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Nothing but net and a little guile

Hoopfest team, Four Play, from left, includes Jeff Higgins, Rick Russell, Paul Burney, and Eric Koch. (Dan Pelle)
Hoopfest team, Four Play, from left, includes Jeff Higgins, Rick Russell, Paul Burney, and Eric Koch. (Dan Pelle)

Veteran team knows how to produce wins

There’s only one problem with being one of the winningest 3-on-3 teams in the Inland Northwest: all those t-shirts.

Jeff Higgins, Eric Koch and Rick Russell, all from the Spokane area, have five dozen each – too many to hang, so they’re stacked on floors and desks. One wife is ready to turn them into a quilt.

Since 1996, they’ve won 60 tournaments all over the Inland Northwest. Not bad for three guys who average 6-foot-1 and 48 years old.

They’re a team for the ages – the Middle Ages; old guys playing smart, basic basketball. “They know when the other one is going to zig and when they’re going to zag,” said Paul Burney, the team’s former fourth man and now its coach.

Burney formed the team 16 years ago and they’ve stuck. So has the name – “Four Play” – which is a bit ironic, since they operate as a threesome, but will get help this weekend from Rick White, age 57.

“It’s a 3-on-3 tournament,” explains Burney, “and if you’re playing really well and the fourth player wants to come in … you just can’t have a fourth player who has an ego.”

Burney is quick to add that the team never lost when he came in as a sub, a role he finally had to relinquish two years ago at the age of 70, and then only after being stricken by rheumatoid arthritis.

On the court, the formula is simple, says Higgins, 6-foot-2, 49-year-old teacher. “We set up threes, and pass up on the layups.” Then they kick it out to Russell, a 5-foot-10, 155-pound electrician from Spokane who never played high school ball but can drain 3-pointers with the best of them.

“Everybody scores more baskets, but we get more points,” Russell said. Especially after opposing players – usually 10 to 15 years younger – size up their taped-up bodies and get overconfident. “They overlook us sometimes,” Russell said, who sometimes helps the process by putting on an old hat, and a brace – purely cosmetic, but effective. Then he hits a few threes. It seems the harder they laugh, the faster they fall.

Eric Koch, a 50-year-old state health department employee, who played high school ball in Tumwater, Wash., is a big presence inside. But if Russell gets cold, 6-4 Koch can hit the long jumpers; he hit seven in one recent game.

Comebacks are a Four Play forté. Several times they’ve fought their way through the loser’s bracket to the championship. In 2000, they lost badly in a Saturday game, then narrowly beat the same team twice for the title.

Even the team name is worth a few laughs. Furney coined the name, then had to fight every year to keep it, since Hoopfest entries are first-come, first-served.

Truth is, the eight Hoopfest titles are nice, but the best memories are the smaller tournaments, including weekends tournaments with family on the lakes of North Idaho… winning on a grocery store parking lot in Rathdrum … and the cops in Dayton, Wash., who rescued them from a team of “thugs” and threatened to put the offenders in jail.

“This was a rough game,” Burney said. “It got so rough, and the other guys were giving so much lip, the sheriff told them “There’s plenty of room in my jail for you.’”

A few flagrant fouls later – physical and verbal – the sheriff declared Four Play the winner and gave the other team five minutes to get out of town or go to jail.

Then there was the comeback in Cheney a few years ago. Four Play was losing 18-11, but scored nine straight points to win the title. “You’re not supposed to win a game like that,” Burney said. “But we did it!”

Four Play has won tournaments in 15 different locales, and still play eight or nine tournaments a year. But if height is overrated in weekend basketball, fatigue is not. “I yell at them to all the time when they go too fast,” Furney said.

Last weekend in Medical Lake, they lost in the finals after they “ran out of gas,” Higgins said.

But they’re not out of time; all vow to keep playing until they’re “in the dirt.”

In the meantime they won’t run short of determination: Higgins once kept playing despite a torn biceps, and Russell played a Hoopfest game two hours after getting married.

Consider that t-shirt community property.

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