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Sunday, July 12, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Hoopfest: Smack Talk, Big Sexy and JR Camel

By Shann Ray Ferch For The Spokesman-Review

If a baller can score and score well, defenders come a dime a dozen, some spidery and in your face, some like big brutes trying to bowl you over, but most just commonplace, unaware of what’s about to go down: the ball in the net again, and their defense on the panic train.

For great scorers who also love trash-talking, a typical smack exchange might go like this as they prepare to stroke a deep J in the defender’s eye or loft a beautiful finger-roll over an outstretched hand:

Scorer: “Have you said hi to your dad recently?”

Defender, pausing slightly, a questioning look on his face.

Scorer, lip curled upward: “Well say hello to Daddy.”

Another on-court dialogue might turn maternal:

Scorer: “I saw your mom on the bus today.”

Defender: Another pause, looking a little more angry now.

Scorer, with emphasis: “I was takin’ her to school.”

Of course, if it all goes wrong, the defender will likely turn the tables.

“Get that _ _ _ _ out of here!”

Please don’t try this at home. I don’t want to be accused of starting brawls in the hoops-infested streets of Spokane. Don’t talk trash. Don’t upset the person guarding you. Give peace a chance.

Unless of course you can score like Curry or Kyrie, or defend like Kawhi. Then let us mic you up so we can enjoy the entertainment too.

I believe Hoopfest is one of the most unique sporting events in the world. Tens of thousands of athletes, all hooping in the streets. I’ve played ball in some of the finest venues in America (UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, the Dean Dome at UNC, the bluegrass stadium at Kentucky, and Duke’s Cameron Indoor). I’ve been in arenas so deafening I couldn’t hear my own voice calling out plays. I’ve hooped all over the world: in Germany, Ireland, Great Britain, the Philippines, Canada, Colombia, and Mexico; and played on courts that range from the streets of Compton to the rez gyms of Montana.

I’ve also played in the friendly Coed bracket of Hoopfest, the skittery speed bug 6-foot-and-under Elite division, and the big, physical 6-foot-and-over Elite division. Yes to the thrill of victory, yes to the agony of defeat, and watching these two things happen thousands of times over in less than two days is astounding. But it’s not the competition that makes Hoopfest so amazing. For me, Hoopfest is about families and community and yes, even love. The troubles of life abound in our homes and in our streets, and Hoopfest is sometimes a microcosm where our troubles spill over.

That said, in my experience this is where the community gathers to celebrate each other. Overwhelmingly, the streets of Spokane end up with competitors from all walks of life grateful for the experience. Each new year, I think to myself, ‘I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a place where so many different people smile or hug in greeting or parting.’ We leave one another with a good word and a touch, like a form of blessing over each other.

No doubt Hoopfest is the greatest 3-on-3 tournament in the world. A few former NBAers have tested themselves here, and the Elite divisions are littered with athletes currently playing professional ball overseas. That said, the accolades of a player go out the window when they hit the streets where the most die-hard street baller has a chance against the most polished college athlete.

Some of the great players in Hoopfest lore I’ve loved playing against: Big Sexy – the fun-loving immovable mountain from Team Atlanta; Alan Spoonhunter – the phenom who hit Js fading away into the crowd far past the top of the key; the ultimate lock-down defender José Hernandez; Tony Beo – the king of the soft touch; the Bright brothers with their lightning speed and beautiful Js; JR Camel – the man who keeps winning and never ages, and his partner in Ws, Preston Wynne – former NAIA player of the year; Danny Pariseau and his buttery passes and game of grit; and the man with the crossover, Erik Benzel.

Then there are the local greats from the universities we love: from Whitworth, “Little Fundamental” Nate Dunham, Nate Williams – the point guard who once led the nation, shooting 58 percent from the 3-point line, and soaring Gunner Olsen; from Eastern – a team you can watch this year – with Mark Axton, one of the school’s all-time leading scorers, and deadeye shooter Parker Kelly.

And from GU: Winston “The PG” Brooks, David “Wrecking Ball” Pendergraft, Ira “High Rise” Brown, and Josh “I’m Taller, Bigger, and Better” Heytvelt (he’s not a trash talker, I’m just stating facts). The five-man teams in the mix above are capable of doing serious damage in March Madness, the D-League or in Europe that would make coaches salivate. There are a thousand more. I’m sorry if I failed to mention your name. Come find me and I’ll give you back the plate I took that had your mom’s cookies on it.

Ever thought of your Hoopfest dream team? As for current sportscasters, I’ll take Shaq in the post, Barkley on the wing, and Kenny “The Jet” Smith at the point. I think they have a decent shot in the over-45 division, and likely at least Charles and Shaq would make the All-Smack team if they don’t get kicked out for fighting – with each other.

How about an All-Old School team made up of Bill Russell, The Big O, and Jerry West. Maybe you want Magic and Larry on your team. Kareem as your fourth. How about Jordan, Kobe, and Hakeem?

As for the present day, perhaps KD, Curry, Lebron and Draymond will do. Not sure the last two will get along though. Best Hoopfest team ever, regardless of age, if they were all touched by the fountain of youth? For me it’s Curry, Jordan, Shaq, and Stockton. Someone has to be willing to pass!

OK, come back from dreamland. Hoopfest isn’t about passing, and it’s not about defense.

Just shoot! And talk smack when you do!

In all seriousness, to build a great Hoopfest team there are four crucial ingredients: two shooters and a legit big guy, plus a junkyard dog fourth, selfless, who can do whatever you need.

As you get ready to lace up the hoop shoes for another round, I’ll be practicing my smack talk, but before that I want to close with three of my favorite Hoopfest stories:

1) David Pendergraft’s defender, Eastern’s Mark Dunn, biting him on the leg at center court, and Pendo yelling at the ref: “He bit me!”

2) I’m walking by the 6-foot-and-under Elite division and a woman who weighs a healthy three bills is one step off the court, not just cheering but actually screaming for her team. She’s so into it I stop and watch and I’m caught up in all the joy she has for what turns out to be the skinniest dude I’ve seen, with a 1 percent body-fat torso and twig legs and a mean handle that turns the game electric. He breaks his defender off so hard with a rocker crossover on the wing it makes her sing, “Yeah, that’s my baby. … Shake it baby! Shake it!”

3) Alan Spoonhunter and JR Camel were at the top of their bracket with what felt like 500 people around the court in front of Boo Radley’s in the 6-feet-and-over Elite. They’re down 19-18 and they need the win to advance. Spoonhunter takes one of those deep fade-aways for the victory but the defender is on top of him and as he falls into the crowd, disappearing for a moment, his J caroms off the rim into the far corner. JR sprints after it and everybody but Spoonhunter follows him. He picked himself up off the ground and moved back toward the court through the fans when JR leaps, saves the ball in the corner on the far baseline, and whips an overhead no-look pass all the way back to Spoonhunter, who steps into it 3 feet behind the arc and lets it ride. The ball hits all net. The crowd goes crazy. I was in that crowd with everyone else, shaking our heads at the beauty, laughing at how uncanny and uncommon and graceful it was to witness it all.

It happens to young and old, girls and boys, women and men. People are complex, powerful, vulnerable, and beautiful. It’s all of us finding each other here, greeting one another with a fist bump or a hug. Sad or angry, or sometimes happy when we lose, or on the other hand still wanting to win, even if it’s next year. We linger just a little longer to see what might happen. When I think of Hoopfest I think of family and community. I think of people giving their all.

Often we come up short, but sometimes we transcend ourselves.

When we do, we find we’re standing together again, in awe of something great.

Shann Ray Ferch teaches leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University, played point in the German Bundesliga and backup shooting guard at Ralph It Up. Winner of the American Book Award and the High Plains Poetry Award, he has authored six books, including “Balefire”and “American Copper.”

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