“using basketball to make an impact in our city never really stops.”
Matt Santangelo has a vivid memory of his second Hoopfest as Executive Director of Spokane’s massive 3-on-3 basketball tournament.
“That 2015 year was unforgettable,” he says with a laugh. In addition to the effort leading the event, which sees 6,000+ teams and 3,000 volunteers, he decided to play in the open elite division. “That was the hot year, as we call it. At 102 degrees, Saturday had the hottest June day on record in Spokane. Then Sunday beat that record, at 105.”
He recalls one particular moment on that sweltering Sunday afternoon, resting with his wife Cathy and kids in the sponsor garden near Nike Center Court. He had a couple games to go on a surface that was nearing 200 degrees. He was sore — an all-time great point guard at Gonzaga, it had been nearly a decade since his pro career in Italy ended. He looked around at all the hoopla, with ESPN camera crews and on-air personalities in attendance. He thought about the sponsors and partners that each played their role. He reflected on the city-wide, highly successful effort to keep people safe and hydrated in the heat. And he wept.
“It took me by surprise,” he says. “I was like Jim Carey playing the Grinch, when he starts feeling emotions at the end: ‘I’m leaking! I’m leaking!’ But it was just this overwhelming culmination of looking around and saying, I can’t believe I get to be part of something that is so good for so many people. My wife asked me if I was ok, and I told her I believed they were tears of joy... like: this is my job?”
In some ways, that moment was a turning point for Santangelo. His squad lost in the finals 20-19, but he walked away more convinced than ever that Hoopfest — already the world’s largest 3-on-3 outdoor streetball tournament — could be elevated even further, and bring the entire city of Spokane with it. As point guard of a Gonzaga team that made its first Elite Eight and Sweet Sixteen appearances in 1999 and 2000, perhaps Santangelo has built an expectation that this is just what we do in Spokane: burst into the national consciousness, and stay there year in and year out, despite the odds.
The Spokane Hoops Association does far more than put on an annual event. Sure, they run Hoopfest, but they also run youth leagues and school outreach programs throughout the year, and they’ve built community basketball courts in 30 neighborhoods throughout the Spokane region. They’ve also donated more than $1.6 million to the Special Olympics and other local sports and educational nonprofits. Not bad, right?
“When people ask me what we do the other 51 weeks of the year, I just laugh,” Santangelo says. “The event itself is a massive undertaking of course, but using basketball to make an impact in our city never really stops.”
That’s why their team is championing a new citywide brand, Hooptown USA [HooptownUSA.com]. The brand draws new connections and creates identity around the iconic game Spokane is known for nationally — Gonzaga’s incredible success and Hoopfest — as well as the lesser known movements that happen on the streets and in gyms all over the region.
“We have Gonzaga on the national stage. We have Hoopfest, which completely takes over the city and draws teams from around the nation. But we also had six high school teams from Eastern Washington competing in state championship games this year. We have a couple thousand families involved in our AAU program. We have rural communities who live and breathe basketball — the State B tournament in Spokane is something to behold. We care a crazy amount about basketball. You add it all up, and that’s why Spokane is Hooptown USA.”
For Santangelo, Hooptown USA is about the grassroots energy and collaboration surrounding basketball — without an NBA team in the region, there’s no top-down organization, so there seems to be an unspoken agreement that everyone has a role to play in developing the game locally. Even deeper, it’s about elevating basketball from a sport to an art — a form of expression that brings people together.
“I love the openness and community of basketball, and Hoopfest embodies that every year. It doesn’t matter your gender, age, ethnicity, socio-economic background, or skill level. You’re invited to join in and be part of it. Hooptown USA is extending that idea and creating a year-long conversation.”
The idea for broadening the brand came from a specific request: the city of Spokane was planning to redevelop its crown jewel Riverfront Park, so they approached Santangelo and the Hoopfest board with the idea of sponsoring a branded Hoopfest basketball court. Like the point guard he is, Santangelo saw an opportunity to make a creative play, setting up his team for a slam dunk.
“We not only wanted to sponsor it, we wanted to own the project,” he says. “Just like the iconic Bloomsday runner sculptures, this was our chance to make a permanent mark on Spokane’s culture and keep building the relationship between basketball and the city.”
While planning that court as a state-of-the-art monument, the Hooptown USA initiative was born. Plans include establishing a Spokane Basketball Hall of Fame, expanding programming across the community, and empowering neighborhoods to revitalize the existing Hoopfest courts, each with a custom design and paint job that reflects the character of the neighborhood. By mixing professional designers with community input, and literally putting paint brushes in neighbors’ hands, Santangelo and Hoopfest aren’t kidding around about mixing basketball and creativity.
“Basketball is our art. It’s a beautiful game when it is played well on the court. But the way it brings the community together is even better.”
That beauty is why the tears were running down Santangelo’s face at Hoopfest 2015. As his team and their community partners continue to build on Spokane’s identity as Hooptown USA, there is plenty more beauty to come.
photos courtesy of Hoopfest