PHOENIX — For eight years, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame has brought some of the nation’s premier high school basketball programs to the Valley for a full day of basketball against Arizona’s top teams. This year, the hall organized an all-Arizona affair because of the pandemic.
Lexi McNabb, a junior at Seton Catholic Preparatory in Mesa and a combo-guard on the girls basketball team, competed in HoopHall West for the first time in February.
“It was honestly really fun,” she said. “I’ve always gone to HoopHall games since I’ve been in high school – boys and girls – watching some of my friends play in them. So, the fact that we had the opportunity to be in line this year was really fun and a really big deal.”
McNabb’s team, the defending state 4A champions, are 16-1 this year with their eyes on another title. Her 14-point performance at HoopHall West led the Sentinels to a 46-29 win over 6A power Pinnacle High School. The opponent made the game big enough, but the Hall of Fame name made it special.
“Everybody getting T-shirts and towels and the whole big setup with the videos and everything, that was honestly so much fun,” McNabb said. “That was one thing (that) definitely made us really excited about the game.”
The giveaways were just some of things the Hall of Fame did to make sure the event wasn’t just another gameday. Participants got branded merchandise, the gyms were lined with event posters and the games were promoted to the Hall of Fame’s more than 74,000 twitter followers.
Seton Catholic coach Karen Self said it’s the little things that set this year’s event apart from others.
“Just having some girls teams involved, to me, is really important,” she said. “I like how much they promote the event. I like how much care they put into making it special for the kids.”
“Reimagined” is how Hall of Fame organizers described its new format. In past years, it was about bringing notable out-of-state teams with Division I prospects to the Valley to face Arizona’s best. When the Arizona Interscholastic Association barred out-of-state competition because of the pandemic, the Hall of Fame looked inward and scheduled marquee matchups between highly-ranked Arizona teams like Pinnacle and Seton Catholic.
Greg Procino, who directs basketball operations for the Hall of Fame, said putting HoopHall West together wasn’t easy considering the AIA’s season rules and the liability of hosting the event.
“We don’t want to be the super-spreader news event,” he said. “So what are the protocols in place to make these games as safe as possible?”
In accordance with the AIA and local mandates, players, coaches, staff and spectators wore masks at all times. Social distancing was enforced and attendance was limited. Instead of broadcasts on ESPN, the Hall of Fame turned to Synergy Sports to run live streams on Twitch.
This wasn’t the first Hall of Fame event that took a new form. In late November, they organized a 40-game “Bubbleville” at the Mohegan Sun Resort and Casino in Uncasville, Connecticut. Thirty-seven Division I men’s and women’s teams played in a series of non-conference, neutral site games. Arizona State’s men’s team started its season there, beating Rhode Island and losing to tenth-ranked Villanova.
Bubbleville served as a template for live sports events amid the pandemic. Procino called it a “massive undertaking.”
“We lived in the trenches, in the weeds on that level for two weeks, and learned quite a bit about the medical and protocol side of things to operate an event like that safely,” he said.
Procino said the Hall of Fame wasn’t dictating protocol on its own, but organizers did take a proactive approach to ensure there were safety protocols in place. If there are going to be sporting events during the pandemic, especially ones that involve amateurs, it needs to be done safely.
“We did have that lens on because that’s bigger than basketball, it’s bigger than high school sports. It’s what’s best for the area,” Procino said.
The Hall of Fame is in Springfield, Massachusetts – where the game was invented – so officials relied on the Phoenix public relations firm Position Sports and other local partners to make gameday events go smoothly, Procino said.
Matt Mayo, assistant principal for athletics at St. Mary’s Catholic High School in Phoenix, said the collaborative efforts made for a successful event this year.
“They come in, everything is staged, everything’s ready to go,” Mayo said. “We pretty much just show up and we play the game and we try to be gracious hosts.”
St. Mary’s was supposed to face powerhouse programs Pace Academy of Atlanta and Oakland’s Bishop O’Dowd. Those matchups were swapped out for Sunnyslope and cross-city rival Brophy College Prep. Mayo said the change in opponent didn’t take anything away from the fun.
“Playing Brophy is … it could’ve been in the parking lot, it would have been a huge game for us.”
Even without the typical fanfare of the Uptown bout, Mayo said playing a traditional rival in a showcase event format made for a unique dynamic.
“If anything, I think the feeling of familiarity with the teams that we played kind of helped them focus even a little bit more,” he said. “If you have a team coming in from Georgia, you’re going to be able to see their statistics and see what kind of players they have on their team, but you don’t necessarily have that personal knowledge of the team that you’re playing.”
St. Mary’s met the moment against Brophy. Junior Jeremiah Cherry posted a double-double, scoring 15 points and snagging 12 rebounds in the 59-54 win. Senior Keiren Brown hit two big threes — including the go-ahead bucket.
Mayo said the team was excited about playing in the event, albeit an altered format. The HoopHall name raised the profile of an already meaningful matchup.
“I think they still saw these games as being big games,” Mayo said. “They were excited to be able to showcase what we can do.”
Rave reviews from the people on the ground have meant a lot to Procino. He attributes the Hall of Fame’s continued presence in Arizona to well-established relationships with the local basketball community. Those started with former Phoenix Suns general manager Jerry Colangelo, who organized fundraising for the hall.
“That led us to Phoenix and then became a college event, HoopHall West and a golf outing,” Procino said. “So now we’ve gone from one to two to three (events) over a six- or seven-year period that are all geared toward different audiences.”
Organizing games at the grassroots level connects the Hall of Fame to the sport as it’s played now. This is important for an institution that’s seen as the curator of the game’s history.
Procino said adding more in-state matchups to HoopHall West deepens the Hall of Fame’s investment in the area. It’s the one change they had to make this year which he wants to continue.
“The game of basketball is very young, it’s very diverse; we need to become more relevant at all levels of the game,” he said. “This event falls in line with our strategy about promoting the Hall of Fame brand in other places.”
For players like Lexi McNabb, it’s all about the chance to compete with the best.
“The opportunity for our team to get to play someone who is looked at as the better team and have the opportunity to beat them, it really means a lot,” she said.
Next season, HoopHall West plans to return to its pre-COVID model, where fans watch the nation’s best in person. If everything goes as planned, McNabb and the Sentinels will be back to compete again. It is scheduled for Dec. 8-11, 2021.