Every summer, the last weekend in June turns the little city of Spokane, Washington – a town that has always been known for its basketball fandom – into a madhouse. The city itself boasts a population of about 217,000, mostly lower-middle-class working folk who enjoy Spokane’s affordable housing, proximity to water and mountains, and basketball. Oh, do they love their basketball tournament!
A big sign on the east side of the city greets visitors with the slogan “Welcome to Hooptown, USA”. During Hoopfest weekend, that sign helps welcome roughly 225,000 people into the city, beckoning them into the largest 3-on-3 basketball tournament on planet earth.
That’s right, a city of 217,000 people doubles in size, just to watch amateur 3-on-3 basketball. The 450 makeshift courts are all right on the street, taking up 45 city blocks, with paint lines and portable basketball hoops lining the city nearly in its entirety.
The History of Hoopfest
Hoopfest just completed its 30th season, making it a staple of Spokane’s history and culture since 1989. Participants as young as five and as old as 90 make up the nearly 20,000 different ballers that take the court each year.
There are family brackets, wheelchair brackets, under six-foot, over six-foot, co-ed, men’s, women’s, elite and recreational formats, meaning there truly is something for everybody.
Games are frequently attended by NBA stars. Isaiah Thomas was there this year, just days before signing with the Washington Wizards. Past years have seen Kevin Durant, Brandon Roy, Jamal Crawford, and Nate Robinson attend, and of course the local Gonzaga and Washington State stars – including Klay Thompson, Rui Hachimura, Kelly Olynyk, and John Stockton – almost always make an appearance.
This past year was my eighth year participating in Hoopfest. My team has changed a bit over the years, first serving as an opportunity to get my high school friends to come visit me in Spokane (I went to Gonzaga) and now serving as a college reunion with friends who still live in the area. The drive from Seattle to Spokane and back is proof enough of how busy the event is, as traffic is nearly non-stop.
Every team is guaranteed three games, and my buddies and I have rarely played more than that. The competition, even in our adult recreational league, is immense. While that can sometimes boil over into heated exchanges, volunteer court monitors (over 3,000 of them!) help keep tempers cool, even when the temperature in Spokane’s desert climate touches 100 degrees.
Playing physical basketball (you call your own fouls, streetball style) against hyper-competitive strangers in 100-degree heat may not sound like everyone’s version of a good time, but I can promise you that after eight years of suiting up, and a self-reported 5-20 record, that I will be back next year. And you should be too.
If you ever have an opportunity to participate, volunteer or just watch Hoopfest, you’ll see why this little town in Eastern Washington is rebranding as “Hooptown, USA”.
They’ve earned it.