The story of Hoopfest begins in May 1989 on a flight to Washington, D.C. when Spokane accountant Rick Betts picked up a copy of USA Today and turned to an article that caught his eye. A lively story mixing celebration, reunion, sweat, scorekeeping and the sweet sound of rubber bouncing off asphalt described the Gus Macker Basketball Tournament, a 3on3 basketball tournament, which lured 2,000 players to the streets of Belding, Michigan for its 12th year of play.
Simply by coincidence, Betts came across a 3on3 basketball event on Pennsylvania Avenue that very weekend – the first Hoop It Up tour launched by the NBA. From the bounce of the ball, the roar of the music, the festive atmosphere – a spark was ignited.
And he immediately thought of Spokane.
Upon his return to Spokane, Betts began to contact his friends and presented the concept to what was known as the Greater Spokane Sports Association just weeks after Jerry Schmidt, who had developed a plan for a basketball tournament that would run as a fundraiser for the Special Olympics. Two men with two different plans had their eyes on the same weekend and the same streets of downtown Spokane for their events.
So, Betts and Schmidt joined forces and formed a founding board that included Dave Jackson, Terry Kelly, Dennis Magner and Rick Stelenpohl. Sponsors were approached and volunteers solicited. Backboards and t-shirts designed. Registration forms were distributed to schools and stores. An attention-grabbing poster was created featuring pro superstars Mark Rypien and Ryne Sandberg posing with Betts’ son, Brian – suggesting this event would be fun for all ages and abilities. Yet, two weeks before tipoff, only 40 teams had enrolled and Betts told a reporter, “if we don’t get 200 teams, I’m packing my things and moving out of town.”
Upon Betts’ love-it-or-leave-it approach, 200 entries were submitted within the week. In the end, 65 teams had to be turned away.
On June 30, 1990, a total of 2,009 players formed 512 teams and gathered onto 35 courts spread along three blocks of Spokane Falls Boulevard and one block each of Wall and Howard.
In year two, players, teams and courts doubled. Year 3 saw a 65 percent increase. By year 5, the 10,000-player mark was reached. Year 10, 20,000. And by year 25, Hoopfest had grown 1,289 percent. In 2019, Hoopfest’s 30th year of play, more than 24,000 players filled 422 courts and brought 250,000 people to the streets of Hooptown USA.
Hoopfest could not last long as a volunteer-only organization. Hoopfest’s first paid employee, Laurie Bergheim, was hired in 1991 and within the next year, Steltenpohl became the first Executive Director. In 2020, the Hoopfest staff is comprised of a team of eight who plans the largest 3on3 basketball tournament on Earth led by Executive Director Matt Santangelo.
That last weekend in June would not run so smoothly if it weren’t for more than 3,000 volunteers. Court marshals and monitors spend their weekend enforcing the “Spirit of Hoopfest” amidst the heat and the competition. From set-up to packet pick-up, caregivers at the medical tent, garbage management, the bracketologists and tear-down Sunday night, the volunteers are the grit behind Hoopfest.
Hoopfest wouldn’t be Hoopfest without Spokane. The thump of a basketball is in the foundation of Spokane. It only made sense during Hoopfest 2019 to launch Hooptown USA, a community brand promoting healthy community through the magic of hoops at every level. In 2017, during Gonzaga Men’s Basketball’s historic run to the Final Four, one of the most Googled questions was ‘where is Gonzaga?’ In 2019, Jimmy Kimmel questioned the existence of Gonzaga, placing the spotlight on Spokane yet again. Whitworth and Eastern Washington have made national runs, local high schools have won state championships and fans spend hours entranced by the game. All over Hooptown USA you’ll find basketball at the center of the community, rain, shine or snowmaggedon.
Hoopfest is more than just a weekend of basketball at the end of June. The Spokane Hoops Association is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Since 1990, over 30 community basketball courts have been built in the region and over $1.7 million has been donated to local charitable organizations, including the Special Olympics, community centers and various youth sports and learning programs.
Spokane Hoops also hosts the Ignite Basketball League, a free outreach program designed as a constructive and safe alternative for middle school students to strengthen character and self-esteem through the game of basketball. Spokane AAU basketball tournaments are organized throughout the region for boys and girls from 3rd – 8th grade in two divisions continuing to make basketball available for all skill levels and abilities. This year, Spokane Hoops took on the Fitz Tournament for elite high school athletes, honoring Coach Dan Fitzgerald and his contribution to Spokane and the basketball community. To maintain Fitz’s approach to basketball in the community, Spokane Hoops hosts the Fitz Clinic for 8th grade athletes wanting to improve and develop their skills in the game of basketball with the use of drills and a low player-to-coach ratio for individual coaching opportunities. Through each of these programs, Spokane Hoops is able to create the best basketball experiences year-round!
For some, Hoopfest is a holiday. Some have blocked off the last weekend of June on their calendar for the last 31 years and will continue to do so for the next 31 and beyond. Along with a healthy dose of competition come traditions like none other: the eye-catching poster, the player t-shirts, the elite brackets, the official Hoopfest basketball, cheesy and clever team names and surprise visits from rising professional athletes. These are just a few things you can expect to find each and every year at Hoopfest. It may just be the individual traditions the players have started that keep them coming back. From spaghetti dinners and barbeques, to annual reunions between old friends or simply spending a weekend with the basketball community, Hoopfest is a tradition engrained in Spokane and in the lives of every Hoopfest alum.