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Thursday, May 28, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Program offers basketball tips in the evenings

Free midnight league brings coaches, kids together

They wore a variety of footwear, from high-top tennis shoes to canvas sneakers, and one girl showed up in fluffy, blue slippers.

Some wore jeans, some chose baggy shorts and still others wore pajama bottoms. But the boisterous group of kids gathered at Garry Middle School on a recent Thursday night all had one thing in common: they’d come to play basketball.

For the past eight years, Hoopfest has partnered with Spokane Public Schools to sponsor the Midnight Basketball League. The league is a free program that runs four weeks, from Oct. 23 through Nov. 15. Players practice on Thursday nights at several area middle schools. In addition, weekly workshops are held at Rogers High School each Saturday night at 8, with games following. Craig Ehlo and Mark Few have been featured workshop guests.

Randy Smith, site/facilities manager for the organization, laughed and said, “The reason we call it Midnight Basketball is because by the time we get done cleaning up, it’s midnight!”

According to Hoopfest operation manager Chad Smith, the league is for boys and girls in grades six to eight who attend schools within the district’s central urban neighborhoods.

“The target population comes from an area in our community with high poverty and unemployment rates,” Smith said. “This program provides a safe, positive environment for children to learn about teamwork and sportsmanship.”

More importantly, Hoopfest’s Keli Riley said, without this league, “A lot of these kids wouldn’t be able to participate in a sport.”

Parents like Michelle Dowler agreed. Her 12-year-old son, Taylor, a student at Lidgerwood Elementary, has long wanted to play basketball. “But it’s so expensive.” she said.

At this first practice, Taylor had already learned something. “Layups are hard.” he said, wide-eyed.

The coaches and court monitors are all volunteers, many of them from Gonzaga University. Barbie Solbakken, a GU senior, has coached a team for the past three years. “I really like working with the kids,” she said.

She started the practice with a few dribbling basics. “Not every kid has played basketball,” she said, explaining her strategy.

In fact, in a different corner of the gym another coach asked her group of a dozen girls, “How many of you have played basketball before?” Only two timid players raised their hands.

Because the program includes students from many elementary schools, the coaches spent some time making introductions. Thirteen-year-old Martayja Jones enjoys that social aspect. “It’s fun and energetic and I get to meet new people,” she said.

“The coaches are cool,” added 12-year-old Akayla Cosseboom.

One of those cool coaches is Dennis Keys. He’s been with the league since its inception. “I’ve played basketball for 40 years,” he said. “And I referee high school basketball.” For him the four weeks of Midnight Basketball are great fun. “I look forward to it every year.”

This year, three generations of his family are involved. “My daughter’s my assistant coach and my granddaughter’s on my team,” he said.

Because the season is so short, coaches focus on basketball essentials as well as emphasizing sportsmanship. “It’s not about winning all the games,” said GU law student Nathan Anderson. “It’s about getting all the kids involved and giving them something to do on a Saturday night,” he added, referring to the weekly games at Rogers.

Kendra Canton, 12, nodded. “It keeps you out of trouble.”

As the balls thudded across the floor and the echo of backboard shots echoed throughout the gym, it was quickly apparent that even the most competitive teenage boys were having a great time.

“Yo! Good pass, dude,” one fellow encouraged a new friend. “Killer shot!” hollered another boy.

While some kids show up for the social aspect, other students truly love the game. Paige McLain is the smallest girl on her team, but the 12-year-old said, “Basketball is one of my most favorite sports of all.” She paused to take a breath and sweep her hair from her forehead. “The coaches give you courage to keep on going.”

At the end of Taylor Dowling’s first practice he said, “It’s fun!” He wiped sweat from his brow and added, “It’s hard work, though. It’s very hard work.”

Correspondent Cindy Hval can be reached at

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