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Sunday, July 12, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Hoopfest in sight, “Blessings” homeless teams aim for glory

Modesto Spencer makes dunking a basketball look easy.

At 6 feet 2 inches tall, Spencer towers over some of the men at his Friday evening practice. He’s played basketball for years and will represent one of two Blessings Under the Bridge teams at Hoopfest.

His hope? “For us to have a good time – and win,” he said.

Spencer grew up playing basketball in high school, then at Spokane Community College. For about 15 years, he’s been homeless, living on the streets and couch-surfing between places to stay.

He was a street baller, too, garnering respect from Robert Martin, a Hoopfest legend who’s now coaching one of the Blessings teams.

“Back in our prime, he was tough,” Martin said of Spencer.

Spencer said going to practice gives him something to take his mind off the search for his next place to sleep.

It’s the third season for Blessings’ teams, which grew out of founder Jessica Kovac’s desire to give the homeless people she works with a chance to “be part of something bigger.”

A mix of Blessings staff, volunteers and current clients, the organization fields two teams. One is called Blessings Under the Rim, for players under 6 feet, and the other is Blessings Over the Rim, for the taller crowd.

The first year, Kovac wasn’t sure it would work, but the 2015 team took off, garnering national media attention and spurring positive change in many of the players’ lives.

Kevin Schmieder was on that team, which he found out about while he was living at the Union Gospel Mission in recovery from a heroin addiction.

Going to practice and spending a weekend at Hoopfest gave him a vision of what his life could be, he said.

“It was the first time I felt like a normal person in a long time,” Schmeider said. “It was a glimpse into what the future could be like.”

The team finished one game shy of the championship in their division.

“It was surreal,” Schmieder said. “It was an overwhelming feeling of just being blessed. I almost felt like I didn’t deserve it.”

He’s now had an apartment for more than a year and works for a flooring company.

The teams have been practicing weekly on Friday evenings for about a month. Martin coaches the shorter team, which wears blue shirts at practice.

Former Gonzaga basketball star Haiden Palmer is one of the coaches for the taller, green-shirted team.

They suffered a setback this week when one of their better players was arrested for loitering. His court date got moved to Tuesday, and Blessings couldn’t afford to bail him out of jail, so he’ll miss the tournament.

“It’s really bad timing,” Palmer said. “He was a hard worker – one of the ones who got the team going.”

One of the team’s coaches will fill in for the weekend. Palmer said she’s excited to just coach instead of playing this year.

“It’s been really cool to see the progress,” she said of her team.

Martin is also enjoying the break from playing to focus on coaching. He’s coached many age levels and abilities over the years, but said the Blessings team is his favorite.

“They really take heed to what you’re saying because the respect is there,” he said.

Practice opens with a prayer and then turns into a 3-on-3 game, with subs going in as needed. Kovac is the first to admit she doesn’t know a thing about basketball, but that doesn’t stop her from cheering loudly on the sidelines while passing out drinks from a cooler.

Over the weekend, players get to stay in a downtown hotel. They get coupons for food and uniforms for the tournament, thanks to sponsors.

Kovac said there were tears all around after the original Blessings team did so well the first year. She’s confident Spencer’s team will make them proud.

“The green team’s going to win. They’re that good,” she said.

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