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HoopsFest celebrates 20th anniversary

BILOXI — A proposal that began as a novel idea celebrated its 20th anniversary here over the weekend.

The annual HoopsFest once again took place at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum on Saturday, just as it has done for most of the past two decades. Saturday’s installment featured eight games with 16 teams from two states as well as a 3-point shootout and slam dunk contest.

That’s quite a big jump from its origins in 1995, an event that involved just three games. The event has grown into one of the most prestigious prep basketball showcase in the state.

“Jay Ladner (then head coach at St. Stanislaus) and I kind of had this idea to do something big at the Coliseum and get our local teams involved so the kids could experience playing at a big arena,” Gulfport High Athletics Director Bryan Caldwell, who was the head basketball coach of the Admirals in the 1990’s, said. “Jay had a friend that worked at the coliseum, and got us a meeting with (Executive Director) Bill Holmes. If it wasn’t for the cooperation of Bill and (assistant director) Matt McDonnell over the years, this would never have evolved like it has.”

As the event began to enjoy some success, the word began to spread throughout the prep hoops ranks and has gotten to the point where these days many teams are turned down for the event because of its popularity.

“Everyone wants to play in it these days, it’s become a pretty big deal,” Ladner, now the head coach at Jones Junior College said. “We’ve had a lot of big names and some really great teams from across the South involved in HoopsFest over the years. It is something the players are always excited about.”

The list of major players over the years is lengthy, but includes Picayune’s Jonathan Bender, Monta Ellis of Jackson Lanier, and Biloxi’s Ronald Dupree. Those are a few of the players that participated in HoopsFest that went on to play in the National Basketball Association. Duke standout Rodney Hood of Meridian and current Jackson Callaway star Malik Newman also have displayed their wares on the Coliseum court. Other Picayune players played in the event and went on to enjoy success on the collegiate level include Dino Hair, Brandon Fortenberry, Eric Vianney and Dedrea Magee.

Billy Hamilton of Taylorsville, who set a professional baseball record for stolen bases in a season last year for AA Pensacola, played in the HoopsFest before moving on to his pro career.

Saturday’s big name was Moss Point standout and Kentucky signee Devin Booker.

“I never imagined it would still be here 20 years later, but it has proven to be one of our most successful annual events,” McDonnell added. “We do it for the kids. They enjoy playing here in a big time atmosphere. For some that never win a championship or even make the playoffs, playing in the Coast Coliseum at HoopsFest can be one of the highlights of their career.”

The event has been played at the Coast Coliseum for 19 of its 20 years, with the only exception being in 2006 just months after Hurricane Katrina filled the venue with seven feet of water.

That year, Gulfport High hosted the event and all of the proceeds were donated to the Pass Christian and St. Stanislaus basketball teams to replace equipment that was lost in the storm.

In 2003, Hoopsfest was played over a two day span and included a college game between Southern Mississippi and Houston.

McDonnell said he’s not sure if it will be around for another 20 years, but he sees a strong future ahead for the prestigious event.

“We don’t plan on stopping,” he concluded. “It has become a part of the fabric of basketball in South Mississippi over the past two decades.”