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Hoopfest pumps up players of all ability levels

Sun., June 26, 2011

Teams competing in Hoopfest play for many reasons: the competition, the community, the love of basketball and the lasting friendships that are formed.

The reasons Team St. Luke’s plays are no different. What is different from other Hoopfest participants is they play in wheelchairs.

“These guys are athletes,” said Teresa Skinner, Team St. Luke’s coordinator. “They don’t get into it any less than any other person does.”

Team St. Luke’s, which has participated in Hoopfest since 1999, is a sports program for youth and adults with physical disabilities, including paraplegia, spina bifida, cerebral palsy and amputees. The team names included Pride, Three and a Half Men, Rolling Thunder, and Burnin’ Hunks of Love.

Participating in the world’s biggest three-on-three basketball tournament gives members of Team St. Luke’s the opportunity to connect with the community, Skinner said.

“They’re integrated … into that able-bodied world,” she said. “They have that connection. It’s huge for them. It’s not often they get to share their experience into the able-bodied world like that. These are events that are shared in this community and they get to be a huge part of that.”

Chris Taylor, 24, a member of Three and a Half Men, said he loves the Hoopfest atmosphere, connecting with old friends and meeting new ones.

“You see people you haven’t seen in forever and get out in the community and interact and meet people you don’t know,” he said. “Definitely the more visibility we get the more people understand us, the more support we get.”

Taylor said his team didn’t fare well; it lost two games.

“We’re pretty bad,” he said, but “it’s still fun to get out and play.”

One of the challenges in playing three-on-three wheelchair basketball is the smaller court size, Skinner said.

“It creates very technical play,” she said. “You really have to pay attention to your chair position. You can’t get up to full speed.”

Joe Higgins, 51, a coach for B.C. Wheelchair Basketball, came from Vancouver, B.C., to check out Hoopfest and the St. Luke’s wheelchair basketball program.

“It’s an opportunity to support wheelchair basketball in the Northwest, and we’ve heard a lot about the three-on-three tournament,” he said. “The neat thing about this particular atmosphere is people playing for the love of the game.”

The most important part, he said, is to “challenge yourself to be the best you can be within a team environment.”

“Most of their success won’t be measured on the scoreboard, but in the quality of young men and women as they go through their lives, learning how to travel, learning how to be a part of a team, learning how to handle success and failures,” he said. “It helps you deal with good days and bad.”

That lesson extends to able-bodied players, as well.

For the teammates of Funky Four, sporting neon-colored leopard-print socks and custom hot-pink shirts, winning is important but building friendships is even more important.

“We’re best friends forever,” said team member Caitlin Hopkins, 11.

“When you work as a team, you become better friends,” added Mandy Nigg, 11.

While the teammates, who also included Josie Whitsett, consider winning a bonus, the girls said they are highly competitive and disappointed by their loss.

“We are amazingly depressed about the losses,” said Rachel Rennaker, also 11. “All of our losses make us want to play more.”

However, Nigg shared some wisdom imparted to her by her basketball coach: “It’s not just about winning. It’s about going out there and having fun.”

While most people were having a good time at the tournament, which includes about 27,500 players and 200,000 spectators, some let competitiveness get the better of them. Still, police said no serious incidents occurred Saturday, just a “few fights.”

“Just the usual Hoopfest stuff,” said Spokane police Sgt. Jason Hartman. “Minor stuff, nothing major.”

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