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Thursday, September 19, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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They got the ball rolling: an oral history of the first Hoopfest as the 30th edition is set to begin

Hoopfest almost wasn’t Hoopfest, you know.

Among the names kicked around at the point of origin were Heat in the Street, 3 in the Street, Spokane 3-on-3 and a few others. In fact, in the natal stages, there were two Hoopfests.

Or Heat in the Streets. Whatever.

And who knows? Maybe the event doesn’t get traction or momentum had there been dueling Heatfests, or if people didn’t glom on to the name. Maybe it never grows to 28,000 players or 7,000 teams and 250,000 spectators shuffling from Sprague to the Spokane Arena and along the width of downtown the final weekend of every June.

We all know what Hoopfest has become in this, it’s 30th year as the self-proclaimed – and widely acclaimed – Best Basketball Weekend on Earth. But the Big 3-oh is a good time to hear in the words of those who were there at conception just how it came to be, from the planting of multiple seeds back in 1989 to the largest 3-on-3 tournament on the terra.

Rick Betts, accountant, Hoopfest co-founder: I was flying to Washington, D.C., and I’m reading USA Today and I see a little banner – “Gus Macker registration is due” or something, about the 3-on-3 tournament that had been going for years in Michigan. It was back in the day when if you stayed over Saturday night, it was way cheaper airfare – those days are long gone – so I figured I’d spend the weekend and do a little sightseeing. I wandered into this 3-on-3 tournament on Pennsylvania Avenue. It turned out to be the very first of the Hoop It Up tour, which kind of came and went. It was mostly young adults playing, but it seemed like a super-fun weekend. So I flew back to Spokane and started calling some basketball buddies. I’d helped with the Corporate Cup for Bloomsday and at the time I had a second-grade boy who really was in to basketball. It was a combination of those things that motivated me.

Jerry Schmidt, social and health services, Hoopfest co-founder: I was on the board for Special Olympics and we’d just lost $25,000 worth of funding, so we needed to raise some money or they were going to close up shop. I was a basketball junkie and I’d played in this 3-on-3 event over in Seattle in the Kingdome parking lot put on by the Sonics.

Dave Jackson, attorney/teacher, Hoopfest board member: Jerry and I were driving around Spokane and he’d just come from this thing in Seattle and Slick Watts was there and they had like 30 courts. He took a bunch of photos. He was talking about bringing something like that to the March of Dimes board. I was reading the paper in his convertible Volkswagen – a USA Today – and it was blowing all over the place and there was a story about a Pepsi Hoop It Up tournament in Dallas and it was “Why not try something like that here?” and he got a committee together.

Schmidt: I was giving a presentation to the Downtown Business Association and when I got done a guy came up and said, “You know, this is a great plan – it sounds like exactly the same thing Rick Betts is doing. He wants to do 3-on-3 on streets of Spokane.” I didn’t know who Rick Betts was at the time and I thought, “Man, somebody’s stealing my idea!”

Jackson: We started hearing about Rick and this other group, and the funny coincidence is, both of our kids were in the same preschool and we sat next to each other at an invite-your-dad-to-pre-school at First Presbyterian. Four or five months later, we’re meeting at the Ridpath.

Schmidt: Mike Loft, an attorney, was on our board of directors. We set up this meeting with Rick and in my head I’m going to go and shut him down – “What are you doing stealing my idea?” I’m not sure Rick knows this to this day. I would have told him, “I’ve got approval from the city and I don’t need you at all.” Then we get to the meeting and Mike Loft sees him and they’re old high school buddies and I’m thinking, “You’re hugging the enemy.” But he was the mediator and getting together was the best decision ever. Plus, they already had $6,000 committed from Seafirst and we needed that badly for start-up costs.

A founding committee was formed: Betts, Schmidt, Jackson, stockbroker Jerry Karstetter, attorney Terry Kelly, accountant Rick Steltenpohl – who would eventually become Hoopfest’s first executive director – and Dennis Magner from the advertising agency WhiteRunkle. Plans and progress unfolded at weekly meetings at The Shack, a downtown restaurant.

Schmidt: Dennis had just graduated from the University of Idaho and he shows up and he has this baby face – I thought he was in high school. Swear to God, I thought he was 17 years old. I remember asking him, “Why are you here?” and he said, “Oh, my boss sent me over.”

The originators still had slightly disparate interests. Schmidt wanted to put on a good event, but was focused on the funding aspect for Special Olympics. Betts had some “niche” charity beneficiaries in mind, but was “all about having a fun weekend playing basketball.” Finding the middle ground wasn’t difficult, but soon enough the uniting aspect became the obstacles to be conquered: closing off downtown streets, and a still-fresh civic stain.

Betts: It had to be a downtown event. It was the perfect venue here. You have Riverfront Park and restaurants and stores and it’s where everybody wants to be. That’s really one of the secret attractions – you’re playing basketball where you’re not supposed to. The Seattle event was in the Kingdome parking lot, and the Macker spilled into residential neighborhoods. I went over to Seattle that summer (1989) and just remember thinking, “We’re going to do it so much better.”

Jackson: We hook up a meeting with Terry Novak, the city manager, and the folks down at the city, and we’re told to get a million-dollar liability policy for spectators and volunteers – and get permission from downtown merchants who were going to be affected. Now, remember, that first year we were only shooting for 36 courts, so it was limited to Spokane Falls Boulevard and then a little ways up Howard and Wall. But I don’t think Terry thought we had a chance.”

Dave Jackson owns a copy of the first Hoopfest event map. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Dave Jackson owns a copy of the first Hoopfest event map. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Schmidt: We had to overcome the Grand Prix.

Jackson: That had been such a debacle and it was just two years prior, and they left the city on the hook for all these unpaid bills and we were told nobody was going to want to close the streets in front of their business. Well, everybody else had regular jobs and I was a sole-practitioner lawyer, so I created a petition and targeted 24 businesses and went around to them one-by-one. I was nonstop on the ground for two weeks.”

A look at the list shows that half of those business don’t exist anymore – the Dill Pickle, Grape and Grain, BDalton Booksellers, Rock Bottom – and most of the rest have relocated. All had a bad taste left over from the Grand Prix, but all signed until Jackson had it down to two holdouts – and the biggest fish he had to get into the boat: Nordstrom and the Bon Marche.

Jackson: John Begoise of the Bon was offended we wanted to close the street in front of his store – and we didn’t even close Main Street. Marcy Savage of Nordstrom said, “We’ll do great business with you guys – with our restrooms.” I think they finally signed because they got tired of me bugging the hell out of them. I was in every other day. But they had legitimate questions, and they also had doubts. We were 31, 32-year-old guys. What had we ever done? But we were also guys in town with jobs – accountants, lawyers. We weren’t going to blow in and out of town.

Trying to piece together hundreds of details could leave the organizers feeling like the staff at Camp Run Amok, but there were some calculated successes, too. Staging the tournament in a relative “dead period” before the July 4 weekend – and Jackson made a trip out to the National Weather Service to chart what was historically the best weather weekend in that time frame. Mark Rypien and Ryne Sandberg – two pretty fair high school hoopsters who went on to make a big splash in other sports – were recruited for a slick event poster. Jackson sketched out a logo on a legal pad that remained as Hoopfest’s identity for years. And there was always a relative or a friend of a friend that could help them with something.

Dave Jackson’s sketch of the first hoopfest logo. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Dave Jackson’s sketch of the first hoopfest logo. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Jackson: For the baskets, I took the photo Jerry gave me from Seattle and gave it to my father-in-law, who took it to the carpenters’ union and they had apprentice kids put them together.

Schmidt: Some weren’t 10 feet and some weren’t straight. But we could always say, “Hey, the streets aren’t level.”

Eventually, all the event needed was players. Registration forms had been distributed to schools and businesses, and the poster was an eye-catcher.

Ginny Knox, first-year player: We’d been playing rec league for a long time and I saw an ad in the paper or maybe the poster and thought it sounded like fun – something really different.

Steve Chandler, first-year player: I was part of a group of guys who’d played basketball forever. We played at a school and the school was closing down, so we lost our gym. I saw a brochure for the tournament and we said, “Hey, we’re pretty good, let’s go play in it.” So we went down to play. And we found out we weren’t very good.

But entries were slow trickling in. Two weeks before tipoff, only 40 teams had signed up for an event where the founders had hoped for 500. After the fact, the organizers discovered why the response was so muted.

Betts: There was a phone number on the entry form for more information. It was a Special Olympics guy who was not that into basketball. We never found out until afterward, but he flaked out on us – he was getting so many calls that he just stopped answering the phone.

Jackson: (Former Spokesman-Review columnist) Dan Weaver did a funny story in the newspaper that got some people out of the woodwork at the entry deadline.

Betts: And it was crazy – all these entries came in that Saturday, and we got so many that we talked the post office into letting us come in on Sunday to pick up more. Now we’ve got 500 teams and the logistics of parceling them on to courts and bracketing – and setting up.

Schmidt: Now it’s such a well-oiled machine that it all looks ridiculously easy, but you’ve got to remember back then it was mostly just the organizing committee doing everything – white-collar guys who’d never driven a forklift in their lives. Jerry Karstetter’s on a forklift and he’s got one of these wood structures that weighs like 350 pounds and is 14 feet up, and it gets off-center and tips over and misses a guy standing there by three inches.

Jackson: It took us all night to set up.

Schmidt: We thought we’d be done at 2 a.m. The first game’s at 8 and Dave and I get to our last hoop and it’s 10 minutes to 8. There’s one of the teams there and they say, “Wow, you guys are so organized – you’ve got this timed down to the minute.” They thought we’d planned this. We were supposed to be done six hours ago.

Not that some of the participants were any more prepared.

Garrick Phillips, first-year player: I was in college and we got signed up the night before.

Greg Phillips, first-year player: I got a call from a friend, Randy Cox, asking, “You know anybody who wants to play? They’ve got a tournament downtown.”

Garrick Phillips: I was, sure, what the heck, I’ll play. And then (Randy) doesn’t show up on Sunday.

Naturally, the organizers discovered dozens of details that had been overlooked. One of them involved the name itself.

Jackson: I got a letter after the event from a lawyer in Little Rock, Arkansas, that was basically a cease-and-desist – stop using our name, it’s federally registered. And it was. This little promoter dude had run two or three events; they weren’t big, but it was his name. So had to pay him, I want to say $1,000 a year – and I think we still do. He beat us to the punch.

The document explaining the argument over the use of the Hoopfest service mark is owned by Dave Jackson. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
The document explaining the argument over the use of the Hoopfest service mark is owned by Dave Jackson. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

But what the founders found was that they had an unqualified hit. Despite the hiccups and the last-minute rush, 2,009 players and 512 teams had made it to tipoff. The word was already spreading, and would continue to do so as some of the original principals moved on or cut back on their involvement, though their mark on the event remained.

Garrick Phillips: Two weeks after we won, Randy and I went fishing out by Anaconda, Montana. We’re hiking along and some people go by us on the trail – I swear we see five people the entire day – and one of them says, “I just saw you two guys win Hoopfest.” Swear to God. They told us they’d been driving through Spokane and “saw all the commotion. You guys put on a hell of a show.”

Jackson: After the second year, Rick Steltenpohl and I flew back to Michigan and played in the Gus Macker – boy, was it rough. I took 10 pages of notes and what I learned was that we already had way more than they had – even with our 1,000 teams and their 5,000. We had better courts, backboards, location, court monitors and demographics. We had kids, families, a festival nature – that’s why we called it Hoopfest. Our goal was not to beat them, but it wasn’t too many years later that we did.

Betts: Even that first year, you could see what it could become and what it would eventually become – this whole reunion weekend. Now it’s what you do at the end of June. I don’t think we need to care whether it’s 7,000 teams or 3,000 – it was fun when it was 500. But what does intrigue me is trying to expand the cultural experience of the week.

Schmidt: It’s kind of funny – Rick (Betts) is the only original still on the board. I don’t think he’ll ever leave and I hope he never does. He’s the one with the vision. My goal was just to raise $25,000 for Special Olympics.”

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