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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Back to the streets: Hoopfest returns Saturday

By Dave Cook For The Spokesman-Review

No basketball on the streets of Spokane for more than 1,000 days? It’s simply unconscionable.

But sadly, it’s the truth.

Hoopfest, the world’s largest 3-on-3 basketball tournament, was silenced in 2020 and 2021 when the COVID-19 pandemic essentially forced cancellations both years.

Now, the organization is eager to put the last two years behind it starting this weekend.

Riley Stockton, Hoopfest’s new executive director, is thrilled that basketball will be back on the streets of Spokane like it was from 1990-2019.

“It’s been interesting, especially the first couple of months,” he says of taking over the role in January. “You feel like you are drinking from a fire hose. It’s been hard and it’s been challenging, but it’s everything I dreamed it would be.

“I think we’re ready for it and excited to be back after three long years.”

This year’s Hoopfest tips off Saturday morning on about 45 city blocks of downtown Spokane.

It all began in the summer of 1990, and Stockton knows of the tradition he took over. But he was in for a few surprises, too.

“I didn’t realize the breadth of everything they did,” said Stockton, whose uncle is NBA Hall of Famer John Stockton. “There is such a wide range of things that we touch.”

Stockton, who replaced former Gonzaga standout Matt Santangelo, said he’s leaned on a veteran office staff in his first few months.

The pandemic was an especially tough battle for Hoopfest. If there was one thing everybody in the business or entertainment sector learned, no events and no customers meant no income.

“The last couple of years were tough. It was extremely stressful,” said Rick Betts, chairman of the Hoopfest board.

In 2021, the event was moved from the summer to Sept. 11-12, but even then the organization had to shut it down. Providing teams refunds for the tournament canceled in 2021 – ranging from $136-$196 per team – proved to be a hot-button topic.

The pandemic resulted in the cancellation of Hoopfest in 2020, and entrants were given complete refunds, Betts said. In 2021, the event was canceled on Aug. 25 – less than three weeks prior to the event.

At the time, Hoopfest asked participants to donate their registration fee, or apply for a 20% refund. About a week later, the organization offered full refunds.

The difference, Betts said, was having way more advance notice in 2020 that Hoopfest would not take place.

“That helped us avoid a bunch of costs,” he explained. “In 2021, we were planning on having a September Hoopfest and we called it off roughly a month in advance. So we obviously spent the whole year getting ready for it – including printing of the T-shirts which is a lot of money. We incurred a whole bunch of costs.”

The organization was able to secure donations from sponsors and “that enabled us to do full refunds,” Betts said.

“So many of our sponsors donated their sponsorship fee,” he said. “MultiCare massively stepped up to help us. We also had a nest egg, so thanks to all those things we were able to survive the last couple of years and are in good shape.

“We need a good one this year, though.”

Moving forward , a policy is in place that would provide only partial refunds based on when the event is canceled. Hoopfest estimates that 70% of its income is spent a month prior to the event. Thus, canceling Hoopfest one month prior to the event only reduces its annual costs by 30%.

“There was some confusion,” Stockton said. “We got through it, but moving forward we want to make sure what the options and policies are. It’s just something we hadn’t had tvo deal with before.”

In future years, full refunds will only be given if the event is canceled prior to May 1. If canceled in May, the rate of refund is 85%. If canceled in June, or if Hoopfest is postponed, a 75% refund will be given. If teams donate their fees back to Hoopfest, at minimum player shirts will be given out.

The new policies are in addition to the previous policy that no refunds will be paid for cancellation that may occur during Hoopfest weekend (Friday-Sunday) due to weather conditions, air quality or any other disruptive situation.

“The team fees are a lot of money for some people,” said Stockton. “This event was so great for so long – the first 30 years went off without a hitch. We grew in numbers and everything went great. We learned a lot about customer service and about ourselves, really.”

This year’s version of Hoopfest – it’s the 32nd edition counting the virtual edition in 2020 – will feature a couple of new twists.

Riverfront Park went through a major renovation, and will be used again by Hoopfest. For the first time, Northern Quest Center Court will be housed under the iconic U.S. Pavilion, and the high school elite court will also be located there. During the renovations, the parking area near the Bennett Block downtown was used for the event’s center court, but now will be utilized as the Hoopfest contest zone.

The revamped Riverfront Park was a pleasant surprise for Stockton, who had been working in Seattle for Special Olympics Washington before returning to lead Hoopfest.

“They did such a great job with Riverfront Park,” said Riley, who indicated vendors would be located throughout the park but that no other courts would be placed there. “I hadn’t been to Riverfront Park (after the renovations) until I came back to Spokane. We’re just so excited to be back in the park.

“It should be conducive to not only good hoop, but also good views. It’s going to feel like a big Spokane event because everybody thinks of the Pavilion as the center of the city.”

Hoopfest is also enhancing an international 3-on-3 division that it added in 2019 because of the addition of the sport to the summer Olympics in 2020 (which was delayed until 2021). The international game is slightly different than Hoopfest with 12-minute games and a 12-second shot clock. There is also live action after a made basket or free throw with no checking the ball in, but still with the requirement to take the ball past the 3-point line on possession changes.

“You better be in really good shape if you are going to play in that division on Hoopfest weekend,” Stockton says. “It’s just a different game. Hoopfest is more a grind-it-out style, but this game goes so quick and is fun to watch. It’s such a pure form of basketball that we wanted to add it in to our event.”

This year, the delayed induction of the inaugural class in the Hooptown Hall of Fame will kick off the festivities of the weekend. John Stockton will be in the class, along with Hoopfest founders Betts and Jerry Schmidt. Others include Jeanne Eggart Helfer, Bobby Jack Sumler, George Raveling and the 1999 Gonzaga men’s basketball team.

The induction ceremony will occur from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday at the new Riverfront Park Community Courts near The Podium.

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