CASCO — The courts were surfaced. The cabins were clean. Fern Masse had used his vast basketball connections to assemble the top coaching and playing talent in the state — Len MacPhee, Dick Whitmore, Leroy Rand, Ray Miclon. Paul Bessey, Matt Donahue, and Barry Peaco — to serve as coaches or counselors.

A week before its first session in 1971, Hoop Camp had everything it needed for a grand opening.

Everything except hoops.

“I can remember Matt Donahue going out to work out after dinner and he was dribbling up and down the court, but there was no hoop on campus for him to shoot at,” said Masse, the former Lewiston High School basketball star, coach and athletic director. “They came in from St. Louis, Mo. We were putting them up the Saturday before we opened.”

The fun was only beginning. The night before the first campers were to report, rain nearly washed out the meticulously-lined courts.

“We had a whole bunch of towels down there,” Masse said. “The foul line, instead of being two inches, was about 10 or 12 inches wide and we’re there trying to push it back.”

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The camp on the shores of Pleasant Lake would see much bigger storms over the decades. It would also see thousands of campers pass through, some of whom went on to high school and college hardwood fame, many of whom would never score a point even in a middle school game.

Hoop Camp begins its 40th season Sunday, when fifth, sixth and seventh grade girls report for the first of seven five-day sessions this summer.

Little has changed at the camp in the last 40 years. A cowbell still wakes the campers every morning. They still race to the waterfront to cool off after the morning session ends. A guest speaker still lectures them on the fundamentals of the game after lunch, and they still compete in the same drills and contests Masse introduced in those early days.

And whenever a camper turns a corner, they are bound to bump into a Masse or a Philbrook, a son or daughter, grandson or granddaughter, niece or nephew of one of the founders, Fern Masse and Malcolm Philbrook.

“We’re three (generations) deep now,” Philbrook said.

Hoop Camp runs down through generations of campers, too. Kevin Hancock, who starred at Lake Region High School and Bowdoin College, attended the camp as a boy and later served as a counselor, coach and basketball director there. Then he sent his daughters, Abby and Sydney, both current Lake Region standouts, to camp there as young girls.

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“You’re getting to the point where there are a number of families that have two generations of Hoop Camp participants, and in some cases, third-generation Hoop Camp participants,” Hancock said.

Through three generations, he added, Hoop Camp has become virtually synonymous in some circles with the area it is set in and the game it celebrates.

“When you start talking about Casco or the Lakes Region or basketball camps, almost everybody remembers going to Hoop Camp, sending a son or daughter to Hoop Camp or, in the coaching community, working at Hoop Camp as a coach or counselor,” he said. “There is just a tremendous amount of history and tradition there.”

“Team-building atmosphere”

Maine had only one other basketball camp when Hoop Camp started. Dozens have since opened around the state and hundreds of others around New England and the rest of the country. Yet Hoop Camp remains a unique throwback in its philosophy and the experience it offers to campers.

Most basketball camps now are held on college campuses, run by college coaches, with kids staying in dorm rooms and spending most of their days and nights in a gymnasium. Some camps limit enrollment to elite players. Some outside of Maine are run by shoe companies and are used as showcases where college coaches search for future recruits.

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“I think the biggest thing that makes Hoop Camp unique is it’s family-run,” said Tracie Martin, who started as a coach in 1986 and now is co-director of the girls’ sessions. “You’re not in a college or dorm situation. You’re in cabins and you’re staying with the nine girls that are on your team. You stay in the same cabin and you eat your meals at the same table. It’s more of a team-building atmosphere, as opposed to other types of camps where you stay with all your friends.”

“The bottom line for Hoop Camp are the Masses and the Philbrooks and their regard for teaching the basics, and having the boys and girls leave the camp saying, ‘I can’t wait to go back next year. It was so much fun,'” said Steve Williams, a retired teacher and former referee who served as the camp’s director from 1989 to 2004.

Hoop Camp roots

With funding from the Winter Foundation, a family foundation started by Philbrook’s great uncle, Frank Winter, Philbrook and Masse bought a closed Jewish boys’ camp in 1970.

“We wanted to do something good and that’s when the idea came,” Philbrook said. “This was really unique, the idea of having a summer camp experience in addition to some basketball.”

Skeptics questioned the wisdom of opening a sports camp. But with the help of their wives, Susan Masse and Sandra Philbrook, who worked as registrars and part-time cooks, plus Philbrook’s six children and Masse’s four, Hoop Camp welcomed 50 to 60 boys for two-week sessions. Word spread quickly of the quality of the facilities, coaches and counselors. For three years, Boston Celtics Hall-of-Famer Sam Jones rented the campus for his own basketball camp.

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Hoop Camp expanded quickly. It added sessions for girls in the mid-1970s, around the same time an inflatable dome, known to many as the Hooper Dome, was installed so the basketball could continue during inclement weather. Lights were installed at four of the seven courts. The campus has grown from six to 10 cabins, and there are now seven sessions per summer with 90 campers in each session, plus 10 counselors and 10 coaches.

Some of the state’s best basketball talent spent time at Hoop Camp in one capacity or another. A few of the coaches who served on the camp staff, such as Dick Harter, John Kuester and University of Maine at Farmington alum Steve Clifford, have gone on to coach in the NBA. Many others took the idea of a basketball camp home with them.

“Think about how many coaches went on to start their own camps based on this model,” said University of Maine at Augusta coach Jim Ford, Hoop Camp’s director for the last three years. “They may have the luxury of dorms and a big facility, but I’m sure that their roots are from Hoop Camp.”

A new game

These days, Hoop Camp’s biggest competition isn’t from other camps, but from high school coaches, AAU and travel teams who fill up players’ summer schedules.

“Everyone had programs back when,” Masse said, “but they weren’t all mandated. They ran maybe a couple of weeks during the summer. Now they’re six weeks.”

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“The high school coaches all have their own summer programs, so our emphasis now is on the younger kids,” Philbrook said.

The camp has had to adapt and narrow its demographic. It now caters to kids in grades 4-10, but most of the sessions are for middle schoolers.

Regardless of their age, kids today are plugged-in unlike any generation before. Some like to occasionally “get away from it all,” just like adults.

“It’s a refreshing week for a lot of the kids,” Ford said. “They can leave their technology at home, leave the cell phones and get away from the iPods and get away from their laptops and enjoy the benefit of a camping experience, plus improve their fundamentals in basketball and then make new friends.”

From the day Masse and Philbrook opened the camp, the emphasis has been on camping, friendship and basketball. Plenty of time is set aside each day for non-basketball activities such as swimming and ping-pong.

“Some of the kids here aren’t here for the basketball,” said Justin Leary, Philbrook’s son-in-law who has worked in a number of capacities at the camp. “I remember one kid, he hadn’t scored the whole time he was here. I told him we’d try to do something so he could score and he said, ‘Coach, I don’t care if I score.’ You’d see him on the waterfront and he was having a blast, but I’m thinking ‘Well, he won’t be back next year.’ The next year, he was back.”

There is  a camp tournament for each session, but winning takes a back seat to each camper getting a chance to play and improve his or her skills.

“It doesn’t matter what their basketball ability is,” said Williams, who credits the camp with helping him start his long officiating career. “Yeah, the kids that can play are going to shine, but the policy is that every kid plays two quarters in every game. It doesn’t matter. The good kids sit out. Everybody got an equal amount of playing time, and I always liked that policy. It’s a camp where kids are supposed to go and have fun.”

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