As the 2023 Hoop Shoot National Finalists stood at Wintrust Arena’s free throw line, they weren’t standing alone. Facing the net with them were also the hundreds of hours of practice, the countless free throws, the family and friends who practiced with them, and the perseverance that kept them going, even on their worst days.
The culmination of everything they had worked for was over in a 90-minute blink of an eye as the contest came and went on April 22. But it’s no doubt that many Finalists are already back at the free throw line, practicing in the hopes of making it back next year.
“The Hoop Shoot is in our blood,” says Faith Sjoberg, a member of the 2023 BackBoard, three-time Finalist, and a Legacy Award scholarship winner. “After I aged out, my parents joined the Elks to stay involved. The lessons you learn never leave you.”
When the families arrive at the Hilton Chicago, the Elks roll out the red (and blue) carpet. With the logo projected onto the wall, dozens of red, white, blue, and basketball-shaped balloons, and the smiling faces of Regional Directors and Hoop Shoot staff members, even in the 30-floor, 2-million square foot building, the Hoop Shoot is easy to find.
“When we get to Chicago, no one calls the kids competitors or participants, they call them champions,” says Nicole Goodelle, mother of four-time National Finalist Tommy, sponsored by Utica, N.Y., Lodge No. 33. “The amount of work that they put in to get to this point, it doesn’t matter if they come home with a trophy or not. They all win.”
Like every great athlete, the Hoop Shoot National Finalists each have their own trading card, complete with their photo, some quick stats, and a series of fun facts. The trading cards serve a dual purpose: to help the Finalists feel like the stars they are and to help them get to know each other.
Thursday night, the Finalists stopped giving out their trading cards to take a moment to give back. The ENF’s Community Investments Program joined forces with the Elks National Veterans Service Commission to host Hoop Shoot Assists, an event designed to connect Hoop Shoot attendees with the tenets of the Order, while providing support to Chicagoland veterans.
Within 25 minutes, the Hoop Shooters had filled 300 bags with snacks and supplies for veterans.
“We love finding ways to connect our programs,” says Youth Programs Manager Makenna Cannon. “The CIP gives back to Elk communities, the ENVSC serves veterans, and the Hoop Shoot helps instill lifelong skills in kids across the country. Hoop Shoot Assists lets the CIP and the ENVSC teach those kids the value of service.”
The day before the contest, nerves were high and the tension was palpable. After a final practice at a nearby gym, the Finalists and their families were able to decompress by exploring the city. To take the kids’ minds off the contest and, hopefully, tire them out so they could get a bit of sleep, the Elks hosted a FunFest at Soldier Field.
Guided tours took attendees behind the scenes of the NFL stadium, which is the home of the Chicago Bears. Guests got to visit the locker rooms, learn about the history of the stadium, and even take a step out onto the field itself, where the jumbotrons proudly cycled through the Finalists’ trading cards. Families sat in the stands, eagerly waiting to snap photos.
In less than 24 hours, families were doing the same thing at the Wintrust Arena—home of the WNBA Chicago Sky and the DePaul Blue Devils—as the Finalist trading cards flashed across the jumbotron, signaling their entrance to the arena.
In an arena built to seat 10,000, there is a void of sound. The smallest sneeze or the groan of a seat tenses up everyone in the stands. The only sounds are the soft footsteps as the Finalists approach the line, the dribble of the ball on the floor, and the swish—or occasional clang—of the ball.
Attendees are asked to hold their applause. Many hold their breath, too.
Starting with the 8- to 9-year-olds and then proceeding in age-group order, each round of the contest starts with the Finalists—boys on one end, girls on the other—taking some practice shots to find their rhythm and feel out a new space. Then, the court is cleared, the lights are dimmed, and the Finalists run onto the court like the superstars they are.
As every contestant steps to the line, they can take up to five practice shots before shooting for score. Every competitor in the age group takes 10 free throws and sits. After all 12 have shot, the Finalists return to the line in the same order to shoot the final 15, this time without practice shots.
Due to the long wait between turns, the 11th shot is pivotal.
“The 11th shot always got me,” says Hoop Shoot broadcaster Lakyn Boltz, the girls 8-9 champion in 2006 and a three-time Finalist. “My Dad used to keep stats on my 11th shot and could probably still tell you how often I missed.”
For at least three of this year’s Finalists, the 11th shot was no trouble at all. Armante Ventiquattro, sponsored by Boonville, N.Y., Lodge No. 2158; Tommy Goodelle; and Morgan Miehle, sponsored by Wheeling, W.V., Lodge No. 28 all captured Emile Brady awards by posting perfect scores to win the Boys 8-9, Boys 12-13, and Girls 12-13 divisions, respectively.
One other division, Girls 10-11, required a shootoff to resolve. All told, there were four shootoffs, with the longest going three rounds of five additional shots.
During that evening’s Awards Banquet, keynote speaker Sarah Spain spoke on the grit exhibited by famous athletes—and herself—and encouraged all the Finalists to leave the Windy City with their heads held high.
“As long as you tried your hardest, as long as you put in the work, you can look back and say, ‘I did right by myself and my family and my competitors,’” said Spain. “That is truly grit.”
Regardless of whether they left the Windy City with a trophy, all 72 of the National Finalists should go home feeling like champions.
The Elks have been unleashing gritty kids through the Hoop Shoot program for more than 50 years. For 2023-24, the Elks National Foundation allocated nearly $1.5 million to fund the program. For videos, news from the court, and more information about the Hoop Shoot, visit elks.org/hoopshoot.