If you want to call these NBA Finals a classic, be my guest. Just don't call it the biggest or best basketball event in June. That honor goes to the Spokane Hoopfest, a 3-on-3 extravaganza that takes over that old cowboy town for one weekend, June 28 and 29. Created in 1990, the spectacle now features 13,000 games between 6,000 teams made up of 25,000 players, most playing for nothing more than a "Champion" tee. Balls bounce everywhere as Kanye cuts rock the asphalt. It's a sun-drenched carnival for self-formed teams of pee-wees, teens and dads trying to reconnect with their inner J—all sorted into 16-team brackets so there will be lots of winners. The NBA Finals may bring the glitz, but Hoopfest delivers the grassroots.
And that, in the end, is what basketball needs above all else. Around the nation that invented the game, participation levels have dropped over the past decade, brought on largely by a decline in pickup ball. Casual play, frequent play, loyalty to the game, first-year players … all down, according to industry surveys. Organized comp on the AAU and high school circuit has grown but in driveways and gyms of the America where full rides aren't chased, fewer kids are lacing 'em up and letting 'em rip. That's not a good trend for a country fighting the worst obesity rates in the developed world.
David Stern knows the youth game needs fixing. That's one reason the Commish hooked up with NCAA president Myles Brand at this year's Final Four to announce an initiative to "reach and benefit" everyone in hoopsnation. Their plan is to drop $50 million over the next five years to get the project up and running—hardly chump change—by starting a coaches' certification program, building a must-visit website for the roundball community and laying down standards for tournaments. All good, except for one thing: the yet-to-be-named venture is set up as a business. As with any company, the goal is to exploit a market for the financial benefit of its shareholders.
Look, there's nothing wrong with making money. And I'm sure the new company will make plenty of it, extracting fees from tourney organizers, volunteer coaches and, ultimately, kids. But the last thing the basketball landscape needs is another opportunist selling pans used to hunt for scholarship and NBA gold, further driving up the costs on what should be the cheapest game to play. It would have been better to set up the operation as a nonprofit—like Hoopfest and (ironically) the NCAA—with the simple goal of stoking participation in every form of the game. After all, that's where the next generation of fans, the folks the NBA is hoping will pay $100 a ticket, is going to come from.
It's telling that the biggest basketball event in America is held in the same state that's about to lose its NBA team after four decades. Miffed that taxpayers wouldn't give in to demands by the owners of the Seattle Sonics to build the club a new playpen to replace the intimate-if-sufficient Key Arena, Stern has endorsed the proposed move to Oklahoma City. "Bad public policy," is what he calls such civic stubbornness, which has led to an effort by the club owners to break the team's lease with the city, an issue that's now before a judge in a trial scheduled to wrap up later this month. Stern fails to realize that the good people of Rain City, by keeping their priorities straight, are actually helping to save basketball. They'd rather fund schools, parks and gyms, places where a kid can fall in love with, and take refuge in, the game.
I lived in Seattle for 10 years, for a while covering the NBA for a local daily. I was also a Big Brother to a kid. On the surface, we didn't have a whole lot in common: me white, him black; me in my late 20s, him in middle school; me from Miami, him from Seattle. At first, we didn't have a lot to talk about. We did have hoops, though. I'd pick him up once a week and we'd go to play ball on one of the many public courts around town. (Seattle isn't like Baltimore, where most rec centers have been shuttered since the early '90s). I don't want to oversell what he was up against or my role in his development—his mother is a remarkable woman—but he went on to graduate from high school and then Howard University. He got married, bought a home and became a model father. He's a fine American citizen. And, guess what, he's now a producer on Charles Barkley's TV show, making Stern's league sparkle on a nightly basis.
The point is, the broader we define our self interests, the better off we all are. For the NBA, that means creating conditions that allow America's favorite pickup game to thrive. It means leaving cash-strapped municipalities alone to take care of critical needs, rather than demanding corporate welfare for owners of underperforming franchises. It means plowing any profits made at the grassroots level into public infrastructure, like Hoopfest, which has built more than $1 million worth of courts in the Spokane area. It means simply putting a ball in a kid's hands—the equivalent of dropping a seed into rich soil—and seeing what comes up in due time. In recent years, Seattle has delivered rising amounts of NBA talent (Brandon Roy and Aaron Brooks among others) and become a recruiting hotbed for college coaches. That is no coincidence. Nor is the fact that most of Hoopfest's signups come from in-state, where the grassroots are for the most part healthy. And serving the common good.
Stern, a Democrat, should take a look at the leading member of his party, First Baller Barack Obama, and see what a little pickup hoops can lead to.
Tom Farrey, a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine and ESPN television correspondent, explores the relationship between youth and pro sports in "Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children" (ESPN Books). Click here to learn more about the book, which was published in May.