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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Hooptown Hall of Fame welcomes class of 2023

By Justin Reed The Spokesman-Review

The 1996 Whitworth Pirates were like chemists as they concocted a formula for success that had a dash of brotherhood, a sprinkle of defense, a touch of passing and plenty of scoring.

The Pirates were a shot away from bringing Spokane its first college basketball national title after winning three games in five days – as they needed a fourth victory to lift the trophy.

“It was the perfect recipe, a mix of skills that players had, everything meshed together, and it felt like we had played together for years,” former forward Nate Dunham said.

It was a second-place finish for the Pirates in 1996, but the culture built during that season has followed the program throughout almost 30 years.

Three years before Gonzaga rode its Cinderella story and Casey Calvary’s tip-in to defeat Florida in the Sweet 16, the Pirates were dominating NAIA’s Division II.

The impact that team had on the community earned it a spot in the second Hooptown USA Hall of Fame ceremony on Wednesday in Riverfront Park.

“I was just kind of dumbfounded a little bit because we played small college basketball, right?” Dunham said.

“But something must have resonated with the people in the area to still remember that team. I mean, it was just super fun to play on be a part of and it was great, I mean, we had Whitworth buzzing. But for it to expand to this, it’s kind of mind-boggling to me.”

Dunham was the Northwest Conference of Independent Colleges Player of the Year and an NAIA All-American.

According to head coach Warren Freidrichs, who was the NAIA Coach of the Year in 1996, that team didn’t have the most talent out of the all the teams he had coached.

Freidrichs coached the Pirates from 1986 to 2001, posting a 251-195 record, the most wins in program history.

As Spokane began to follow the Zags, Whitworth continued to flex its muscles in the mid-1990s.

While Gonzaga and Eastern Washington get more of the coverage as the NCAA Division I programs in the area, Whitworth has shown a history of prolonged and dominating success.

Roman Wickers was a first-team All-NCIC and second-team NAIA All-American. Nate Williams led the NAIA in 3-point field-goal percentage and was second-team All-NCIC.

The others to play meaningful minutes were Gabe Jones, Jeff Arkills, John Beckman, Jeff Mix and Sean Weston.

“Coach did a great job of letting us just play,” Dunham said. “We ran mostly motion, we played mostly man. There was no smoke and mirrors, we just played really good basketball.”

“There’s a reason why (they were inducted) and it’s a culture that was set in 1996 that’s just been slowly passed down,” Hoopfest Executive Director Riley Stockton said.

“They have great coaches, and they have great players. And I wouldn’t put them third tier to anybody, they are as top of their league as about anybody else in this town. We’re proud to represent them at the hall of fame.”

Whitworth was inducted along with four individuals: Stacy Clinesmith, Fred Crowell, Briann January and Shann Ferch.

Clinesmith, a former WNBA player and a Mead High School and Gonzaga product, is an assistant coach on the GU women’s staff.

“I was honored now that it’s here, I’m actually feeling a little emotional,” Clinesmith said. “To be honored by your hometown for something that you love to do … basketball has been a gift in my life. It feels a little emotional and overwhelming a little bit.”

Jeannie Eggart Helfer, who was inducted a year ago, introduced her former player.

“She was the best player I have ever coached and one of the two best women to come out of Spokane,” Helfer said.

The other is January, who was unable to make it to the event. January, a Lewis and Clark grad, is an assistant coach for the Connecticut Sun.

She won a WNBA title with the Indiana Fever and was a 2014 WNBA All-Star. She also was on the All-WNBA defensive first team five times.

Crowell, the Founder of NBC (Nothing Beats Commitment) Basketball Camps, died in April 2021. His daughter Jennifer accepted the award on his behalf.

“I want to say thank you again to the Spokane community, to the basketball community and to all those NBC family members and friends that love us,” Jennifer said.

Stockton said to stay tuned for the future of the Hooptown Hall of Fame.

“We’re not running out of people to induct. There are great players everywhere, great teams everywhere,” Stockton said. “It is just exciting to … represent history a little bit and to show off how long Spokane has been Hooptown USA.”