Even In The Coldest Of Places, A Story To Warm Things Up

Global warming may indeed be the long-term trend, but don’t try selling any Al Gore videos across much of the northern United States this winter (unless you can burn them). It’s been cold and snowing and snowing and cold across much of the country’s top half, and credit unions have been doing what they can to help warm both hearts and hands, everything from collecting mittens in Iowa to special deals on loans to buy heating oil in Massachusetts.

Among the coldest of places any winter is Maine, which is why all the research and interviews needed for this story were done via telephone from an office in Florida. Yet had you stopped by the gymnasium at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham on a recent Sunday you would have found one of the warmest stories around.

Credit unions in recent years have found themselves increasingly dragged into court, but in a pleasant change of pace, no one had to be dragged onto this court. Indeed, folks were turned away. The crowd was on hand for the longest-running 3-on-3 basketball tournament in the state, a fundraiser known as the Swish-Out Childhood Cancer Challenge. This is the 14th year for an event now coordinated by Maine’s credit unions and sponsored by many of the same.

The event has come a long way since it was dreamed up by Jon Paradise when he was working as a marketing director at the college and thought the tournament would be a good way to combine his own passion for basketball with a good cause. So he put the event together, drawing seven teams and raising 525 bucks. “It was a way to have fun and raise money,” explained Paradise.

Eight years ago Paradise left the college and joined the Maine Credit Union League, where he serves as Governmental & Public Affairs Manager. He brought the tournament with him.

“Credit unions have been very supportive; it fits with the philosophy,” he said. In fact, he said the biggest change in the event has been all the volunteers from credit unions who are now involved in staging the event, volunteers who return each year to help get things organized and run the clock and do all the things that go on when those sneakers aren’t squeaking. Not having to train the returnees has made his job a lot easier. “All that’s left for me to do is talk to the people involved,” said Paradise, who added he also has friends who give of their time.

The tourney is a double-elimination event with 36 teams (of any size) at $100 a team. Games run 15 minutes, unless one of the teams reaches 15 points. In recent years a 24-second clock in the last two minutes of the game has been added to keep teams from going to the three corners. Players call their own fouls, although a court monitor is on hand. Each team can call two time-outs.

Paradise said the competition can be pretty serious, but said he believes the co-ed nature of the teams (which must have at least one female player) helps keep down the “eruptions.” “People remember it’s for a good cause, but it gets more serious toward the end of the day,” said Paradise. “They may show up thinking ‘We can’t win this,’ but as the end of the day gets closer they kick it up a notch when they realize they have a chance to win.”

Teams are not divided by skill level. “We’ve thought about that over the years but it would just be a logistical nightmare,” said Paradise. “There are always a few teams that are heads and shoulders above the rest, but generally it’s pretty even. This year we had two games in OT.”

The oldest team to participate this year averaged 55 years in age and finished third. It’s the eighth year the team has been in the tourney; they won it six years ago. Many teams return year after year; one team member who used to bring a child to watch now has that child as a teammate. Paradise said the tournament, which already draws teams from Maine and New Hampshire, would likely grow to 40 or 50 teams if opened beyond the 36 that it’s capped at now, but expansion would also require much more than the full Sunday volunteers are putting in as it is.

For Paradise, the Swish-Out Challenge became even more of a passion in 2004 when his father, whom he described as a huge basketball fan, died. “He got me into the game, so this is my little tribute to him,” he offered.

The tribute isn’t so little anymore. The tournament has raised more than $100,000, including $26,000 this year, from entry fees, a silent auction, and sponsors, including TriCorp FCU. Seven of this year’s teams were from credit unions, six of which brought their CEOs with them, and two of which finished in the top 10. You can find a picture of the winning team at www.mainecul.org/interior.php/pid/4/sid/39.

All the funds raised go to Maine Children's Cancer Program, and everyone who plays gets a T-shirt. But it isn’t the T-shirt that has warmed thing up just a bit this winter.

Frank J. Diekmann is Publisher of the Credit Union Journal and can be reached at fdiekmann<at>cujournal.com. (c) 2008 The Credit Union Journal and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved. http://www.cujournal.com http://www.sourcemedia.com