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Gonzaga redux: Santangelo, Calvary team up for Hoopfest

Ex-Zags will give out-of-towners a run

It isn’t enough that the job Matt Santangelo took on a year ago as backboard-and-ringleader of Hoopfest has required a lot of drinking from the fire hose – which, by the way, sounds like an ideal hydration plan this weekend, ballers.

No, then he and the event’s other caretakers, new and old, decided to extend Hoopfest’s claim to Friday, adding a practice round and live music and the deftly named Hopfest beer garden. More asphalt was annexed for extra courts. The boys from Bristol are parachuting in to air baseball and soccer highlights, and even some 3-on-3, live from Nike Center Court – and welcome to them, as long as they leave Skip and Stephen A. home.

In short, Santangelo took his already full tray and then did sort of a Bluto Blutarsky dance through the cafeteria line.

Oh, and this: he’s also going to try to win the tournament.

What a guy won’t do for another T-shirt.

This is not Matt Santangelo trying to make it all about him. No, he has never played in the streets, and there have been 15 Hoopfests since he and his Gonzaga University buddies launched the run that made the Zags a household nickname every March. He’d have been a main attraction in any of them, too.

So why now?

Because he saw a need.

Sure, you say. With 26,000-odd players, Hoopfest needs another like you’ll need a cardigan this weekend.

But he has a point.

“We were a late add,” he explained. “I looked around after the ‘SportsCenter’ thing came together and what I saw was that the best elite (division) teams are from out of town.”

He’s talking about last year’s champs, Roots Basketball, with a core of Northern Arizona players, and Mammasboys, the 2011 winners from Tacoma. There’s a group of ex-Northwestern players, One Twenty Sports, coming from Chicago, and a California team.

But he’s also noting that some of the best Spokane players that have won Hoopfest have opted out of the bracket, or simply aren’t entered, including fellow Zags David Pendergraft, who was a part of four Hoopfest champs, and Josh Heytvelt. Another former champ, Erik Benzel, has moved into the 6-feet-and-under division.

“Hoopfest is this great local community event and this year the world is going to be watching,” Santangelo said. “So people tune in and the team from Chicago wins? And the guy at home thinks, ‘Oh, of course they do.’ Well, no. We have to have someone.”

And, naturally, he knew someone.

Blake Stepp, who succeeded Santangelo in the Zags’ backcourt 14 years ago, played in his first Hoopfest last year on the elite runners-up with former Northwest Christian standout Robert Lippman. And for a fourth they rustled up another first-timer from their era – Casey Calvary.

There was just one catch.

“Until I can dunk,” he told Santangelo, “I’m not playing.”

Calvary wasn’t suggesting he needed to revive his aged hops, but referencing Hoopfest’s nefarious no-dunking rule. But, lo, in what surely is one of the great cosmic coincidences of all time, dunking will be legal at this year’s event – but only on center court in Riverfront Park.

(Somewhere, Phil Von Buchwaldt – whose technical foul for dunking may have decided the 2007 title – curses the crawl of progress.)

“I just hope we make it until Sunday,” Santangelo laughed. “We played up on SRM’s rooftop court a couple weeks ago and after that I came in and asked Giff (Marleau, Hoopfest’s entry maestra), ‘Can we still get in adult rec?’ ”

But something else is at stake besides local pride and looking good for the TV cameras. This year’s men’s and women’s open winners can earn qualifying spots in USA Basketball’s 3-on-3 national championships next month in Colorado Springs.

Now, that’s a different game entirely. FIBA, amateur basketball’s world governing body, prefers a go-go game – capping game times at 10 minutes, with a 12-second shot clock and clearing allowed to the sides beyond the 2-point arc.

“It’s something that wouldn’t work at Hoopfest,” Santangelo said, “but there’s a good chance next year we’ll have a FIBA rules exhibition bracket on one court – eight-to-12 teams.”

Santangelo and his staff will always tinker with new ways to keep the ball bouncing – even as he’s reminded daily of the 25 years of take-a-flyer thinking and volunteerism that has made it an old-shoe institution.

“I don’t think any other place is going to recreate what we have here – I know they can’t,” he said. “I don’t know if this happens again in Spokane, if you had to start it today.”

And as the first-time boss, he’ll be called on to put out a few fires this weekend. He already knows the first one.

“I haven’t told Casey,” he said, “that not all our games are on center court.”

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