SALEM, Ore. — Evina Westbrook has the keys to a castle. Make that a basketball castle.
It’s not unusual to find Westbrook at The Hoop working on her game day or night. Imagine for a moment having six basketball courts to yourself, alone with your thoughts and the sound of a leather ball bouncing off the hardwood. It’s music to the ears for Westbrook, a senior at South Salem High School with back-to-back Class 6A state championships on her resume.
“It feels like my own kingdom and I have a key to open those doors,” Westbrook said. “I think the latest I came in here was 1 in the morning. It’s nice for me. I put the music on and it’s me and The Hoop.”
She has a key to the facility, courtesy of owner and operator Price Johnson, which comes in handy after hours if you want more gym time.
The Hoop in Salem is a full fitness center, reported the Statesman Journal (http://stjr.nl/2cmqEx4). It is rented for various activities including volleyball, roller skating and wedding receptions, but “our niche is basketball,” Johnson said.
Westbrook is among a select few who have key privileges, and that’s because she has earned Johnson’s trust. She also happens to be one of the premier high school guards in the nation.
“The only reason they have that key is because they’re part of my basketball family,” Johnson said. “They’re coming in here for a reason, to get work done.”
There are times when Westbrook “can’t go back to sleep,” and has basketball on her mind, so she drives to The Hoop. On other occasions the impulse for more basketball work arrives at 5 a.m.
On those early morning solo excursions to The Hoop, Westbrook works on fundamentals she learned through the years from Johnson, such as shooting drills, and dribbling the basketball between orange cones and through the rungs of a ladder placed horizontally on the court.
Westbrook has been coming to The Hoop since she was in third grade and calls it “a home away from home.”
Next year at this time she will have another home. Westbrook has narrowed her college scholarship offers down to Maryland, Notre Dame, South Carolina, Tennessee, USC and Oregon State, which advanced to the Women’s Final Four last season.
Wherever Westbrook continues her basketball career, she will have fond memories of The Hoop.
“It’s a safe place for me that I always come to. There’s no worries in here. There’s no problems in here,” she said. “When you walk out the door it’s like real life.”
A FAMILY-RUN BUSINESS
When youth basketball members arrive at The Hoop, they are typically greeted at the front door by Johnson, a man who has dedicated most of his life to the game.
It’s a family-run business.
Price’s oldest son, James, is director of operations. Younger son Dane is director of coaching and player development. Both men played college basketball – James at Western Carolina and Dane at Portland State. Price’s wife, Julianne, runs the front desk and café.
The Hoop is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, but its doors were closed three times in the first 10 years. So what’s been the key to sustained success under Johnson?
“Because we’re a family business,” said Johnson, 60, who was born in Portland and grew up in Seattle. He was named after Texas governor Price Daniels.
“All three (previous) owners never ran it themselves,” Johnson said. “They had other people run it for them, and they weren’t here all the time. I’m here all the time.”
So are many of the approximately 150-plus youth basketball members at The Hoop.
AN AFTER-SCHOOL DESTINATION
On the first day of school for most high school students in the Mid-Valley, players from South Salem, Sprague, West Salem, Blanchet, Regis, Salem Academy, Silverton, Stayton, Western Mennonite and Woodburn showed up after school to play ball.
“It’s been a fun, safe place for me to be, especially in the summers,” said Ryan Stebner, a sophomore at Blanchet. “You’re always in here, you’re doing the right thing, working on yourself, becoming a better man. They promote that, build your character.”
And character matters to Price Johnson.
Sure, he wants youngsters to feel at home at The Hoop and he prides himself on “knowing every kid’s first name when they walk in.” He also expects them to respect others and have pride in the facility.
“Come here, get better, meet new friends, be a good person and don’t be a knucklehead,” Johnson said.
Stebner’s mother, Mari, appreciates that The Hoop teaches life lessons beyond basketball.
“If we have a tournament and they’re playing in the last game, (Price) wants them to help clean up so they kind of have ownership in the place,” she said. “As a teacher, I know how important that is in character development.”
A SERIOUS COMMITMENT
The Hoop youth basketball program, which is available for students in second grade through high school, isn’t for everyone. We’re talking about serious players with serious goals, whether it’s to make the middle or high school team, or play in college and beyond.
There’s a financial investment. For $125 per month, youth basketball members receive an after-school program, camps, clinics, personal workouts with coaches, leagues and tournaments. Scholarships are available based on financial need. Adult memberships are $20 a month.
South Salem sophomore Jaden Nielsen-Skinner is on scholarship at The Hoop, but he helps finance his membership by working at basketball camps and tournaments.
Nielsen-Skinner is in the basketball junkie category. Before his freshman year at South Salem, he spent the previous two school years in a K-12 online program, often doing classwork at The Hoop so he could devote more time to the game.
“I’d come in at like 6 in the morning, do (school work) on the computer and go straight to the gym,” said Nielsen-Skinner, a starting point guard last season for the Saxons, who placed third in the state tournament.
The Hoop has been a major part of his life since he was 10. He hopes the hours in the gym will lead to a college scholarship.
“His basketball career is owed to Price and Dane and James because they’ve mentored him and taken him all over the United States to tournaments and things like that,” said Jaden’s mother, Kelli Nielsen. “He wouldn’t be where he is without The Hoop.”
James Johnson said 76 former players from The Hoop played college basketball at some level last season.
Of course, being part of The Hoop does not guarantee college basketball opportunities. It gets more difficult to make teams at every level of competition, and only the best of the best, like Westbrook, receive major college scholarship offers.
“Even though it’s a for-profit, it’s a community center,” James Johnson said. “There’s some kids that have benefited just because it’s a place to go. There’s a lot of broken-home kids that we deal with, single parent, live with their grandparents, that kind of thing. It kind of gives them a place to stay out of trouble.”
The busiest times are March, April, May and June, after the winter basketball season ends, and during the summer months. The Hoop also offers a September-October program that helps students prepare for tryouts at their schools.
The high school basketball season begins in November, which makes it more difficult for players to spend much time at The Hoop since they’re practicing and playing in games for their school teams.
“In the off-season, we encourage our kids to be involved in playing and that’s been a good place,” South Salem girls basketball coach Nick McWilliams said. “Not only for our kids, but kids from all over the area.”
Blanchet sophomore RJ Veliz said The Hoop youth basketball members share a common goal.
“It’s for the guys that want to become the best basketball players,” he said.
Regis sophomore Kirsten Koehnke has been coming to The Hoop regularly since seventh grade. There was a time when she didn’t feel her game measured up to the other players, but those days have long since passed.
Koehnke said Price Johnson worked on her shot mechanics with positive results.
“I just wasn’t that good, and he totally changed my game over a couple of years,” she said.
Price Johnson enjoys being a part of those success stories. Although he never made it past high school as a player, Johnson got involved in youth coaching in high school “and I’ve been coaching ever since.”
“This is what I truly believe about basketball,” Johnson said. “If you give basketball everything you can, it’ll give something back to you.”
Information from: Statesman Journal, http://www.statesmanjournal.com