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The perfect basketball shot on repeat sends Tigard's Graham Oelke to Massachusetts

Tigard's 13-year-old Graham Oelke heads to the East Coast next month after winning regionals for the Elks National Hoop Shoot competition


TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Graham Oelke, 13, a seventh-grader at St. Anthony Catholic School, shoots a free throw at his home in Tigard. Oelke will compete in the Hoop Shoot National Finals in Springfield, Mass. on April 18.Graham Oelke didn’t think he’d win his school’s free throw competition. He didn’t think he’d win the city competition, either. And he definitely didn’t think he’d win district. He most certainly didn’t expect to at win at regionals.

But he did. He won them all.

Graham, a 13-year-old St. Anthony Catholic seventh-grader, is now a participant in the Elks National Hoop Shoot a competition that sends regional winners and their parents from around the country to Massachusetts for nationals, and to tour the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Sponsored by the Sherwood Robin Hood Elks Lodge, he’s their first participant to make it. Ever. But talking to Graham, you’d have no idea how big this is.

“There were a lot of good shooters there,” he said of the March Regional competition. A lot of good shooters, and in his 12/13 boys age bracket — where he competed against boys from Idaho, Alaska and Washington — he made 24 out of 25 free throws. At nationals next month, he’ll compete against 11 other boys, with the winner getting his name placed in the Hall of Fame.

Regionals and the other competition rounds are divided into age brackets of 8/9, 10/11 and 12/13, each separated into boys and girls divisons. At regionals, four participants from each division shot, with each taking turns shooting 10 free throws in a row before going back through the lineup and shooting 15 more. And it’s not as if there wasn’t pressure.

“This is a competition where there’s total silence in the gym,” said Debi Whitmore, Sherwood Chairman for the Elks National Foundation Hoop Shoot. “If you make noise, you’re asked to leave. All eyes are on the kids when they’re shooting.”

Just as Graham is nonchalant about his winning, however, he’s nonchalant about the whole experience. What it all came down to, he said, was that he never really thought he was going to win. When asked if he thought he’d make it this far, his response was a scoff and a smile. TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Graham Oelke, 13, a seventh-grader at St. Anthony Catholic School, will compete in the Hoop Shoot National Finals in Springfield, Mass. on April 18.

It all started in P.E. class at school, when his teacher, Julie Sieg, announced that they’d be shooting free throws that day, and that the winner would get to go on to another round of competition. But this wasn’t Sieg’s first go-round with the competition — she has had her students participate in Hoop Shoot for 26 years.

“I started doing it because when I was in middle school — I was a winner myself — and it meant a lot to me,” said Sieg, who made it to state in her own 12/13 age division years ago. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for the students to have individual success and be recognized for the practice that they put into it.”

In class that day, she mentioned that the winner of all the competitions would have a chance to go to Massachusetts, but in more than two decades of having her students participate in Hoop Shoot, only one had ever even made it to regionals. So, it was a good goal, but seemed distant.

“She had mentioned it, that if you end up going to nationals, you get to go to Massachusetts. And I thought that’d be cool, but there’s no way it would happen,” said Graham, before mentioning what he likes about basketball. “Umm, shooting. I like to shoot a lot.”

Turns out he’s pretty good at it, too.

When Graham was in second grade, his parents installed a basketball court in their backyard, and it’s there that he started learning to play. In fourth grade, he played for a team, which he’s done ever since, though he said he doesn’t have much time to practice in the offseason because he’s usually busy with other sports such as cross country and baseball. But his mom, April, said it’s common that he’ll be out playing with his two younger brothers and dad, with his 5-year-old sister Emery sometimes watching on the sidelines.

“Do you sit through a lot of basketball games?” April asked Emery.

“Yesssss,” she said, throwing her head back in defeat.

But even though Graham plays basketball in his backyard a lot, there’s a slight problem. Because of the younger (and shorter) members of his family, the hoops are usually set at 6 feet high, compared to the standard 10 feet. This change in height seems like it would mess up a free thrower, especially in competition, but Graham was unperturbed by it.

“I like to dunk” on the shorter hoop, he said, a wide smile stretching across his face.

For the Sherwood Elks, Graham’s achievement is a big one, and one they were cheering for every step of the way.

“He didn’t tell you about the crazy old lady who’s always there that has to hug him every minute?” asked Whitmore. “It isn’t just that he’s a good hoop shooter — he is such a good kid. I’m so honored to have him represent us.”

When Hoop Shoot began decades ago, it was as a chance to provide friendly competitions for youth, and to show them that winning can be fun, but isn’t everything, and that losing doesn’t make you a loser. Whitmore said that for a program that had been losing momentum at the Sherwood Lodge in recent years, Graham’s win has instilled a spirit back into it. Because of Graham, she said, the program has been revived, and they’re excited to keep the momentum going for years to come.

“I couldn’t have had more fun if it were my own grandson,” said Whitmore. “It’s been so fun to go through this journey. I call it ‘The Road to Massachusetts.’ He lets us share that and he welcomes us.”

Graham stands just behind the free throw line of the basketball hoop in his back yard — this time he’s taken care to raise the basket to its standard height. He dribbles the ball three times, keeping his eyes on the basket. Crouching down, he readies the shot, springs up and arches the ball toward the basket. Swish. Twenty-five more of those and maybe, just maybe, he’ll get his own name in the Hall of Fame.

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