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Hoopfest’s new seniors division players bring their own stories and style to the court

June 25, 2022 Updated Sat., June 25, 2022 at 10:05 p.m.

On the new Senior Court on Spokane Falls Boulevard, Terry Nealey, with team Swinging Doors, is guarded by Willie Womer, left, and Michael Jordan. This is the first year Hoopfest has set aside a special court for over-70 seniors.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN)
On the new Senior Court on Spokane Falls Boulevard, Terry Nealey, with team Swinging Doors, is guarded by Willie Womer, left, and Michael Jordan. This is the first year Hoopfest has set aside a special court for over-70 seniors. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN)

Mike Etter turned 75 Saturday and celebrated on the Hoopfest court, shooting sky hooks in his new Kyrie Irving Nike shoes gifted to him by former Gonzaga standout and current Memphis Grizzlies forward Killian Tillie.

Tillie and his girlfriend, Hailee Etter, who is Mike Etter’s granddaughter, surprised the elder Etter for his birthday by flying into Spokane.

“When I knew he was going to play Hoopfest, I was like, I gotta send him some shoes, because we can’t have him out there with some old shoes,” Tillian said. “He’s swagged up right now. He looks good.”

The 6-foot-5 post also wore black Nike shorts courtesy of Tillie.

“He’s a great young man,” Mike Etter said.

Tillie said he missed Spokane and reunited or planned to reunite with former and current Gonzaga players like Drew Timme, Anton Watson, Will Graves and Jeremy Jones while in town.

Tillie said he will return to Memphis Sunday to prepare for his third season with the Grizzlies.

“I love coming here,” he said of Hoopfest. “So many people that love basketball, so I love it.”

Mike Etter feels the same.

The new 75-year-old, whose team name and sponsor was Maxwell House Restaurant and Bar, said he’s played in around 20 Hoopfests. He said the competition and camaraderie keep bringing him back.

“It’s a good program for Spokane, and it allows people like me, older people, to still come down and compete a little bit,” he said.

Etter and his squad lost their first game Saturday to The Swinging Doors, another Spokane restaurant and bar.

“We’re all happy,” he said. “Nobody got hurt, so that’s a good thing. It’s just fun to be down here again – win, lose or draw.”

As for his other Saturday birthday plans, Etter said he was going to “go home and swim in my pool. Have a couple cold ones.”

But until then, Tillie sat with his girlfriend in the bleachers and watched her grandfather play.

“It’s impressive to play Hoopfest at 75,” said Tillie, adding that he won’t be able to play at that age.

But Etter isn’t the only senior player at this year’s Hoopfest.

From a driven hooper who overcame a series of health setbacks to a brother carrying on his twin’s legacy, here’s a look at the players in the tournament’s new senior division and the stories that brought them to the court as Hoopfest returned for the first time since 2019.

‘A safe environment’ for seniors

Etter played in Hoopfest’s inaugural senior division, which Jon Heimbigner helped start.

Heimbigner, a 74-year-old longtime Hoopfest player, said he walked into the Hoopfest office three years ago and said he was probably done playing Hoopfest because of his age.

But organizers suggested starting a senior division, he said.

The division is separated into two player groups – a 65 to 71 age group and a 72 and older group.

He said he could not thank Hoopfest organizers enough for their work to keep seniors active.

“I love Hoopfest, and now they’ve made it a safe environment for senior people,” Heimbigner said.

The older hoopers played on a Sport Court surface that is more forgiving on joints than the pavement on which other Hoopfest players dribble.

Heimbigner’s team, The Swinging Doors, won both its senior division games and will play Sunday morning to continue its quest for a championship.

But Heimbigner said he’s just grateful to be playing.

He had emergency brain surgery 21 months ago after his brain was bleeding, unbeknownst to him.

He said he would have died had he not had the surgery immediately. Heimbigner had a seizure six hours before the surgery because of the 2½ months of blood building in his head.

He also got Bell’s palsy, sudden weakness in one side of the face, during that 2½-month stretch.

“I’m a person of faith,” he said. “I believe in God. I’m lucky to be alive.”

Throw in shingles and mouth surgery during the 21 months, and then a cut on the bridge of his nose during Hoopfest, and it seems Heimbigner can’t catch a break.

But he has a sense of humor about it.

“I’m like, maybe I should just wear a helmet,” Heimbigner said.

A twin’s Hoopfest memorial

A picture of Tedd Nealey was adorned on the playing surface of the senior court.

Nealey died July 2 after a heavy hay bale fell on him during a farming accident near Reardan, Washington.

“I miss him a lot,” said Terry Nealey, Tedd’s identical twin brother. “We were so used to playing with each other.”

Terry Nealey, 75, said he and his brother played basketball together since they were about 2 years old. They spent many days and nights playing one-on-one.

“Our mother would be yelling at us to come eat dinner,” he said. “We were still in the shop playing basketball.”

The two went to LaCrosse High School, and both played one year of basketball at Whitworth University. They continued to play wherever they could find a court after their brief collegiate athletic career.

Terry Nealey, a retired lawyer, said a lot of people told the brothers they enjoyed watching them play because they passed the ball so well to each other and knew where the other one was on the court at all times.

They played several years together at Hoopfest. Terry Nealey played on The Swinging Doors with Heimbigner Saturday.

Hs brother was not very tall, but he was “very scrappy,” rebounded well, had a great baseline jumpshot and played great defense, Terry Nealey said.

“We both would play tight defense on people,” he said. “That’s really been kind of our success.”

Heimbigner also commended their defensive abilities, saying the Nealey brothers are “tough defenders, and they’re annoying to play against.”

Heimbigner said he joined forces with them and played quite a few years with the brothers.

Tedd Nealey even helped start the new senior division, his brother and Heimbigner said.

“Tedd was a big proponent for senior basketball and senior wellness,” Heimbigner said.

A ceremony for Tedd Nealey was held prior to Saturday’s action at the senior court.

“It was very nice, very touching and a great tribute to my brother,” Terry Nealey said.

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