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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Center of the Hoopla

Coach Bill Moore, left, and Ryan Kouchakji of MORFUNTOO react to a basket. 
 (Joe Barrentine / The Spokesman-Review)
Coach Bill Moore, left, and Ryan Kouchakji of MORFUNTOO react to a basket. (Joe Barrentine / The Spokesman-Review)

It didn’t take long Saturday morning for Happy Wife Happy Life to show that a repeat of last year’s Hoopfest championship may be within reach.

As soon as the team of four former Whitworth players touched the ball, Chase Williams lobbed an entry pass to Scott Bierlink and the 24-year-old hit a turnaround 10-footer off glass to score the team’s first point on the way to a 2-0 opening-day record.

While the defending champs looked strong, the long day of basketball took its toll on others, proving just how tough the competition can be.

Former Washington State University star and NBA veteran Craig Ehlo’s Walking Tall team lost twice on Spokane Falls Blvd., but even still he managed to enjoy playing under sunny skies.

“You will not see me not smile. I guarantee you that,” Ehlo said. “This is my third year in a row and you keep saying, ‘You’re 44 and the competitive juices should be going.’ They’re not. So this is the way to quench my competitive thirst for the whole year.

“But 3-on-3 basketball is by far the best way to learn how to play and to play the game. This is a great event.”

Ehlo’s former roommate at WSU, Chris Winkler, was on perhaps the day’s most impressive team, Rock N Fire. Winkler and teammates Tony Beo, Heath Dolven and Mark Olenius dominated two teams with a barrage of shots beyond the Center Court 2-point line, some closer to the bleachers than the bucket.

“We’re not a bunch of big guys who can pound it in. It’s mostly shooting and it’s that simple,” said Winkler, whose team first started playing together in the Tri-Cities more than a decade ago. “That’s 100 percent of what our game is. Tony Beo is just such a good shooter. When that happens, it opens up easy layins.”

Another repeat challenger for the title is Battle in Seattle, last year’s runner-up. That team won two games, one on the asphalt and one on Center Court, to move into today’s play unscathed.

Evric Gray, a former UNLV star and NBA reserve, has joined the team this year to add another threat to the mix.

“We just wanted to make sure we didn’t have to go through a tough Sunday,” said Gray’s teammate, Jay Carlisle. “So we did our job and now we have to relax and get ready for a good battle (today).

But the sentimental favorite heading into today’s play may be Team Atlanta, a two-time winner playing in what is most likely its final Hoopfest.

All four members are at least 37, but the 3-on-3 legends are playing in this, their first contest of 2005, in part because of their fondness for Hoopfest.

“We wanted to come back for the fans that appreciate how we play,” 38-year-old Jerome Shelton said. “I love this tournament and I have my wife and daughter and sister here with me. It’s special to come out here in front of the crowd in Spokane.

“We haven’t even played with each other this year. We’re just coming back for the people here. I’m going to come out here even when I’m not playing any more.”

Team Atlanta won both of its games, both on Center Court, and will have to go to the asphalt of Wells Fargo No. 1 court at 9 a.m. today to take on Deceptively Slow as the search for a third championship continues.

“I’ll continue to play just under a different name, but I’m just looking at it and saying this may be the last time we can get together,” said Team Atlanta point guard Earl Warren, who estimated the group has played about 600 3-on-3 tournaments together.

“We’ve had a great legacy and a part of that legacy is winning this tournament twice,” he added. “It would be a great icing on the cake to win it a third time.”

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