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NBA PM: The Basketball Tournament is Back

The Basketball Tournament is back – with a $1 million prize, a 97-team field and more talent than ever.

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The Basketball Tournament is Back

Imagine a single-elimination, high-stakes tournament similar to March Madness, except anyone could put together a team to compete. Teams could consist of NBA veterans, overseas stars, D-League players or even your next-door neighbor. Anyone over 18 years old can apply for free and then fans vote to determine which teams are in the field. Oh, and unlike the NCAA Tournament, players could earn money since the winning team would take home a large monetary prize to be split among its players.

tbtbThis was the vision that Jonathan Mugar had last year, when he founded The Basketball Tournament.

Last year was the inaugural TBT, but it was still a somewhat small affair. The tournament featured 32 teams competing for a $500,000 prize, the championship game was only available for viewing through an online stream and all of the contests were held at Philadelphia University or Boston University.

While the idea was excellent, there were still some questions that needed to be answered. Would the event be organized well and go according to plan? Would notable players want to participate in the tournament? Would there be mainstream interest from the public?

It quickly became clear that the answers were yes, yes and yes – and the tournament was a success.

With word spreading and The Basketball Tournament gaining popularity, this year’s TBT will be significantly bigger and have a much more official feel. The prize has doubled to $1 million, the field has tripled and games will be broadcast on ESPNU and ESPN. In mid-July, first-round match-ups will take place in four different cities – Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles – and be aired on ESPNU. The championship game, which will be played on August 2 in New York, will be broadcast on ESPN.

The goal when TBT was founded was for this to be an annual tournament that grew each year – with the field and prize continuously growing – and it certainly seems to be heading in that direction.

“Last year, we were able to prove that the concept of a high-stakes, democratic tournament, with an exceptionally skilled collection of players was an entertaining event,” Mugar said. “Our partnership with ESPN, along with our market expansion, further validates that we are on the track to grow even beyond what we had hoped for in year two.”

One reason The Basketball Tournament has become popular and attracted the attention of ESPN is because it features plenty of notable players and teams.

Last year, the 2010 Cornell Sweet 16 team and the 2009 Villanova Final Four team each reunited to participate in TBT. In addition, alumni from Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Maryland, Temple, Princeton and Air Force registered teams. Notable college players like Marshall Henderson, Kenny Kadji and Matt Walsh played as well, which excited NCAA basketball fans across the country.

NBA fans also had some recognizable players to watch, with league veterans like Dahntay Jones, Hakim Warrick, Josh Selby, Smush Parker, Josh Boone, Andre Barrett, Rob Kurz and Chris Wright competing for various teams. After the tournament, some of these players starred overseas or signed back in the NBA (with Jones joining the Los Angeles Clippers), proving there was legitimate talent in last year’s field.

Many of the same recognizable players from last year will play again this July, and they’ll be joined by even more talented players in what will be a stacked tournament.

Former NBA players competing this year include Nate Robinson, Jamaal Tinsley, Mike Bibby, Jason Williams, Brian Scalabrine, Josh Selby, Hakim Warrick, Donte Green, Dominique Jones, Michael Sweetney, Royce White, Fab Melo, Jermaine Taylor, Von Wafer, Sam Young, Jamario Moon, Terrence Williams, Pooh Jeter, Damien Wilkins, Pops Mensah-Bonsu, Ike Diogu, Josh Boone, Marcus Banks, Luke Harangody, Ryan Gomes, Willie Reed, Smush Parker, Renaldo Balkman, Chris Wright, Tyshawn Taylor, Xavier Silas, Bobby Brown, Earl Barron, Sundiata Gaines, Dijon Thompson, DerMarr Johnson, Stephen Graham, Derrick Caracter, Alex Kirk, Rob Kurz, Mardy Collins, Scotty Hopson and Hamady N’Diaye.

Current NBA players cannot play due to contract restrictions, but they can still be involved in TBT. A number of notable NBA players – including Ty Lawson, Jamal Crawford, Nick Young, C.J. McCollum, Frank Kaminsky and Matt Bonner – have signed up to be a coach, general manager or booster so that they can support teams. Some, including Swaggy P, will even be on the sideline coaching their squad. A number of celebrities (to be announced later) have also agreed to be boosters, and some will be in attendance for the tournament games.

As if fans needed any more reason to get excited, TBT incentivizes participation from supporters. Five percent of the $1 million prize goes to a fan that supported the winning team. Last year, a fan named Elizabeth Lawler won $25,000 (five percent of the $500,000 prize) after being responsible for thousands of votes for the winning team.

The first TBT exceeded all expectations and was an enormous success. Now, with even better players, more teams, a bigger prize, games taking place all across the country and ESPN’s backing, The Basketball Tournament shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

***

Notre Dame may have had a disappointing last-second exit from the NCAA Tournament, but the school’s fans can get behind another Fighting Irish basketball team that’s competing in a high-stakes tournament.

TBTInside2The Notre Dame Fighting Alumni – as the group of former Notre Dame players call themselves – were the winners of the first TBT last year and they are back in this year’s field to try to defend their championship. Shortly after they won their prize last year, they huddled up and chanted “BACK-TO-BACK!”

The team first came together when former Notre Dame walk-on guard Kieran Piller heard about the tournament and decided to organize a squad with his old teammates. He asked Fighting Irish alumni such as Rob Kurz, Tyrone Nash, Ryan Ayers, Tory Jackson, Torin Francis, Ty Nash, Russell Carter, Chris Thomas and Zach Hillesland. The players all agreed, but some of the players were initially skeptical.

“My immediate impression was, ‘That sounds way too good to be true,’” former NBA player Kurz said with a laugh. “But because they were playing the games directly across from where I played high school in Philadelphia, I figured even if it’s B.S. it’d be kind of fun to go back there and play together with a bunch of my college friends who I hadn’t seen or played with in years. We looked at it as a fun college reunion. Then, of course, it was legitimate and it ended up being really fun.

Notre Dame took the tournament pretty seriously compared to other teams, meeting up at Germantown Academy in Philadelphia before the event to practice and put in some plays. They knew that their chemistry would give them a huge edge, but they also wanted to be organized and have a solid game plan.

While their preparation certainly helped, their experience together was the biggest factor in their success. Their players were always on the same page and even though they hadn’t played together in years, Kurz said it was very easy to get back into a rhythm with his teammates.

Even though Notre Dame wasn’t the most talented team, they were an organized, tight-knit group that knew what they were doing. The fact that they ran plays separated them from some teams that just approached the tournament with a pick-up mentality. They also had a balanced attack, with a different leading scorer in each of their five wins.

In the championship game, the Fighting Alumni defeated a team with several former NBA players such as Dahntay Jones, Josh Boone and Andre Barrett. Despite facing such a stacked squad (that was considered the frontrunner to win the championship throughout the entire tournament), the Fighting Alumni won, 72-68, and became the first TBT champions.

“The championship game was definitely the toughest,” Kurz said. “But there was a lot of good talent throughout the whole tournament. Some players who are in the NBA this year played in the tournament last year, so it wasn’t easy.

RobKurzInside2“The fact that we won was just a blast, but more importantly we just had a great time being together again. Those guys are some of my best friends in the world and to get together again after years was great.”

The players received a ton of support from Notre Dame fans as well as their school, with head coach Mike Brey flying to the championship game and the PR department pushing fans to vote for the squad over social media.

“Everyone from Notre Dame was so excited,” Kurz said. “Before the championship game, we were getting texts from the coaching staff, our trainer and everyone who was a part of the program and the family. Everybody really got into it, especially once we went to the championship.

“In terms of fan support, Notre Dame has such a great following and people were just excited that we were a part of something cool. We actually had a great crowd [of Notre Dame fans] that showed up to the championship game. It was just a lot of fun.”

After winning the title, the cash prize was split up equally among the Notre Dame players and the group also decided to donate $40,000 to the Coaches vs. Cancer Foundation.

This year, the Fighting Alumni feel very confident entering the tournament. Because they won last year, they will get a bye until the Sweet 16. This, coupled with their chemistry and TBT experience, should give them an edge over many of the teams.

They’re expected to bring back all of their key contributors and may add some talented pieces. Luke Harangody and Tim Abromatis traveled to the TBT championship game last year to support the Fighting Alumni from the stands, and it’s possible they may play this year. Kurz feels that this Fighting Alumni squad is even better than last year’s, and they’ll be more prepared because they’re going to practice for a full week this time in advance of the tournament.

“Our roster may have a couple of additions; we’re going to put some guys on the roster who are still playing at a really high level in Europe and guys who played in the NBA, so I think we’re going to have an even better team this year honestly,” Kurz said. “We’re all going to Notre Dame the week before the tournament to practice and play pick-up. We’re in the Chicago bracket, so it’s not far away and that gives us a chance to be on campus and prepare.”

While Kurz likes Notre Dame’s chances, he knows that being the last team standing out of the 97-team field will be difficult. He expects there to be some loaded teams with $1 million on the line.

“I’ve heard that it’s going to be even tougher this year – that a lot of talented players are entering,” Kurz said. “The competition will be intense, and I know that the tournament is going to be 10 times bigger this year. I can’t even tell you how many people have told me that they’re trying to enter a team this year. Even my former agent is thinking of putting a team in. I mean, with $1 million on the line, there are going to be a ton of people trying to get involved.”

***

One new team that is getting involved – and following the Notre Dame Fighting Alumni model – is the Syracuse Alumni squad.

This Syracuse team features Donte Green, Hakim Warrick, Eric Devendorf, Demetris Nichols, Rick Jackson, Baye Moussa Keita, Josh Pace and Brandon Reese among others. The program’s former basketball manager Kevin Belbey had the idea, ran it by Jim Boeheim (who was all for it) and then contacted the players to see who could participate.

Syracuse has a very talented roster that is currently the No. 1 ranked team in the Northeast region, and they lead all registered TBT teams in fan votes. Green and Warrick both played several years in the NBA, and some of Syracuse’s other players have had successful careers overseas.

“We’re a confident bunch because we have a lot of experienced guys who played in the NBA, played overseas and played in college, but we know that a lot of teams will be talented,” Devendorf said. “We’re confident, but we’re going in with the mindset that we have to play hard. You can lose at any time [in a single-elimination tournament].”

Like the Notre Dame team, Syracuse’s squad has strong chemistry. All of the players have an in-depth understanding of Boeheim’s system, which they’ll use throughout the tournament.

“I think the chemistry is a huge edge for teams like us and Notre Dame,” Devendorf said. “It’s great that all of our players come from the same team and played for the same coach – Jim Boeheim – so we all know the system. We don’t have to go over anything or learn anything new because guys already know what’s expected of them and what they need to do. Knowing each other and coming from the same system is definitely an advantage for us.”

Another advantage is that the Syracuse squad may play a 2-3 zone, according to Devendorf, which would make them even tougher to match up against. The 2-3 zone can cause trouble for collegiate opponents who spend significant time preparing for it, so just imagine how tough it would be to face in a tournament like this.

“If we want to switch to a 2-3 zone, we’re capable of doing of that,” Devendorf said. “No problem.”

Devendorf is planning to get everyone together on Syracuse’s campus in early June to practice. It’ll also give the team a chance to bond and catch up with one another before they head out for the competition.

“We’ve all kept in touch throughout the years; just to get this whole group of guys back together is really exciting and it’s going to be a great time,” Devendorf said.

Syracuse fans are equally excited about the reunion and have given the squad a ton of support. Within hours of the team being registered on TBT’s website, they received hundreds of votes to be included in the field. Fortunately for those fans, it sounds like the Syracuse Alumni team will try to participate in TBT every summer going forward.

“I think it’d be a really good idea to make this something we do annually,” Devenforf said. “It would be a way for us all to catch up every summer.”

While Notre Dame and Syracuse are receiving a lot of attention because of their talented rosters and early registration, other college programs are planning to put together rosters too.

Several other schools that will be involved are Connecticut (which may have a star-studded team), Indiana, Virginia, Oklahoma, Florida Gulf Coast (led by Dunk City stars Sherwood Brown, Brett Comer and Chase Fieler), Saint Louis (with Jordair Jett and Willie Reed), La Salle, Cornell (which played last year, bringing together their 2010 Sweet 16 team), Xavier, Drexel, Colorado and Temple – giving this even more of a March Madness feel.

When $1 million is on the line, there’s bound to be a ton of interest and talented teams ready to play.

And Kurz believes this is only the start. He envisions The Basketball Tournament becoming a national phenomenon in the near future.

“It’ll keep growing,” Kurz said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that this will blow up. Think about it: there’s $1 million on the line for this year’s tournament and it’s only the second year. What is it going to be next year, after people have the chance to see it on ESPN and ESPNU? It’s going to grow exponentially every year.

“The money – and the tournament itself – will only get bigger from here.”

Full Disclosure: Alex Kennedy has become a booster for the South Region’s TeamBDB, which features Josh Selby, Dominique Jones, Jermaine Taylor, Willie Reed, Aquille Carr and Durand Scott among others. For more information about their team, click here.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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