The Bulls jersey makes me feel comfortable immediately. I walk downtown on the Centennial Trail behind a group of guys. One is wearing a red pinstripe jersey from the team that at the time had the best single-season record in NBA history. I’m from the Chicago suburbs, and even though I was just a twinkle in my mother’s eye during that ’96 season, and barely crawling for their last two championships (1997 and 1998), I still feel partially responsible for the Bulls’ lasting legacy.
I’m decked out, too. I just bought a Chicago Sky shirt and am proudly repping the most recent Chicago basketball champions. I walk past the group and notice that this guy is not wearing a Jordan jersey, or Rodman or Pippen. The name across his shoulders is Irving. Now, NBA superstar Kyrie Irving has never played for the Bulls. Irving is pretty controversial because he refused to get the Covid-19 vaccine. But he’s also one of the league’s best players. Right now, rumors are flying that Irving will be traded from the Nets to the Bulls. The Bulls finally made it back to the postseason this year but were eliminated in the first round by the Milwaukee Bucks. Someone already sporting a Bulls jersey with Irving’s name on it is just the kind of optimism and audacity that I am hoping to find at my first Hoopfest.
I’m here at the Inlander as a summer intern between semesters of grad school in Boston. (No, I was not rooting for the Celtics. I loved seeing the Bulls beat the Celtics in TD Garden last November.) This is my first time in Washington — I didn’t know how to pronounce Gonzaga, I’ve yet to taste a huckleberry, and before June I had never heard of Hoopfest.
My summer housemates were quick to explain their posters and show me footage of Kevin Durant on Spokane Falls Boulevard. So then, since I am a huge Jeremy Lin fan, I proceeded to comment on Instagram that he should come to Hoopfest, hoping that he would surprise everyone on center court the way Durant did. But Lin, it turns out, ignored me.
Nevertheless, maybe I do have a brush with fame. At one point in the afternoon, I am walking behind a shirtless athlete who’s carrying a black backpack and long dreads. A kid looks up, giggles and asks for a high five. A few steps later, another baller fist bumps him without breaking his stride. Down the block, a pudgy white dad says something congratulatory and grabs his hand. Does he know all these people? Is this the community just celebrating their shared love of the game? Or do all these people recognize him from the Elite division? Is this guy, like, gonna win the whole thing?
I just watched Hustle on Netflix so I scan the crowd for Adam Sandler, or whoever the actual person is who scouts for new NBA talent. I think of the scene when Sandler’s character, an downtrodden talent scout, sees his ticket to success playing street ball and parting the paint like the Red Sea. As people yield the sidewalk to the athlete in front of me, I imagine that I’m walking unknowingly behind the next “Bo Cruz.” It’s a bit far fetched, but this is what Hoopfest is doing to me.
Because at Hoopfest, everyone is balling. I play a mental game with myself, trying to spot actual players among the sea of spectators. But everyone is mixed together — athletes sleeping and eating and recharging under trees, fans shooting hoops at empty baskets between games, middle schoolers dribbling down the sidewalk, moms and dads and coaches sporting the same homemade jerseys I see on the courts. It’s a place to be seen by everyone, for everyone. You can wear anything that is vaguely “street.” One dude wears sweatpants and a bucket hat with wraparound sunglasses. Another is in a Space Jam jersey and goggles. One guy who looks like Pete Davidson in a Purple Rain T-shirt plays against a competitor in a flamingo polo with the sleeves cut off.
I wave hello to a coworker. He looks down at my white Adidas sneakers, then glances at my polyester shorts and WNBA shirt.
“Did you just play?”
I am so surprised. I have never played organized basketball in my life. When I was little, my brothers would hoop in the driveway and I’d beg to play. Eventually, they said I could shoot a free throw. If I missed, though, Cookie Monster would die. I missed. They laughed. I tried again. I’m pretty sure I killed every muppet on Sesame Street.
But I desperately want to tell my coworker that I played this morning. And that I won. Because I think he’d believe me. For a moment, I imagine I’m the untapped talent that Sandler the scout is searching for.
Hoopfest is infused with possibility. I see a 10 year old do a no-look behind-the-back bounce pass to a teammate, only to get the ball back and shoot a three over a kid twice his weight. When they finish playing, they’ll walk down the block to watch the elite athletes play, imagining themselves in their size 14 shoes. In the parking lot nearby, whoever wins the shooting competition will drive away in a Toyota Rav4. At this point, I’m so intoxicated with hope that I’m still thinking I might spot Jeremy Lin in the crowd.
But by now, my neck is burned, I’m overwhelmed by stimuli, and I’d like to get home before I have to pee in a port-a-potty again. So I decide to walk through Riverfront Park and cross the Washington Street bridge to pass some final afternoon games. On Spokane Falls Boulevard, a stray basketball careens out of bounds toward the parkway. The player who knocked it out doesn’t see the baby sitting in the grass. The mother, with some serious reflexes, turns at the last second and stops the ball inches from the baby’s face. She’s surprised, but not upset. She alley-oops it back to the player.
And therein lies the magic of Hoopfest. Everyone is transformed, even for a moment, into a hooper.
Article Source: Inlander