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Sports >  Area sports

Greg Stern advocates for mental health awareness through youth basketball programs

UPDATED: Mon., Sept. 13, 2021

By Jason Shoot The Spokesman-Review The Spokesman-Review

Struggles with self-doubt and depression robbed Greg Stern of his love for basketball when he probably needed it most.

He’s been making up for lost time ever since.

Stern, a Spokane native who played high school basketball at Lewis and Clark and collegiately at Whitworth, now lives near Seattle in Redmond and is involved with two companies – 360 Hoops and his own Dribble, Shoot, Swish – that focus on making the game accessible and enjoyable for kids.

Stern is conducting an open show for 360 Hoops at The Warehouse, 800 N. Hamilton St., Tuesday through Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m. The company manufactures adjustable basketball hoops that feature three backboards joined together in a triangle with each basket pointed outward.

“The genius is that you play it in a circle,” Stern said, noting the backboards can be set between 4½ feet and 10 feet tall. “Three hoops allows it to be more inclusive. There’s more shooting, more touches.”

Stern also said 360 Hoops is ideal for programs teaching fundamentals to players of all ages.

“When you’re in third, fourth grade, the only kids involved are the kids who can dribble,” Stern said. “We can cater to 5-, 6-, 7-year-olds and teach them fundamentals and how to shoot baskets before they start club basketball. It allows more fun, more success, more touches, and you can build a curriculum around it. You can put five on one court and have 15 baskets.

“It’s youth, grassroots stuff pitching fitness and mental health.”

The importance of mental health among athletes has been magnified in recent months and is a sensitive topic for Stern. He was a self-described overachiever on the basketball court at LC, and he said he earned a walk-on nod with the men’s program at Washington State as a freshman in 1989.

“I went in there 5-foot-10, 150 pounds,” he said. “I made the team, but I had to leave about a week after Midnight Madness. I had lost 15 pounds. I was physically exhausted. … The night before Midnight Madness, they asked us for all of our accolades in high school. Everybody was an MVP or all-league. I had zero.

“I remember thinking, ‘Instead of feeling good about being here, I shouldn’t be here.’ It was a darkness in my mind. I felt like I shouldn’t be here. At some level I looked at it the wrong way and saw myself as a failure. I felt like I gave everything I had, but I didn’t do a good enough job.”

Stern said he left WSU and returned to Spokane, but he couldn’t escape the feeling he had let himself down.

“I fell into a deep depression for six months,” he said. “At the time it was horrible. Now that I’m older, I can look back and see some silver linings – I learned a lot about myself – but I felt like a failure, and it about killed me.”

Stern said he took a year “getting on my feet” before contacting coaches at community colleges around the region to find a program in which he could resume his career. He was invited to walk on at Clark College in Vancouver, and he said he was playing well during the preseason and had a future on the team as a point guard.

“Then one day after I left practice, it was winter time, and I hit a transient who was walking in the middle of (Interstate 5) during rush hour,” Stern said. “I felt something hit, and I spun, and as I was spinning it was like it was in slow motion. It’s rush hour. I’m in shock, and I’m facing oncoming traffic now. It felt like forever.

“I turned around and didn’t know what I was doing. What was it I hit?”

Stern said he drove back to the scene, where the man was taken away in an ambulance. Stern, unaware of the man’s condition, provided a statement to police. He was cleared of any wrongdoing, he said, but the incident resulted in debilitating anxiety that persuaded him to leave Clark College and Vancouver to return to Spokane again.

“And here I am for another year,” he said.

The desire to play NCAA Division I basketball never waned, however, and Stern finally found some stability on and off the court playing for NWAC Hall of Fame coach Sam Brasch at Spokane Community College.

“We have a phenomenal team, win our division, and I’m the point guard,” he said. “After that year, I got to Whitworth for two years.”

Stern found ways to remain involved in the sport after graduating. He competes at Hoopfest nearly every year, and he said he played on two teams at 18 of them.

“I’ve played more Hoopfest games than most, I bet I have,” Stern said. “I still play it. My kids play it. My wife plays it. I’ve played all over the country, and Hoopfest in the summer is the best experience.”

Stern said he empathizes with Hoopfest organizers who have had to cancel the event two years in a row due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“For it to happen two years in a row, especially the way it happened this year, is horrible,” he said, noting the event was on schedule before case counts began rising rapidly again across the country.

Stern also is working on a pair of documentaries, including one about the history of basketball in Spokane, which has embraced the nickname Hooptown USA.

“Next year will be our last year getting footage and that type of thing,” he said, adding that Hoopfest executive director Matt Santangelo also has taken on an executive director role on the film project. “At that point we will determine whether to tell it or take it to festivals.”

Stern acknowledged the impact that the sport has had in his life, both professionally and personally.

“Basketball gives you a forum to be competitive, meet friends, learn a lot of skills and fundamentals,” he said. “When I’m alone by myself just shooting around, it’s my safe haven. I’ve met a lot of great people because of basketball. I met my wife (former LC standout Julie Lemery), my friends and my mentors through basketball, and it was my whole life for a while.

“I’m so involved in so many basketball things, it’s been the centerpiece of my life and taught me about life off the court.”

Now that I’m older, I can look back and see some silver linings … but I felt like a failure, and it about killed me. Greg Stern Recalling his early days in college basketball
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