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Originally published June 27, 2010 at 9:33 PM | Page modified June 28, 2010 at 12:16 PM

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Spokane Hoopfest is world's largest 3-on-3 tournament

Times reporter Mason Kelley visits Hoopfest in Spokane, with its 14,000 games on 447 courts over two days.

Seattle Times staff reporter

SPOKANE — A few years ago, the organizers of the world's largest 3-on-3 basketball tournament asked people, "What do you love best about Hoopfest?"

The responses were surprising. Basketball finished third in the voting.

So, if it's not simply the allure of about 14,000 games on 447 courts over two days, what is it that brought more than 200,000 people to downtown Spokane over the weekend?

It is the feeling of community that has grown over 21 years, fostered by an upbeat atmosphere created when a diverse group of people come together to celebrate a shared interest.

"If it was just a basketball tournament, we wouldn't have this environment," said Hoopfest executive director Rick Steltenpohl, who is one of 73 players who have competed all 21 years. "We wouldn't have the feeling of excitement from the spectators."

It started Friday when players converged on Riverfront Park to check in. Once the streets were closed and the courts set up — it takes eight miles of tape to line the courts — children and teenagers played pickup games under the streetlights.

By 8 a.m. Saturday morning, the streets were teeming with people as competitors and fans were greeted by another warm Hoopfest day.

"We've been blessed with weather," Steltenpohl said. "We've never stopped playing in 21 years for weather. When the sun's out and you're down here, people just love to be in that environment."

Men and women, teenagers and children filled the streets. Speakers hooked up to downtown light poles played an eclectic mix of music from Pearl Jam and AC/DC to hip-hop and country.

Four teenagers sat on one street corner watching a game. They were all wearing NBA jerseys with recognizable last names: Roy, Wade, Bryant and James. When players and spectators needed a break from the sun or basketball, they crammed into local restaurants and bars, wanting to cool off and check the score of the USA-Ghana World Cup game.

Some teams came to win, while others dressed up in costumes, like the team wearing sleeveless dress shirts, ties that doubled as towels in the 80-degree weather and cutoff slacks.

"It's awesome," said Gonzaga's Steven Gray, a Bainbridge graduate who was signing autographs. "Before I got to college I'd never come to this, never seen what it was about. For a city to shut down all the streets in downtown and see all these people come out and appreciate this, having a good time in the summer, hanging out, playing basketball, it's awesome to see."

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On each court volunteers kept time, score and ensured no game got too physical. It's not a glamorous job, but essential to the event's success.

"I love the basketball," said Lynn Ulrich, who started volunteering at the behest of his grandson. "The guys play great ball. I don't know why this doesn't get national attention more than it does."

There are courts for all ages and skill levels throughout downtown and the Nike Center Court is in Riverfront Park, surrounded by bleachers that provide a special experience for those who get to play there. As afternoon faded to evening on the first day, the Mammasboys took center stage. The team consisted of four brothers, including Aubrey Shelton, who coaches the boys basketball team at Lincoln High School in Tacoma.

"As a basketball fan, coach, player — it's awesome," Shelton said. "This is like the mecca of basketball for this weekend. Anyone who loves basketball is going to be here. It's awesome it's here in Washington, that we have a special event like this that everyone can come to every year."

Mason Kelley: 206-464-8277 or mkelley@seattletimes.com

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