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Opinion

Outside View: Hot Shots tourney, lamentably, goes up in smoke

We regret to inform you that summer, as many in Yakima know it, has been canceled – or, at least, ended earlier than usual this year.

Cause of demise: toxic levels of smoke in the air.

Not that the choking, lung-scouring, Los Angeles-in-the-1960s air quality we’ve experienced all week has blotted out the sun completely and brought on an early winter – not yet, anyway. And not that the three-day Labor Day weekend, traditional time for late-summer sloth and mattress sales, has been taken away in spite of all our labors.

Rather, we’re talking about the lamentable cancellation of this weekend’s Hot Shots 3-on-3 basketball tournament, which for 16 years has been a last gasp of summertime fun in downtown Yakima for kids before they resume school – and for adults before they have to nag kids about the resumption of school.

It is understandable why the Yakima Valley Sports Commission, the organizers of the huge basketball bash, pulled the plug on an event planned for nine months: It didn’t want participants, some 2,000 in all with 10,000 expected in attendance over the three-day event, gasping for breath under a hazy sky with particulate levels that for the past week have ranged from “unhealthy” to “hazardous.”

Rich Austin, the commission’s director of sports development, said it pained him to make the call, noting that “kids consider Hot Shots an end-of-summer party,” but that health concerns always trump competitive desires.

Another pain, too, will be in the community’s pocketbook. Hot Shots is an economic driver for the city, a slam dunk for hotels and restaurants that welcome visitors from across the Pacific Northwest, as well as scores of locals making sure to represent the 509. Hot Shots is, by far, the biggest money-earner of the commission’s four signature events – others being the June prep sports banquet, the mid-summer Dye Hard 5K run and September’s annual Sun Dome Volleyball Fest. Last year, when a record 509 teams competed, Austin said Hot Shots created a $500,000 economic impact. “And that’s just out-of-town hotel stays and visitors, not people attending locally,” he said.

In terms of mass spectacle, though, Hot Shots stands alone among Yakima community sporting events. For two days, Yakima Avenue downtown turns into a giant, cacophonous playground for street ball. Everyone’s a player; everyone’s got game. From the “elite” category of teams, featuring ex-high school and college players whose biceps bulge on rim-rattling dunks, to aging hobby-ballers whose guts hang over their baggy shorts and whose vertical leaps can only be measured by a sliver of daylight visible under their vintage Air Jordan’s, nobody is turned away.

Though crowds may flock to the elite courts where competition gets heated, there is just as much drama playing out among the elementary school teams, which put more work into their tricked-out jerseys than their crossover dribbles. The little ones are a joy to watch, launching Steph Curry-like rainbow jumpers from way too far, then scurrying for clanging rebounds that could peel paint from the rims. It’s all great fun. Great people watching, too. Downtown Yakima comes alive. The percussive thud of 40 balls on the courts, and the scuff of hundreds of sneakers on asphalt, makes downtown seem like a living, breathing space – a heartbeat of activity. Vendors go out of their way to be nice to visitors. Locals slap palms with out-of-towners. Even the Larson building seems to stand a little straighter during the tournament.

Alas, all that is up in smoke this year. And Hot Shots’ cancellation isn’t entirely unexpected. In 2015, organizers almost had to cancel the tournament because of late August wildfire smoke. Last August, the commission got lucky, because the really thick muck came several days after the tourney ended.

Given the trend of late-summer wildfires bringing smoke into the Valley, might not moving the Hot Shots to early in the summer be a wise move? Spokane holds its popular 3-on-3 tournament the last weekend in June, so that leaves all of July for Yakima to reschedule Hot Shots. Of course, there’s no guarantee wildfire smoke won’t arrive even earlier in future years, but most Julys in recent memory have been free of haze.

“It’s an idea we’ve definitely kicked around,” Austin said. “Wildfires aren’t just in August anymore, but we might get better luck in July. We’ll make a decision after the volleyball tournament.”

The good news for the commission – the silver lining in the grey muck, as it were – is that there’s no chance of the volleyball tournament being cancelled by weather. It’s all contested indoors.


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