After spending a year trying his hand at coaching, former Gonzaga basketball player Mike Hart is back in Spokane.
So what better time than to make his Hoopfest debut, which he did Saturday.
Hart joined forces with former Eastern Washington University players Marc Axton and Parker Kelly and Rob Lippman, a Northwest Christian standout by way of Northwest Nazarene University.
Kelly put the team together and got the law firm that his father, Terry Kelly, works at, Lee & Hayes, to sponsor them. Kelly lured Axton from the team that finished second in the men’s elite division a year ago.
“When Mike got back into town, he text me and asked if I was playing,” Kelly said. “It just so happened we needed a fourth player.”
Lee & Hayes won all three of their games Saturday and resumes play Sunday morning at Nike Center Court at 11:30.
Hart spent last year as an assistant coach at Colorado College, a Division III school in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“I would have played a long time ago but I had conflicts with camps and other things at Gonzaga,” Hart, 27, said. “I just love playing, love the competition and the fun behind it. I’ve wanted to play in Hoopfest for a long time.”
Hart and his girlfriend have decided to put down roots in Spokane. He’s looking for a job.
He considered returning to native Portland.
“I haven’t really been there for eight years and Portland is a lot different now,” he said. “It’s definitely more expensive to live there.”
At 6-foot-6, Hart bolsters a tall team. The 6-8 Lippman provides the physicality inside; 6-7 Axton can score inside and outside with a high release on 3-pointers that is difficult to defend; and the 6-4 Kelly has the perimeter range and ability to drive.
“I’m going to lean on their experience,” Hart said.
The team’s opener was on Stevens Avenue near the intersection with Spokane Falls Boulevard.
Axton liked that court better than the area used on Spokane Falls Boulevard last year.
“A lot fewer bumps,” Axton said.
The team shook off some rust in its opener and settled into a nice rhythm in their final two games Saturday.
Axton had the hot hand in the opener from 3-point range, hitting four. In the second game, Kelly caught fire, making five.
Hoopfest director Matt Santangelo said a final participant number won’t be available until play is complete. But he did say team entries were expected to be down.
Last year, Hoopfest drew just over 6,100 teams. By late this week, entries were just over 5,900.
The final number would fluctuate, Santangelo said, based on last-minute entries from a waiting list and last-minute withdrawals.
Santangelo thought there were a couple factors in fewer teams including the event being staged a week earlier than usual.
“I think construction downtown is part of it,” Santangelo said. “The long winter and bad spring impacted us and Bloomsday.”
An error made by Hoopfest staff, according to the team Eastside Root, gave them a big disadvantage on Saturday.
A typo that recorded one teammate’s 5-11 stature as 8-11 in Hoopfest’s system automatically took the team out of the 6-foot-and-under division and threw them on the courts with the big guys in the 6-foot-and-over group.
The mistake was irreversible, forcing Eastside Root to either play in the taller division or drop out of the tournament.
“We were bummed, but we figured we’re not just going to not play,” said Eastside Root’s Kingston Simon. “So (we decided) we’re going to come and see how we do.”
The group of 26-year-olds that range between 5-7 and 5-11 took down the 6-footers in both of their games on Saturday, beating their final opponents Kodiak Cakes 20-15. The win earned them a date with returning champion Bud Light at 9:30 a.m. on the No. 1 court at Stevens and Spokane Falls.
Karnowski’s Beard showed up on the Hoopfest courts on Saturday. No, not Przemek Karnowski’s well-known whiskers, although the former Gonzaga big man was spotted downtown checking out the games from the sidelines.
Four eight-year-old girls painted on brown beards and played under the team name Karnowski’s Beard.
Callie Gobble came up with the name for her team after being inspired by the star center that played at GU for five seasons (2012-2017).
Gobble said a couple of her teammates came up with Sparkle Cupcake as a potential team name, but she was able to convince them to take on the likeness of her favorite basketball player.
Gobble became a big fan of Karnowski because of his 7-1, 300-pound stature and his presence in the Kennel.
“He’s super tall and super tough,” Callie Gobble said.
Karnowski’s Beard was sent to the loser’s bracket after falling in their first game to Lil Sistas. They won one game and then lost another, ending their run in the tournament.
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