WELCOME TO
HOOPTOWN USA

WELCOME TO
HOOPTOWN USA

The Story of
Hooptown

If you’re standing at this spot, chances are there’s a basketball game going on, or someone is getting up shots just a few steps away.

And even if the courts are empty, you can sense the rhythm of the bouncing ball, a drumbeat that echoes across Spokane all year.

That is to be expected. You're in Hooptown USA.

Say what? Spokane? Hooptown USA?

Isn't that a bit presumptuous?

Did anyone consult the Big Apple, with its twin cathedrals of Madison Square Garden and Rucker Park, where basketball was stamped the City Game?

Or Indianapolis, where backboards once adorned every barn between every burg on the state map and where Gene Hackman had his Hoosiers farm boys measure the baskets?

What about Tobacco Road, home to college basketball's steamiest rivalries? Or glitzy Los Angeles of Magic and Showtime and Kobe and John Wooden's UCLA dynasties? All worthy hubs of the game, to be sure. But that doesn't make any of them Hooptown.

There is something altogether different about what's going on in Spokane, and it ripples out to Cheney, Pullman, and other nearby points. This basketball phenomenon has grown in an odd and organic fashion— a mix of the urban with the rural, of a traditional kind of basketball success with two never-to-be-replicated obsessions that defy easy explanations and possibly reason.

You know them as Hoopfest and the Zags.

In June 2021, the Spokane City Council put its official stamp on the identity of Hooptown USA. But that distinction didn't start with a proclamation.

If you want a genesis, it began 40 years or so before. Spokane and the Inland Northwest had any number of basketball godfathers predating that—Squinty Hunter, Frank Burgess, and Jack Friel come to mind. But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a wave of game-changers emerged on the scene.

Many of them have been installed as part of the inaugural class of the Hooptown Hall of Fame: George Raveling, who got a campus and a region energized about Washington State basketball; John Stockton, Spokane's first NBA first-round draft pick; Jeanne Helfer, WSU's first female scholarship athlete; and Bobby Jack Sumler, whose playground legend cribbed the feel of more populous basketball centers.

At the same time, momentum from Title IX’s enactment in 1972 made Spokane fertile ground for girl’s basketball. Gonzaga climbed to the West Coast Conference, a small but important early step up in its commitment. Don Monson's Idaho Vandals burst to the top of the Northwest pecking order for a couple of years, bringing down Pac-10 teams. And Eastern Washington University took the leap to NCAA Division I status.

An appreciation for basketball was beginning to grow that seemed dormant before.

But for that appreciation to crystallize into a passion would require two extraordinary elements.

In 1989, two Spokane professionals with different aims hit on the same idea—a 3-on-3 basketball tournament on a summer weekend staged on the streets downtown. When Rick Betts and Jerry Schmidt were brought together and shared their vision, the result was Hoopfest. It launched the following year with an almost naively hopeful spirit on just a few city blocks.

In a last-minute fever, over 500 teams and 2,000 players entered, and the result was an instant smash. Those who played had a ball, and those who came down to watch wished they had played. Year two saw participation double. By year five, the 10,000-player mark was topped, rocketing to 20,000 by year ten. Eventually, it took 450 courts—spread throughout downtown—and to points across the Spokane River—to handle the 7,000-some teams and nearly 28,000 players.

Even the basketball-minded originators couldn't have imagined the breadth of the event's appeal, from the tiniest kids to the creakiest old men to college players who had experienced March Madness just weeks before. Wheelchair teams, coed teams, family teams, Special Olympians, mothers and grandmothers who pre-date Title IX, and high school cross-country runners on a goof came out.

It's the world's largest 3-on-3 tournament by a long shot, and so much more. But it's basketball that ties it all together.

Ten years after the event’s debut, something else came along to tighten that knot.

In 1995, the Gonzaga Bulldogs reached their first NCAA tournament under coach Dan Fitzgerald. The program was racking up 20-win seasons with regularity, yet remained very much in the major college backwaters. That changed forever in 1999.

As an assistant, Dan Monson had spent a decade helping build the Bulldog program. Now he presided over a team of smart, ultra-competitive, and largely under-recruited ballers with no intention of swallowing a one-and-done in the school's second NCAA appearance. Down went Minnesota, Stanford, and Florida in succession. Up went Go Zags signs in storefronts, front yards, and the rear windows of minivans all over Spokane.

The Zags captured America's interest with their run to the Elite Eight—a little-known school with a name most couldn't pronounce correctly, taking down higher seeds and cracking up the national media in interview sessions. But every bit as important, they were forging a bond with a city that has only intensified to this day—turning the Zags into the go-to icebreaker for any conversation.

That first big leap by Gonzaga has been followed by chapter after unlikely chapter in college basketball's most remarkable tale. The mom-and-pop operation that initially, under Monson, and, for the long term, under coach Mark Few, became not just a March Madness perennial, but a destination for the nation's most sought-after recruits, and a legacy at home when it is ranked number one above the game's blue bloods.

It simply has never been done like this before, and is unlikely to be replicated.

Now these two very different manias—the populist summer street tournament and the winter-long love affair with ESPN's darlings—are the pillars of Hooptown's special essence. No other place has them both.

But other dynamics have gone into building Hooptown over the past several decades.

The women's program at Gonzaga has evolved into a Top 25 and NCAA tournament regular, with its own rabid fan base that fills the McCarthey Athletic Center on game days.

The Spokane Arena opening in 1995 ushered in new possibilities—hosting NCAA tournament games for both men and women. And the city quickly became part of the organization's site rotation, staging nine different events in a span of 23 years, with more to come.

On the city's north end, Whitworth University closed out its time as an NAIA program with a run to the national championship game, then segued into a happy existence as an NCAA Division III power—winning more games than any D3 program in the nation during the decade ending in 2020. It’s been a golden era of Pirates basketball. More than half the school's victories have come since 1990.

Likewise, Greater Spokane League high school boys have produced more champions in the last 40 years than the first 60. The girls? They won their first state title in 1988, then won 17 of the next 32. And in 2018, Central Valley was crowned champion of the GEICO Nationals—a first for a girl’s team from west of the Mississippi.

Tony Bennett’s era at Washington State brought back Raveling-era crowds. Eastern went to three NCAA tournaments under three different coaches.

The city's most venerable basketball institution—the State B high school tournament—continues to churn out charm with its unequaled mix of boy’s and girl’s games under one roof. Players represent public and private schools, farm and logging communities, reservation towns, and big cities and suburbs.

And we haven't even mentioned the constant runs at Corbin Park, or the Warehouse, or the lunch-hour H-O-R-S-E games at backboards nailed up at hoop-minded businesses.

The game that connects us all started with two neighbor kids going one-on-one in a driveway, the same way it happens in any city. But it has become part of the fabric here, whether it's old high school rivals meeting up 10 years later at Hoopfest or a throng gathering at a sports bar to watch the Zags tangle with a Duke or a UCLA.

It's the rhythm of Hooptown USA. That beats right here.