Watching basketball players generally elicits two primary questions: How the fuck did he do that? (think Russell Westbrook’s inferno-incarnate brand of athleticism) and Why the fuck can’t I do that? (think Andre Miller’s YMCA post-up game). The Basketball Tournament, a 97-team, single elimination, 5-on-5, winner-take-all tournament for $1 million, lies at the confluence of those two queries. It appeals in equal measure to the belief that maybe, just maybe, you and your buddies can catch fire for a few games and shock the world on your way to the million – as well as the desire to just see more physically evolved people dunk.
Founded in 2014 by Dan Friel, a former assistant U.S. attorney in New Orleans, and his childhood friend Jon Mugar, a television producer, the Basketball Tournament is more than simply a hoop junkie’s wet dream; it is, perhaps, the highest-quality basketball this side of the NBA. After expanding from its original size of only 32 teams with a $500,000 prize, this year’s iteration attracted over 125 former NBA and D-League players, including such luminaries as cult hero Brian Scalabrine and the delightfully plump Michael Sweetney, whom the Knicks infamously took ninth overall in the 2003 NBA Draft.
Teams of former college players also littered the ranks, including Boeheim’s Army – a team primarily consisting of erstwhile Syracuse players – and the Notre Dame Fighting Alumni, the winners of last year’s inaugural Tournament. Slam magazine and Grantland sponsored teams, which, in conjunction with consistent coverage from ESPN, further boosted TBT’s profile. Ultimately, though, the Tournament was not about media-slavering, spotlight-hogging NBA superstars (active NBA-ers are, in fact, barred from even participating). Rather, it was about the underdogs, the fringe figures, the perma-Davids who are too small, too slow, too something, to ever be a Goliath.
Over three weekends between July 10 and August 2, the original field of 97 teams had been whittled down to two: the heavily favored Overseas Elite, a collective of highly regarded international players, and Team 23, a squad of Phoenix Pro-Am players who unexpectedly ran roughshod through more heralded competition.
As such, on Sunday afternoon, Fordham University’s Rose Hill Gymnasium was host to the million-dollar game, a taut title bout in which Overseas Elite, buoyed by St. John’s product D.J. Kennedy’s 24 points and three key free throws, withstood Team 23’s swarming defense and ultimately won an intense 67-65 affair. Kennedy scored the game’s first seven points, carrying the Overseas Elite to an early advantage.
“My teammates told me they were going to need me,” he said. “I knew it was a big game, so I wanted to get a good start from the jump.”
Although Team 23 was able, briefly, to take a two-point lead roughly 8 minutes into the game, Overseas Elite led 35-30 at the end of a sloppy first half for both teams. Both sides overcame their early struggles, however, with each shooting over 45 percent throughout the second half.
Rose Hill, a tiny 90 year-old gym, is steeped in such trivia as Carmelo Anthony’s first in-game dunk and Lew Alcindor’s final high school game; like the athletes in the Basketball Tournament, Rose Hill itself is a minor footnote to a larger history, forever existing in the margins. Still, both the fans and the players were aware of the import of this game: In the waning moments, a fight nearly broke out as Myck Kabongo, Overseas Elite’s overcharged electron of a point guard, swung an ill-meaning elbow at Team 23 small forward Andrew Kelly, escalating tensions in an already chippy game.
Despite a heroic 34-point effort from point guard Davin White, Team 23 failed to get White the ball on the final play of the game as center Zach Andrews – a player whose basketball sensibility leans more toward fierce dunks than silken jump shots – missed a game-tying jumper from the elbow as the buzzer sounded.
And how will Overseas Elite split the money? Fairly equally.
“We really wanted [center Shane Lawal] to come,” guard Errick McCollum said following the win. “So in our group chat, we all agreed to take $10-$15,000 less if it meant that we could get him.”
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So yes, in the tournament of the downtrodden, the odds-on favorite won. Overseas Elite, armed with McCollum, the single-game points record-holder in China, Travis Bader, who made more threes that anyone in NCAA Division I history, and former McDonald’s All-American Kabongo, eventually outlasted the scrappy, veteran team from Phoenix. But to claim this as yet another assertion of overdog dominance would be an oversimplification, a manipulation to fit a neat, preconceived narrative: For all their considerable skill, Overseas Elite are not – and probably will never be – NBA mainstays. They are the masses, albeit masses equipped with springier legs and ampler height and jump shots with a stronger inclination to go in. They are the buddies that, for a few perfect games, caught fire and shocked the world to win $1 million dollars. Today, they are the champions of the Basketball Tournament, but tomorrow and next week, they’ll merely be cogs in the dog-eat-dog international basketball machine.
Still, every dog has his day.