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John Blanchette: Final 58 Hoopfest participants have heart and soles to play every year

The miracle isn’t that Hoopfest took root in the cracks of downtown Spokane’s asphalt and grew into this mighty oak of participatory zeal. There is a flood of new kids on the block every year to see that the tournament is always well-irrigated, so there’s no mystery why it’s lasted 25 happy years.

The mystery is how Dave Nelson has.

And Don Jones.

And Dave Cook, Ginny Knox, Ken Johnson, John Esch, Eddie Ambriz and Kim Eng. There are, in fact, 58 Hoopfestasaurs who’ve been able to say they’ve got next each year from the tournament’s humble launch, and if several look as fit as if they were 25 themselves, that’s a lot of pavement pounding. So it’s a victory they still have game, much less remember on which court it’s being played.

But maybe it’s Hoopfest’s own momentum that has allowed these weekend wonders to overcome the flip side of that physical property known all too well by the aging human:


Or perhaps it’s just non compos mentum.

“Nine surgeries,” Nelson crowed Saturday morning, ticking off what he’s overcome to play in every Hoopfest and not the least bit concerned about the pathology behind it.

Two of those surgeries were actually Hoopfest induced – a torn meniscus and a compound fracture of the finger, which required a 4 p.m. surgery one game day.

“But I got a three-hour pass beforehand to leave the hospital and come back and watch,” Nelson said. “The nurses were beside themselves … but I knew the doctor.”

Who, truth be told, comes off as a no-exceptions hard-liner compared to Jones’ doc, who cleared his patient for Hoopfest this year even after a heart attack.

Suffered on May 17.

“He said, ‘It’s not usually part of our cardiac rehabilitation plan,’ ” said Jones, who had two stents inserted. “But I think it’ll be fine. We have a fourth guy this year.”

Let’s hope Jones’ sub has no medical condition more serious than gallstones.

But that’s the bond that connects the Class of 58. When it comes to playing in Hoopfest, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, and a few women, too.

For instance, Kim Eng plotted her pregnancy around Hoopfest. On June 2, 2008, she delivered Dane Youngquist by C-section “and when I had to go breast-feed, I’d run into a restaurant between games.”

Which meant a lot of running. Eng, a Lewis and Clark High School alum now living in Seattle, isn’t merely content with having played in every Hoopfest but insists on playing on two teams.

But such is the pull of our 3-on-3 expo. We know it’s big – 26,810 this year as of Saturday, still the world champeen – but it’s deep, magnetic and renewing.

Not that everyone had a reason to think so back in 1990.

Greg Phillips remembered getting a call from his friend Randy Cox on the eve of the first Hoopfest.

“You know anybody who wants to play?” he said. “They’ve got a tournament downtown.”

So Phillips and brother Garrick, better known now as University High School’s basketball coach, threw in with their pal.

“And then he didn’t show up on Sunday,” Garrick said.

Yes, teammates can be a casualty of the years. Nelson, a Spokane landscape architect, toted up 28 different playing partners. Steve Chandler, a supervisor for Safelite, long ago parted with his original team.

“I still fly fish with one of them, Ron Rowbotham,” he said. “But I don’t play with him because he’s 6-foot-5. I don’t want to play over 6-foot. My jump is 4 inches on a good day.”

And Sharmain Reuben kept going even when her sister, Sherry, gave it up after 10 years – though the older Reuben got lured out of retirement one year to fill a late withdrawal.

“And she said, ‘Never again,’ ” Sharmain said.

Hoopfest’s every-year club is a disparate group. Reuben, Eng and Knox are the only females left. A few, like Ryan Gum and John Offutt, started as grade schoolers. Others were in their 40s. Not all have a “Hoopfest story” to tell at the weekend barbecue, and some could fill a book.

“I’ve been to three weddings during Hoopfest,” revealed Jones, who moved to Seattle to work for Boeing 16 years ago. “Once I played Saturday morning, flew back to Seattle, was in the wedding and flew back in time for the 6 o’clock game.”

So will they all be back next year?

“I’ve been using my teammates for three years to get me to 25,” Nelson said. “Now they say, ‘OK, you’re here,’ and I’m saying, ‘There’s still 30.’ ”

And the rest of them?

“Oh, yeah,” said Reuben.

“Of course,” agreed Chandler.

“I don’t know yet,” said Cook.

What? Why not?

“Because I’m 70, that’s why.”

Hardly seems like a legitimate excuse. Not with all that momentum on his side.

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