Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
When most of the players taking part in The Basketball Tournament first found out about the event, there was a fairly common reaction.
A brand-new, high-level basketball tournament featuring a $500,000, winner-take-all first prize…with no entry fee? Yeah, right.
“At first, I kinda thought it was a joke,” former Temple forward Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson said. “I thought somebody was playing a trick. Didn’t think anybody would just be giving away $500 grand and you don’t have a fee to enter the tournament.”
He was far from the only one.
“I was still overseas in Israel when I heard about it…and I thought it was a joke,” former Loyola (Md.) standout Erik Etherly said. “I thought it was some spam e-mail coming through Facebook.”
“I said–’is it real? How do you know? Where did you hear this from, and is it really $500,000?’” asked former Notre Dame guard Russell Carter. “Then I said, who’s on our team?”
Anybody who was at the event’s inaugural day on Friday found out pretty quickly that it was no joke. The 32 teams who made it to Philadelphia–the top 24 in terms of social media support, plus eight others selected by the event’s organizers to join them in the bracket. The first four rounds of the tournament run this weekend, with the final on June 28 at a location to be determined by voting once the two finalists are set.
Jon Mugar, The Basketball Tournament’s founder, certainly put together a well-run, well-staffed tournament that ran on time, with every team showing up–though one team had to play an entire game 5-on-4.
The money was enough to force a good level of competition (and the 45-second shot clock helped teams play some defense), and there was no denying the talented names who took the two courts at Philly U. Former NBA players like Hakim Warrick and Dahntay Jones, college stars like Marshall Henderson, Austin Freeman and Ian Hummer, plus Philly favorites like Ramone Moore, Garrett Williamson, Scottie Reynolds and many more.
And while playing in a newly-minted summer tournament isn’t exactly the same as earning a spot on an NBA roster, the ultimate goal for many of the players involved, it certainly serves as a measuring stick for some to see how they stack up against those who are looking for those same few spots or that one lucky break.
“I think everybody’s coming here to win and, on top of that, it’s for bragging rights,” former Georgetown Hoya Chris Wright said. “We all want to play, we all want to win and there’s some good competition out here. It’s a lot of players kind of in the same boat, in terms of their career, so that’s always interesting to see.
“There’s a lot of guys here right on the edge of getting into the league. Plain and simple. It’s guys who have the talent, have the ability but for whatever reason, we haven’t got in yet or we’ve been in for short stints and been back out. The talent level is very high, as you can see. There are a lot of players in here and you can recognize it without even seeing them play.”
That high level of competition alone was enough to satisfy more than a few basketball fans–and most of the players, as well.
“Just to be able to be in a tournament like this and to play against competition like that…the 500 grand is great or whatever, but just playing against the competition, that’s what I’m most excited about,” said Will Barrett, who reunited with a number of Princeton grads on PUBB.
And while others were indeed openly playing to win the money, it was for a different reason altogether. One team that advanced on Friday was Sideline Cancer, representing a pancreatic cancer charity, the Griffith Family Foundation.
To get half a million dollars for the charity would be amazing, but they’re happy just to get their message out there.
“You can do this for the money, but this is an opportunity to do something for someone bigger than ourselves,” their coach, Billy Clapper, said. “Here’s a chance we can help a foundation, you never knew about Sideline Cancer and the Griffith Foundation, and now you do, so how many people have found out about that through the awareness with us playing in this, and now they do tomorrow, too.”
From the standpoint of a number of college basketball fans, it was a chance to see players and teammates together that they haven’t seen in a few years, in most cases. Almost every team had at least two or three guys who played on a college team together, and quite a few had more than that.
Philadelphia’s basketball talent pool was well-represented, with teams like the North Broad Street Bullies, who featured former Temple Owls Moore, Hollis-Jefferson, Dalton Pepper, T.J. DiLeo and more; they took down an El Vino team that was filled with Saint Joseph’s alums like Garrett Williamson and Pat Carroll.
There were a few squads that certainly served as reunion tours. Besides that Princeton team, the Cornell team that made it to the Sweet 16 back in 2010 was back together. Quite a few former Notre Dame players formed the Fighting Alumni. And then there were the Bomb Squad, featuring all former Air Force players–many of whom are still active duty.
Every single one of them relished the opportunity to relieve some old memories and create new ones as well.
“Some of these guys I haven’t played with in a while, getting to play with them on the court is a special thing,” said Hummer, who finished up his Princeton career two years ago. “I’m glad this tournament is going on.”
Perhaps the largest cheering section of the night belonged to Villanova fans, who were there to support Team ROBY (Rock Out Be You), which had quite a few members of the 2009 Wildcats team that made it to the Final Four. Fan favorites like Reynolds, Antonio Pena and Corey Fisher all played well in helping their team advance to the second round, joining PUBB, North Broad Street and 13 other teams in second round and quarterfinal action on Saturday.
“It’s just about these guys,” said Reynolds, who played hero for the Wildcats in that tournament run. “When I can get around these guys and play with them, it’s a blessing to me because I would do anything for them, whatever they need, I’d go to the end of the world to help accomplish those things for them.”
Very quickly, The Basketball Tournament is picking up a lot of positive buzz, and with good reason. College hoops fans don’t have a lot to look forward to this time of year, and getting an opportunity to see so many familiar names–many of whom are still in the middle of their competitive careers–actually playing some semi-meaningful minutes is a recipe for success if done correctly.
At the end of the The Basketball Tournament’s first day of competition, a highlight-reel dunk by Eastern Kentucky’s Marcus Lewis was named the top play of the night by SportsCenter.
“If people don’t believe it, they’re going to see it,” Wright said.