"The Shot" Just One of Many for Minnesota's Hoffarber

"The Shot" Just One of Many for Minnesota's Hoffarber
Jan 02, 2007, 05:12 am

”The Shot”

You’ve seen Christian Laettner’s turnaround to beat Kentucky, and probably have Michael Jordan’s fadeaway over Craig Ehlo and the Cavs etched in your memory.

But have you ever seen anything like quite like this?

No, high school class 4A in Minnesota isn’t quite the NBA playoffs or the NCAA Final Four. But at the same time, this isn’t YMCA pick-up ball. It is a major metropolitan area’s highest level of competition, and that level’s most important game. Hopkins was faced with a situation eerily similar to that of Christian Laettner’s in that they had the full length of the court to cover and about 2.5 seconds to do it. Then-sophomore Blake Hoffarber’s shot sent the game into double OT, where the shell-shocked opposition crumbled.

Let me clarify this: Hopkins needed a miracle to win the state championship, and Blake Hoffarber performed one – "on his rump”.

Did I mention he swished an NBA range 3-pointer to send the game into its first overtime?

So be your own judge. Is “the shot” the only accurate moniker for what took place in the Target Center in March of 2005? I will say that I highly doubt Laettner and Jordan would have preferred to take “the shot” from Hoffarber’s vantage point instead of their own.

Things happened quickly for Hoffarber after those ecstatic first few moments, which included complete and total pandemonium at the Target Center while I ran around the house like a madman screaming at the top of my lungs for a good ten minutes.

The Today show called. So did David Letterman. Hoffarber would eventually win an ESPY for his feat – Best Play of the Year.
So while most high schoolers finishing up their sophomore year probably spend their time hanging out with friends or looking for a summer job, Hoffarber was busy conducting interviews, accepting awards, and bumping elbows with the likes of Terrell Owens and LeBron James. (Link Link)

Some kids might have rested on their laurels at that point, basking in the instant celebrity status that 10th graders who win ESPY’s tend to achieve, but Hoffarber isn’t your average kid.

“I just loved the fact that it helped us win the State Championship…,” Hoffarber said, “winning an ESPY was great, but I want to be known as more than just the guy that hit the shot.”

Now a senior, Hoffarber is beginning to emerge out from under the shadow of what some have called the most amazing play in the history of the game. Given Hoffarber’s recent decision to stay in-state and attend the University of Minnesota next fall, as well as the current state of the game in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, “the shot” could very well be just the beginning of Blake Hoffarber’s legend.

The Summer

Hoffarber, as a sophomore perhaps already the best player on a team packed with Division One players, would lead the Royals to 30-2 record and a second consecutive state championship last spring as a junior. He averaged 19 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists on the year, and Hopkins breezed through the state tournament after facing some stiff competition in the sectionals.

While Hoffarber was already somewhat of a recognizable face around Minnesota, he was still flying largely under the radar on the national recruiting scene. Early in what is always a crucial summer for rising seniors, Hoffarber was receiving interest from a few bigger schools but had only been offered by mid majors such as Delaware, Rice and Bucknell.

But this would soon change, as Hoffarber emerged as a go-to scorer on his Minnesota Magic Elite AAU squad that included other nationally recruited prospects like Cole Aldrich (Kansas), John Leuer (Wisconsin) and Al Nolen (Minnesota). The Magic would make the final eight at the Reebok Big Time Tournament in Las Vegas and also won a game in the playoff round of the AAU Nationals a week later in Orlando. And it was Hoffarber leading the way, with his steady handle and electric outside shooting.

“I think I had a pretty good summer. I went to a lot of camps and did well in all of them. It really was the last time I could prove myself on the AAU circuit, so it was a big summer for me.” Hoffarber said.

Hoffarber was also impressive on an individual level at the NBA Player’s Association Camp, but nothing caught the eye of high-major college coaches as much as the shooting exhibition he put on at ABCD camp in early July. Hoffarber averaged 11+ ppg for the week, shooting 59% from beyond the arc. Over the first two days, that number was a staggering 80%.

Not surprisingly, Louisville offered shortly thereafter and the high major scholarships would continue to roll in the rest of the summer.

When the dust settled in August, Hoffarber had an entirely new list of schools to pick from. In addition to Louisville, it was Virginia Tech, Rutgers, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Nebraska, Oregon, and Washington State lining up for his services.

One school surprisingly absent from this prestigious list was the hometown Minnesota Golden Gophers. With Rick Pitino’s offer on the table and despite whiffing on other elite in-state targets such as Aldrich and PF Trevor Mbakwe (signed with Marquette), Minnesota waited until very late in the process to extend a scholarship offer to the local kid who put Minnesota hoops on the map with “the shot”.

While many elite players may have taken this personally, it didn’t appear to play a factor in Hoffarber’s decision.

“I actually didn’t have a problem with the Gophers offering me so late because I was just working hard and getting better at the time. I was going to wait until September either way and that is the month they offered me,” he said.

The scholarship finally came in after AAU teammate John Leuer became the third national Top 100-ranked Minnesotan to spurn the Gophers, signing with Wisconsin.
Things happened quickly from there, with Hoffarber officially visiting campus the next weekend and committing shortly thereafter.

“It was unbelievable to have coaches like Rick Pitino think so highly of me, and it was extremely hard to turn his offer down. But in the end, I wanted to be at the school that fit me the best, and that was Minnesota.”

The Gophers…

Hoffarber’s commitment couldn’t have come at a better time for a beleaguered Golden Gopher program, which has hit rock bottom once again after an NCAA Tournament appearance just two years ago.

This once-proud program was shamed in the wake of the academic scandal that led to wildly popular head coach Clem Haskins’ firing and the removal of the 1997 Final Four banner from the rafters. Dan Monson was hailed as a phenomenal replacement at the time, but never connected with local “program types” and wasn’t able to get much out of area big-timers such as Joel Pryzbilla, Rick Rickert and Kris Humphries.

The Gophers were able to reach the NCAA Tournament in 2005, but the previous season’s disastrous 1-15 campaign had already marginalized Monson’s ability to recruit due to the perception that his removal was only a matter of time. The Gophers are now in the midst of a second consecutive poor season, going 0-3 at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando and losing to Sun Belt bottom-dweller Arkansas-Little Rock at the buzzer.

The longer Monson’s tenure lasted, the more apathetic the once loyal Golden Gopher fanbase became. Williams Arena used to be an automatic sellout, and a near-automatic loss for any opponent unfortunate enough to play on the famous raised floor and in front of that hostile crowd. But interest has waned as the program has slipped – a Minnesota basketball game is no longer a tough ticket to find and the disinterested crowd wasn’t even close to a factor in the Arkansas-Little Rock loss.

Things essentially came to a conclusion last spring, when major local media outlets reported that Monson had been fired. But the next day came a near-spiteful announcement from Gopher AD Joel Maturi that the former Gonzaga head man would be returning after all.

Monson was still coaching when Hoffarber made his decision, but was abruptly let go shortly after a blowout home loss at the hands of Clemson.

Things aren’t likely to get better under interim coach Joe Molinari, who has already made waves by firing one of his co-assistant coaches under Monson. The Gophers nearly fell to Southeastern Louisiana on Saturday and more than a handful of conference wins could be tough to come by, even in a down year for the Big Ten conference.

So why would a player like Hoffarber, described by those who have seen him play as “winner” just as often as “shooter”, pick a school with little hope of short-term success and a lame duck coach that waited longer to offer him than at least one national power?

The Hoffarbers are a close-knit, basketball-oriented family with strong Minnesota ties so the chance to play in front in front of family and for the school he grew up rooting for clearly resonated with the Hopkins star.

“Coach Monson was great to me and I was sad to see him go. But I also chose Minnesota because I loved the campus and the university. I had been going to the games since I was young with my dad, and just loved the fans and the atmosphere”

It didn’t hurt that Hoffarber, an excellent student who currently sports a 3.9 GPA, was accepted into the University of Minnesota’s prestigious Carlson School of Management.

In the end, it is clear that Hoffarber made a decision not because of basketball, but because of Minnesota.

“People have always told me that when you are picking a school, picture the place you would most want to be if you had gotten hurt and could not play basketball anymore,” Hoffarber said.

“The Action”

Watching Hoffarber in action, it is clear that this is a player who is going to get frustrated at times playing for a rebuilding program. He is likely to end his career as a 3-time state champion and no more than a handful of losses. When the Royals go through a poor stretch or are in danger of losing a game, the usually mild-mannered, harmless-looking Hoffarber transforms into a fiery, demonstrative on-court motivator.

However, it has been a long time since the Golden Gophers have landed a player quite like Hoffarber. The in-state players Monson has won over have generally underachieved, rarely developing significantly and struggling with off the court issues.

Simply put, even if he probably isn’t the guy who is going to lead a Big Ten contender in scoring, Hoffarber is the type of player that can inspire his teammates to play up to their potential and generate interest from a fanbase that grows more inconsolable by the day.

“I really am going to do what the coach wants me to do each year. If he wants me to sit on the bench and cheer them on, that is what I will do in order for us to win. I just want to win, and I will do whatever it takes to do so.” Hoffarber said.

Hoffarber’s drive to win was readily apparent in Hopkins’ victory over highly regarded Benilde St-Margaret’s earlier this month. Benilde features a pair of high-major prospects in Wisconsin-committed point guard Jordan Taylor and wing Armond Battle, but the Royals easily won by a score of 84-57.

Hoffarber started a bit slow after missing a game earlier in the week with a bout of food poisoning. His natural limitations were on display early on, as he really couldn’t get around Benilde defenders off the dribble. He missed a few shots early, and really wasn’t much of a factor on the offensive end until late in the first half.

However, it was only a matter of time before Hoffarber made his mark on the game. It was a 31-27 when the sharpshooter knocked down a pair of deep, contested 3-pointers on consecutive possessions. The stroke was effortless and the release high, with the ball seeming to hardly graze the net (let alone the rim), and Hopkins would only extend the lead from there. It was the type of motion one could see Hoffarber repeating in his sleep and continuing to connect on.

“My parents said I started shooting when I was in diapers by myself in my basement on the little kids’ hoop. I just loved to shoot and play basketball…” he said while commenting on his unique shooting ability.

Hoffarber never really went off but finished with 24 points, continuing to hit the occasional 3-pointer and managing one nice behind-the-back dribble pull-up from the midrange after a defender overplayed his outside shot.

“I think we played pretty well, but we have a lot to work on. We are extremely young and that will hurt us in the beginning here. The good thing about our team is that we are really deep and can sub in and out all the time.”

While Hoffarber might never be a dominant slasher or shot creator at the Big Ten level, he shows a definite calm with the ball in his hands. He has played quite a bit of point guard over his high school career and is certainly comfortable handling under pressure from more athletic defenders.

It should also be noted that while Hoffarber will have to improve as an athlete before he is locking down Big Ten guards, he is a willing and opportunistic defender. He probably led Hopkins in rebounding against Benilde, despite playing with numerous sizeable frontcourt players.

”The Future”

Blake Hoffarber burst into national prominence with a shot that captured the attention of millions, and by choosing the Gophers he now has a chance to add to his Minnesota legend.

And let me tell you, Minnesota basketball needs a legend.

In the decade or so since Khalid El-Amin dazzled Minnesotans with his incredible performances in the state tournament and the Golden Gophers advanced to that Final Four, there hasn’t been much happening on the hardwood for the average Minnesota sports fan to get excited about.

Of course, there was “the shot.” While the normal basketball-related water cooler discussions almost always involve what sort of mistake the Gophers will make next, a bit of uncharacteristic positivity has certainly filtered in since Hoffarber signed.

So though Hoffarber may not be quite as electric as Khalid El-Amin was back in the day or as talented as Rickert or Humphries, he still has a chance to make a truly special impact on Minnesota basketball.

One really can’t underestimate how much Hoffarber could improve Minnesota’s local recruiting sway. Very soon, the new Gopher head man is going to be making his pitch to kids who grew up trying to replicate “the shot” in their driveways.

If Hoffarber, already a face entrenched in the minds of most Minnesotans, can be a major part in the re-emergence of Golden Gopher basketball, perhaps someday local sports fans will once again be more interested March Madness than the start the of spring training.

He may never average 20 ppg in the Big Ten and he certainly isn’t getting press on this website because he is a big-time NBA prospect at this point. But is it fantasy to picture Blake Hoffarber nailing a game winner in Minnesota’s first trip back to the NCAA Tournament?

Probably. But what is winning the state championship lying on your back at the buzzer?

You can bet that if Blake Hoffarber ever does get that critical look, he will sink it without a moment’s hesitation. It probably wouldn’t match “the shot” in terms of notoriety or greatness, but at that moment, it would make his decision to don a Golden Gopher uniform seem like an absolute no-brainer.

Blake Hoffarber and Hopkins will be competing in the 2007 Gatorade Timberwolves Shootout this Saturday, January 6. The event features five of the top teams in the state facing elite competition from around the country.

Hopkins will get a stiff test from Campbell Hall (CA), featuring nationally regarded brothers Jrue and Justin Holiday. Justin is a 6’6 senior headed to Washington. Jrue ( #3), a 6’4 junior, is considered one of the top players is the class of 2008 and is a top target for schools like UCLA and North Carolina.

The biggest national name at the event will be Oregon big man Kevin Love ( #3), almost universally regarded as one of the top five players in the class of 2007. This past July, Love’s SoCal All-Stars defeated Hoffarber and the Minnesota Magic Elite in the round of eight at the Reebok Big Time tournament in Las Vegas. Osseo (MN) will have the unenviable task of attempting to contain the future pro and his Lake Oswego squad.

Benilde-St Margaret’s will also be in attendance, facing off against Taft (CA). Taylor will have his hands full with elite 2008 point guard Larry Drew ( #20), perhaps the top uncommitted junior floor general in the country and high-priority target for schools such as North Carolina, Arizona, Texas and Washington.

The early game features promising junior Anthony Tucker and Minnetonka (MN) going up against junior Marquette commit Nick Williams ( 4-star) and LeFlore (AL).

The shootout will televised on FSN North, with in attendance to provide full coverage. For more information, check out the preview

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