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Ralph Walter: Raising a glass to Hoopfest, Ken Hopkins and 60-year-old knees

UPDATED: Sun., June 30, 2019

Almost a decade after their initial Hoopfest meeting, Ken Hopkins’ KZZU basketball team and the Spokesman-Review’s Paper Boys square off in the late 1990s.
Almost a decade after their initial Hoopfest meeting, Ken Hopkins’ KZZU basketball team and the Spokesman-Review’s Paper Boys square off in the late 1990s.

I suppose I should have done more to train for Hoopfest than just get a haircut.

After all, I’m a month shy of 50, with knees closer to 60, and haven’t touched a basketball for as long as I can remember. (It’s probably fitting that I’m on a team called “Ballzheimers.”)

But hey, it’s Hoopfest weekend. Sometimes you have to risk injury – or even worse, ridicule – for the good of the team. In the end, when it comes to Hoopfest, it’s all worth it.

Every year, basketball junkies circle it on the calendar like a graduation party, or a summer vacation, or Christmas break. (Here’s hoping Santa brought me a new jump shot.)

At my house, out-of-town friends start arriving the Friday before the tournament – even when we’re not playing – and leave sometime before last call on Sunday. This year, I’m hosting a 51-year-old teammate who insists he’d be in the NBA today if he was 6-foot-8 (he’s only off by a foot and about 30 years) and a college basketball coach who promises to keep both of us hydrated throughout the weekend.

At this age, the Best Basketball Weekend on Earth isn’t even necessarily about basketball – and certainly shouldn’t be about winning or losing. It’s about friendships and memories, with a new chapter added each year to this never-ending Hoopfest story.

Over the past week, we’ve managed to capture plenty of these amazing stories. Among the highlights:

Last Sunday, John Blanchette took readers on a nostalgic journey back three decades to Hoopfest’s launch. Co-founders Rick Betts and Jerry Schmidt, among others, discussed the obstacles they faced in 1989 in trying to convince business leaders and in some cases, each other, the best way to build a tournament in the heart of downtown Spokane.

On Thursday, we told the story of Jeremy Weaver, one of just 45 players who has managed to play in every tournament. As longtime friends who hadn’t spoken much in recent years, I knew he had overcome lymphoma in 1997, but was stunned to learn he was now fighting off an aggressive skin cancer. “You have to have a strong will to play basketball and another one to live. I’m working hard at it,” he said. After years of losing to the competitive Weaver on the court, I have no doubts he’ll beat this.

On Friday, there was the tale of Native American hoops legend Jaci McCormack, a 37-year-old victim assistant coordinator for the Tulalip Tribe’s Prosecutor’s Office who grew up on the Nez Perce Reservation near Lewiston and played in Hoopfest as a kid. McCormack has returned this weekend as part of Nike’s native-inspired N7 Brand, and is working to help the next generation of Native Americans avoid violence and abuse as president of the Native American youth basketball program, Rise Above.

Today, we look back at Friday’s inaugural Spokane Hoops 3x3 World Invitational and ahead to the weekend’s elite games. Starting today, reporters and photographers will be dispatched throughout downtown to tell even more of your stories.

This is my third Hoopfest since becoming sports editor in 2017. Since then, we’ve written about some amazing basketball talents: NBA guard Tyler Johnson, who grew up on the streets of Hoopfest; overlooked Eastern Washington forward Matt Brunell, who smiled his way to an unlikely elite title; and legendary sharpshooting guard and poet Shann Ferch, who documented his own favorite Hoopfest memories in a hilarious essay.

Which leads me to one of my favorite basketball talents.

Ken Hopkins.

The first time I met Hopkins was in 1991. Fresh out of college, my brother sneaked me on a Spokesman-Review team that was competing in the media division, which at the time was a two-way battle between Hopkins’ KZZU Breakfast Boys team and a rugged bunch from KREM.

Somehow we managed to beat KREM and ended up facing Hopkins, whose quick feet, smooth moves and pretty jump shot made him nearly unguardable. Our demise came fairly quickly, and I remember Hopkins coming over afterward to console me about how our team actually scared him the most. We instantly became friends.

Truth be told, the legend of Hopkins – who I admired as a player – haunted me. Every year, I’d scan the S-R newsroom for somebody, anybody, who could stop him.

We finally did in 1994. And he was as gracious as ever.

Fast forward two decades. It was July of 2015 when I read on Facebook he’d been in a terrible biking accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down.

My heart sank. But I was afraid to call him. To this day, I’m not sure why.

Finally in 2017, I worked up the courage to reach out. We talked over coffee for a couple of hours, recalling old games and battles against different players. The conversation turned to how he’d moved on from basketball years earlier to take up cycling.

He talked about how life had changed since the accident, but that he was adjusting and doing well. In fact, he was about to head to Hawaii that weekend with his wife and was going to miss that year’s Hoopfest.

The previous year, though, he said he’d made it down to watch his son play.

“Somebody asked me, ‘Hey Ken, how are you doing?’ ” Hopkins recalled. “And I said, ‘You know what … I’m down here watching my kid play Hoopfest. How much better can it be?’ ”

Another reason it’s the Best Basketball Weekend on Earth.

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