‘This is truly a dream job’: Riley Stockton, who sneaked onto the Hoopfest pitch at age 6, gears up for first time as executive director

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Quite clearly, Stockton’s name is synonymous with basketball in Spokane.

One of them, Riley Stockton, ventured across the Cascade Mountains over the last decade to go to college, play a few hurdles and start a career. But he’s back as the executive director of Hoopfest and is thrilled.

“I am a Spokane child and grew up in this organization,” he said in April, only three months on the job. “I played at AAU and played at Hoopfest since kindergarten.

“This is truly a dream job.”

Riley’s older brother Shawn plays in Montana and is part of the state championship team at Ferris High School. Another brother, Steve Jr., played in Whitworth.

Riley’s uncle, John, was patriarch, having played in Gonzaga prior to his National Basketball Association Hall of Fame career with the Utah Jazz. His sons, David and Michael, played collegially at Gonzaga and Westminster College respectively, and David is currently playing professionally. Another of John’s sons, Houston, plays football in Montana.

And like her brothers and cousins, Riley grew up on the streets of Spokane at Hoopfest. He played in the tournament for 14 years, the first time as a child under the age of 6. The most recent came as a college graduate when he played with his brothers in 2019. In round eight, David was his teammate, then Riley had to take a break while playing college basketball at Seattle Pacific University.

“Funny, I’ve only ever played with family members at Hoopfest,” he laughed, saying he’d be too busy this year to play in it. “This year will be different, but I’m looking forward to it.”

He remembered his first Hoopfest, with its trial on Main Street in front of the now-defunct Rocky Rococo pizzeria. He was only six years old.

“I was a bit of a chubby kid when I first started out, so I looked a little older,” he recalls. “One woman shouted, ‘Where’s the birth certificate,’ because she thought I was too old. My mom had it, and said, ‘He’s six!’”

His experience at Hoopfest – and not to mention his basketball wit and last name – made him a natural fit for Hoopfest. And for other reasons too.

“The addition of Riley has been a huge win for us,” said Rick Betts, the show’s co-founder and now chairman of the Hoopfest board of directors. “He’s definitely a basketball player, but you also need someone who will come in every day all day and work hard. You really only see the results of two days of hard work throughout the year. Maybe a lot of people think we light it up in May to get ready for Hoopfest, but they don’t know that it’s such a huge undertaking for 12 months of the year.

“He brings a lot of passion, hard work and skill.”

Grant Leep spent four seasons as an assistant coach at Eastern Washington University, and his wife, Allison, worked at KXLY TV. Later, as an assistant coach at Seattle Pacific University, he developed strong relationships during Stockton’s playing career there. Leep is now the head coach of SPU.

“We were in Spokane for six years, so we understood the magnitude of Hoopfest and how great it was,” said Leep. “Now, having an SPU graduate in charge of it all is pretty cool. It’s the collision of two worlds I’ve ever been in.

“He will approach the job in the same way and with the same mentality as he had as a player,” he said. “Every day he gives us the best he can and finds ways to be productive. There’s a toughness that goes with the family, and he’s doing everything he can to live up to that reputation.”

Taking over from Matt Santangelo in January 2022 – after Hoopfest was canceled in 2020 and 2021 – Stockton started operations. In her first month, she worked with the board and staff on policies moving forward – particularly how the organization would handle refunds in the future.

Right after he started his new job, he also had to endure the public’s anger over his uncle’s well-publicized anti-vaccination opinion. He ignores it, and respects that everyone is entitled to their own views.

“He has been very good to me throughout my life – he coached me and guided me through things,” he explained. “I wouldn’t be in this chair without him. I try to avoid the topic and it’s hard to talk about, but I know people have different views. In the end he is still my uncle.”

Like his brothers, Riley starred in Ferris High School before crafting his own sensational college career in the Cascade Mountains of the Seattle Pacific. In four years there from 2011-2014, the Falcons recorded a remarkable 100-26 record under head coach Ryan Looney and Leep as assistants. And Riley played in all 126 of those games and finished as the most winning player in SPU history.

Stockton had to choose between football or basketball to play in college. Playing for Gonzaga is out of reach, he admits, and he has an interest from the Big Sky Conference school. However, when SPU offered him a scholarship, he immediately took advantage of the opportunity.

“It was 1,000 percent the best decision I made in my life,” he says now. “That kind of got me into this, to be honest, so I’m happy with that.”

Not without blood, sweat and tears. And Leep best remembers his share of blood during training situations when he was on the same scouting team as Stockton during his rise to the starting position at SPU.

“He put the ball in and kicked it out, then he backpedaled when I went in for the rebound,” explained Leep. “The back of his head hit my nose – it went in a different direction and blood was flowing everywhere. You can just laugh and say, ‘Well, that’s what happened.’”

The fact that Stockton played 4,054 career minutes – the most in the program’s 71-year history – testifies to his resilience. He started the last 100 matches of his career, with SPU winning 80 of them. Overall, the Falcons are 85-23 in 108 total games with Stockton starting.

“We are very successful – we prioritize winning at everything in life,” he said. “School, training, playing and even relationships are all about how you can get better. We had a lot of competitive people involved and it all worked out.”

He has 904 career total points, but he improved as a rebounder (737) and a passer (444 assists) to rank eighth all-time in the GNAC in both categories. He also has 155 steals and 50 blocked shots. At 6-foot-4, Stockton is the shortest player to ever lead the league in rebounds.

“It’s all about winning and doing what the team needs,” said Leep, who took over as head coach on May 3, 2016, when Looney left for Idaho State. “What a great set of traits he has brought to his career – he does whatever it takes to make sure the job is not only done, but completed successfully and at a very high level.”

Stockton was the 2015 Northern Athletics Conference Best Male Scholar Athlete, ending a career filled with honor. In 2013 and 2015 he was the GNAC Defense Player of the Year, and earned his first All-GNAC team honor as a senior when he averaged 10.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists.

Stockton has a grade point average of 3.84 in college, and knows the awards and victories come as a result of having a team of players all on the same page. “They always sign like-minded players who care as much about the school as they care about the ring,” he said.

His victories were certainly plentiful, and his career started off fairly innocently on October 27, 2011, when the SPU beat 16th-ranked Arizona 69-68 in an exhibition game. Stockton had four points and two rebounds in 28 minutes as the Falcons stunned the Wildcats team that reached the Elite Eight of the previous year’s NCAA Tournament.

In 2012 and 2013, the Falcons won two national tournament games, but both seasons have ended in defeats to West Washington.

As seniors, SPU advanced to the NCAA Division II Playoffs for the 11th year in a row, qualifying when their backs hit the wall. The Falcons won both of their games in the Great Northwest Territory Tournament – ​​including a win over arch-rivals West Washington in the title game.

“We were led by Riley of course — the team got together at the right time,” Leep recalls. “He was able to step up and be himself and his natural leader. He took us on, and it really never was with his score. He can take charge and contribute to the game in many other ways with his defense and ability to rebound. He’s never been the best shooter in the world, but hang on, if there’s a big shot to go, Riley will make it. He was everything the team needed and the moment it needed.”

Seattle Pacific opened the national tournament with an 81-69 win over BYU-Hawaii before being knocked out. Stockton’s career ended on March 14, 2015, with a one-point loss to Cal Baptist in which he scored 15 points, eight assists, two steals and two rebounds. And, oh yeah, he played 38 out of 40 minutes.

“What I really want to do is stay on the pitch – there’s nothing better than playing 36 or 38 minutes in a game,” he said. “I also play with great players, so I don’t need to score as many goals. I know who has to get the ball and who I have to defend against.”

Staying on the pitch, he does, and it adds a ton of respect from Leep that will last a lifetime.

“It’s funny how the relationship developed with the coach in recruitment, then coached him and now really just supports him and thinks of him as a friend,” he said of his relationship with Stockton.

Apart from playing for two years professionally in Spain, Stockton remained in Seattle to carry out his business administration degree from SPU. With a management and marketing specialization, he worked for the Special Olympics Washington in operations and logistics.

He helped the organization host the USA Games in 2018, then became director of sports development for the company from August 2018 to January 2022. He then took over from Matt Santangelo as leader of Hoopfest, landing his dream job back home.

“He’s probably played at more Hoopfests than he can count. Now being in charge of all of that is a pretty cool role for him,” Leep said proudly.

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