” says Nick Ernst, a 21-year member of the Rim Rippers, which has played together since Ernst and his teammates were in the fourth grade. “We hear analysts pronounce ‘Gonzaga’ wrong and it’s always, ‘Aw, little, cute Spokane, Wash.’ This is our moment of pride.”

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Basketball put this place on the map, Ernst says, so of course the city is going to get behind a little tournament. (And before you ask, no, the Rim Rippers do not dress up. “Uh, we take it seriously,” Ernst says. “We’re not just here for attention.”)

Hoopfest started in 1990 in a local parking lot with what was then thought of as astounding number of teams (512), run by a couple volunteers. “Our attitude, our whole goal was, ‘If you want to play, we’ll find space,’” says Rick Steltenpohl, who has been involved with Hoopfest since its inception.

Of course, there were problems the first year, from a last minute scramble to print more shirts, a conversation about building more hoops and a brainstorm to answer the question, how do you bracket 512 teams, anyway? Originally, the organizers would spread paper on the ground and pull an all-nighter figuring it out. Now Hoopfest uses an algorithm software, developed by its 6-person, year-round staff, to seed and bracket teams. Executive Director Matt Santangelo, the point guard of the 1999 Gonzaga team whose Elite Eight run catapulted the Bulldogs to college hoops stardom, left a career in finance to go back to his roots, pulled in by the fact that even though he grew up in Portland, Ore., “This is like coming home.”

“In finance, they have their own language,” Santangelo says. “I also worked in insurance, which has its own vernacular. But this is my native tongue.”

Though he’s new to the business, Santangelo is most proud of the fact that Hoopfest has donated more than $1.7 million to the Special Olympics. Hoopfest also runs Spokane AAU basketball as well as Midnight Basketball, partnering with the local school district to open gyms four Saturdays a year in hopes of engaging youth through hoops.

An economic study conducted by Gonzaga professor Scott Bozman and his students estimated that Hoopfest brings an annual $46 million to the local economy. In 2011, Bozman published the study’s results in Sport Management Review journal and says now that $46 million is probably a conservative estimate when Hoopfest’s growth is factored in.

The tournament has a little something for everyone: A free concert by America’s Got Talent finalist and Spokane native Cami Bradley, a dunk contest, a half-court shooting contest that annually awards the winner a new car, and brackets for all talent levels, whether you played competitively in college or stopped in elementary school. But the most coveted prize of all, Santangelo says, is the “Loser King” shirt, the prize given to winners of consolation brackets.

“I’m always telling people if they lose their first game, they should throw their second, so they have a chance to get the Loser King,” says Spokane native and Hoopfest intern Molly Lukens. “No one wants to listen to me.”

Legend has it that one year, two teams that had lost their first game were both trying to throw the second in hopes of getting to the consolation bracket, which led to some very ugly basketball. The court monitor -- there are no refs outside the elite division, and players call their own fouls -- got so disgusted with play that he declared the loser to be whoever scored the next basket.

The most coveted job at Hoopfest belongs to client service manager Giff Marleau, who pulls up urbandictionary.com and reads through each entry to see if any team names need to be scratched on account of inappropriateness.

The tournament has two elite bracket divisions, with teams often featuring former college players. If the first 25 years have been about building tradition, Santangelo hopes the next 25 can be about gaining worldwide recognition: There is a push in the FIBA community right now to make 3-on-3 an Olympic sport (currently it’s played at every level below that of senior national team). Santangelo believes that Hoopfest can, and should, serve as a qualifier for the World Championships.

Photo:

Hoopfest officials use eight miles of road tape to block off courts for the nearly 7,000 teams that participate.

After 25 years, the Hoopfest crew has seen it all. There’s the guy who travels each year from Taiwan to play, the guy who had played in 22 consecutive Hoopfests but missed his 23rd because he was being ordained as a priest, the 5-year-old who sneaked onto a team of third graders and held his own, the 80-year-old who went on the court for one play, just to say he did it. There has been one marriage proposal, four weddings -- “We slotted them in for the same amount of time as a game, 30 minutes,” says Marleau -- one almost-birth and one heart attack (the player lived).

In 2010, a gang-related shooting spilled over to a Hoopfest court, with bullets ricocheting off the ground and injuring three spectators. But the incident was “contained within seconds,” Steltenpohl says, partially because of an off-duty cop in the crowd. Even after the shooting, which took place on a Saturday, downtown was full again on Sunday.

There are a handful of players who have played every year, and at least one player wrangling with his doctor to keep the streak alive.

Don Jones, a 46-year-old who lives in Snoqualmie, Wash., suffered a heart attack on May 17 but told his doctor, “Do whatever you have to do to get me cleared. I’m playing in Hoopfest.”

“My cardiologist said 3-on-3 isn’t usually part of the recovery plan and my wife’s not very happy about it, but we compromised: Usually I would just play with [two other] players, but I told my wife we’d get a [third] so I can sub out, even though I don’t really like getting subbed out,” Jones says.

Also on the hunt for a fourth team member is Brian Betts, a 33-year-old who has been playing for 25 years and whose father co-founded Hoopfest. Betts lives in Brooklyn now, and has played in a handful of 3-on-3 tournaments in New York. He’s consistently underwhelmed.

“In New York City, there’s a million things to do -- no one cares about a 3-on-3 tournament,” he says. “And the competition is much tougher in Spokane.”

Betts makes the trip to Spokane each summer but needs a fourth player on his team this year because someone dropped out at the last minute. He called a few buddies back home, dismayed to learn that one of them couldn’t play because he had to attend a wedding in town.

“Who gets married on Hoopfest weekend?” Betts says. “In Spokane, that should be illegal.”

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