Sometimes you can tell that a child has an extraordinary talent before he even learns to walk. Such was the case with Dallin Jensen, a 10-year-old Erda boy who recently made it all the way to Chicago in The Elks Hoop Shoot, a national basketball free-throw contest.
“He’s been shooting baskets since he was about six-months old,” said Dallin’s mother, Meagan Jensen. “If he didn’t have a hoop, he’d use something else. A lampshade, you know, he would shoot socks into that as a little baby.”
Basketball is in Dallin’s blood. So last November when he heard from his P.E. teacher at Overlake Elementary that there would be a school-wide free-throw contest, he signed up.
Classes gathered in the gym at Overlake to watch. Each contestant had 10 shots. Dallin made seven shots — enough to win. That meant he got to move on to the hoops shoot hosted by the Tooele Elks lodge at Tooele Junior High.
At the lodge shoot in December, Dallin competed against eight kids in his age group from across Tooele County. Shot after shot went swooshing in — 18 out of 25. He won again.
The next step was the district level. The shoot was also held in January at Tooele Junior High, but kids came from places like Bountiful, Box Elder, and Vernal to compete. Dallin again made the most shots, 21 out of 25.
Next up: state-level competition.
Through all of this competing and winning, Dallin kept his cool, his mom said. He was just doing what came naturally to him, after all. But things were getting real, Dallin said, and as a result, he started to take practice seriously.
Helping Dallin prepare for the next hoops shoot, which was a month away, became a family endeavor, Meagan said.
“We would go to the church to practice because it was snowing,” she said. “His little brother would help with the rebounding. He was super excited to be a part of it.”
The state contest took place in February at Independent High School in Provo. Dallin suited up again in his lucky black shirt and blue shorts and competed against just one other player in his age group — the winner from Southern Utah. He was allowed 25 shots. He sunk 23 of them. The other shooter made 22.
Dallin moved on to Region-level competition.
The family traveled to Las Vegas in March to watch Dallin shoot hoops against three other contestants, the winners from Arizona, California, and Nevada. The scene was familiar and excitement was high. Dallin walked out on the court and calmly made 23 of his 25 shots.
In addition to winning in his age group, Dallin walked away from Region with the Most Outstanding Shooter award, which he won in a shoot-off against all three different age groups (ages 8–9, 10–11 and 12–13).
Dallin now faced his biggest and final level of competition: the National Finals. The Elks provided Dallin and his parents with a trip to Chicago. They brought two of Dallin’s siblings, as well as both sets of grandparents. His aunt and uncle who live in Illinois were also there to watch.
The family stayed in Chicago for four days in the same hotel as all 72 contestants from around the nation. The large group ate many meals together and enjoyed getting to know each other before the finals, Meagan said.
Dallin said his favorite part of the National Finals experience was trading cards. The finalists all received official basketball cards with their own photo and statistics printed on them, just like NBA trading cards. The players got to trade and collect each other’s cards.
The National Finals were held at Gentile Arena at Loyola University. Dallin’s family members gathered in the seats to watch his final contest. It was nerve wracking to be in the audience, Meagan said.
“As a parent watching, it’s very intense. You can’t cheer or make any noise at all,” she said. Dallin’s support group had to be a silent cheering squad, with no signs or sounds allowed.
Meanwhile, back at home, more family members watched as results appeared on a website.
The rules of the contest are strict. Each player takes 10 shots, then sits down while the other players take their turns. Then each player shoots his or her last 15 shots for a total of 25. They can only bounce the ball four or fewer times. They can’t step over the free-throw line or the shot doesn’t count.
Dallin said he felt more pressure at finals than he had felt at the other levels. There were so many people there to watch him. But he walked out in front of the silent crowd and gave it his all. He competed against 12 players in his age group. In the end he made 17 out of 25 shots, earning him 10th place.
“I was more nervous at the last one and I didn’t do as good,” he said.
But no one had predicted that the journey that began with a simple contest at Dallin’s elementary school would end with him standing in front of hundreds of people in an arena in Chicago.
“It’s been a fun little journey,” Meagan said. “It kind of took over our lives for a while. It took up one Saturday a month from November to April, and we never knew what would happen next.”
Now that it’s over, Dallin has his own official playing cards, a collection of giant trophies, and wonderful memories. He stays busy playing on his comp team in Salt Lake City and attending basketball camps. He also enjoys soccer and baseball and will give football a try this year.
But basketball is his first love. He dreams of playing on high school and college teams and then moving on to the NBA. Looking at his history, who’s to say that he can’t go all the way?