Michael Cage was all shoulder and Jheri curl,” Tony Rowe says from the driver seat of his Denali, 90 minutes into a five-hour drive from Seattle to Spokane, Wash. “Guy Williams — we played a game to 21 at the Magnolia Gym, he beat us so fast, man he was good.”

Over the past three decades, Rowe, a 40-something property manager and security worker has played basketball just about everywhere in Seattle, with just about everyone.

“Sedale Threatt was probably the best player I ever played against,” he remembers.

For the 16th year in a row, Rowe is leading an eclectic group of weekend warriors to Hoopfest, the annual 3-on-3 tournament recognized in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest in the world.

Rowe’s belly protrudes a bit more than it once did and admittedly he can no longer jump like he used to. But at a powerfully built 6’3”, Rowe is still an effective player, favoring a crafty drop step and a soft left hand. Though he no longer plays pickup ball at the top local courts like Green Lake and Magnolia, Rowe can be found in rented elementary school gymnasiums competing against friends at least three times a week.

Rowe’s group of oddballs cross all racial and socio-economic lines with the love of basketball as the thread tying them together:

There’s ‘Gangles’, a 47-year-old anatomical oddity with a condors’ wingspan attached to a sub six-foot frame. ‘Gangles’ front teeth are missing and a pronounced bald spot the group refers to as his Yamaka further distinguishes his look.

‘Angry Rob’ is known for his intensity and willingness to play “hero ball” quickly shooting his own team out of games with bad shot after bad shot.

Dave, a 235-pound moose works in waste management.

O.J. a stout perimeter player with a Shawn Marion-esque jump shot is a gym teacher.

All told around 20 guys make the annual pilgrimage with Rowe.

“I’ve been playing for like 30 years, so I know a lot of people,” Rowe says. “I try to bring people that will gel with us.”

Tony Rowe goes to the Hoop at Hoopfest. Photo by Noah Perkins
Tony Rowe goes to the Hoop at Hoopfest. Photo by Noah Perkins.

With 7,000 teams, 3,000 volunteers and 225,000 fans in attendance, Rowe and his gang are just one of several thousand groups who make the trip to eastern Washington during the last weekend of June every year.

“It’s a great reunion, it becomes part of your annual calendar,” says Matt Santangelo, the Executive director of Hoopfest, and a former point guard at Gonzaga University and overseas pro. “If you have ties to this region, you look at Christmas and Hoopfest and if you can only choose one for that particular year you choose Hoopfest. It’s kind of been born into part of the culture of what we do around here.”

Held in downtown Spokane, Hoopfest features 42 city blocks transformed into 450 half-courts. With brackets for all skill levels, ages and genders.

“This is amazing,” Dennis, a first year player who played a season of pro ball in the Philippines says. “I’d love to see an aerial view of everybody playing.”

Brackets are determined by an average of height, age and skill level. The best players play in the elite divisions. Teams have one substitute player who can rotate in and out of the game freely. Games are played to 20, or are determined by who is winning after 25 minutes.

As is the case with most city streets, the dimensions and conditions of the courts vary. Yellow tape is used to signify out of bounds as well as the two-point line, but, no two courts are the same.

“Last year we had a manhole cover on the court,” Joe Bible, a sixth year volunteer court monitor says in between games. “Damn near four people died.”

On Saturday, teams typically play between two and three games. Teams that win two games automatically move on to Sunday. Teams that lose two games are eliminated. The elite level games are broadcast locally on television.

Players call their own fouls, with all foul calls resulting in free throws. Fouls can be a point of contention between teams, occasionally bringing out the worst in competing players.

“After a team lost I saw a pretty large man boot a ball about 20 stories in the air,” Eric, a fourth year player, says.

Volunteer court monitors oversee every individual court, making sure things never get too out of hand.

A variety of factors, ranging from mid-life crisis, to pride and of course the free t-shirt that winning teams walk away with, impact game intensity.

“This is gratifying,” Eric says after receiving a t-shirt for making it to the finals in his bracket. “It’s going to go on my trophy shelf next to my free throw trophy I won in my hometown 10 years ago.”

Center Court. Home to the Elite Divisions. Photo by Noah Perkins.
Center Court. Home to the Elite Divisions. Photo by Noah Perkins.

The landscape of pickup basketball was different in 1990 when Hoopfest was founded: AAU basketball wasn’t taking players away from outdoor summertime run; Sega was still nine years away from unveiling the first incarnation of NBA2K; and a strong enthusiasm for 3-3 tournaments existed.

“Three-on-three was a little more prevalent back then. You had the Gus Macker and the Hoop-it-up; the national travelling 3-3’s,” says Santangelo. “One of the Gentleman that started Hoopfest had played in a tournament in the D.C. area and in Seattle. He was really passionate about wanting to bring a 3-3 tournament back to Spokane, and more so wanting it to be in the downtown area. That’s really the secret to Hoopfest, that it’s not in a fairground or parking lot. It was really critical that he got to shut down streets and keep it in the core of the downtown area.”

Over 500 teams participated in the inaugural Hoopfest, making the event an immediate success. This year 7,000 teams participated.

Citing a study by Gonzaga University, Santangelo said that in 2014 Hoopfest had a $46 million economic impact on the city of Spokane.

“There are a lot of major metropolitan areas that have 3-3 events that don’t compare to what we do here in our little part of the world,” Santengelo says. “It’s our own version of basketball USA.”

Beyond the revenue that Hoopfest generates for Spokane is something fundamental to the human experience: connection and comradery.

“You have dads that have been playing in it for 20 years and now their kids are playing it. You have kids that grew up watching and now they are playing,” Santangelo says.

Mark Nonnemacher exemplifies this. His first Hoopfest was played with friends in 1991. For the past four years he has competed on a team with a nephew and his two grown sons.

The Nonnemacher’s have a hard time winning games. Because of how infrequently they see each other they rarely have time to play together during the year making it hard for them to fall into a rhythm on offense. Still, there is something special about a father competing with his sons.

“Dad’s like to give advice,” Mark says with a laugh in between games. “Son’s don’t like to take it.”

Noah Perkins

Noah has had articles published by a variety of publications including The Bangor Daily News; The NENPA Bulletin; and Monthly Basketball (Japan). His column ‘Heaven is a Playground’ has been featured on ESPN Radio. Noah was also called a “thirst troll” by Tom Arnold once.