By Chris Pennant (@kwandarykitten)
The Basketball Tournament has grown in its five years of existence.
Not too long ago, it was an inconspicuous event played out solely in mid-major college gyms with former college and high school players vying against regular guys and their friends in a two-round tournament for a piece of a half-million dollar take. In the inaugural TBT, Notre Dame Fighting Alumni defeated Team Barstool.
This year, the prize was $2 million and many players in the tournament once graced an NBA court — some for extended stretches, others for only a summer league game. Splitting the $2 mil fashioned out a nice payday for eventual tournament winners Carmen’s Crew, the pride of Columbus, OH and Ohio State University.
Earning as much as five times in one night as they typically earn on their overseas pro contracts, veterans of European leagues such as David Lighty, Aaron Craft and Jon Diebler rejoiced after a 66-60 win Tuesday night in Chicago’s Wintrust Arena over a group of Marquette alumni with similar pedigrees. The contest assured the tournament a new champion after Overseas Elite, a team made up of former and current pros who play outside the NBA, won every TBT the previous four years.
The Marquette alumni group made its first appearance in the TBT finals after consecutive semifinal defeats, but after scoring the first basket in the Elam Ending, Carmen’s Crew ran off eight straight points to seal the win.
Of course, Lighty, Craft and Diebler were proud OSU alumni, joined by a former University of Illinois product, Demetri McCamey, who still had a natural connection to the team by being a high school (St. Joseph’s) teammate of Carmen’s Crew assistant coach Evan Turner, currently of the Portland Trail Blazers.
It wasn’t hard to catch NBA players, still reveling in their summer vacations, at games throughout the TBT and especially at the final series of games at Wintrust — Overseas Elite, a team made up of former and current pros who play outside the NBA, won TBT the previous four years. This year, they brought on Jonathon Simmons, who played in this year’s NBA playoffs for the Philadelphia 76ers.
DeMarcus Cousins, a TBT team GM, was called in to judge the Friday night “Posterize Dunk Contest.” Turner is just coming off the best playoffs of his career, yet out of obligation to his school, prowled the sideline for Carmen’s Crew alongside college teammate and former NBA center Jared Sullinger who is head coach. NBA superstar Chris Paul has his own TBT team and despite Team CP3 being a regional casualty, he gladly sat at courtside to see the final Tuesday.
Whereas the first TBT finals was carried on ESPN3, the entirety of the quarterfinals, semifinals and championship was carried on the ubiquitous “worldwide leader,” ESPN proper, where dozens of major championship games are shown each year. Now the TBT final counts itself among them.
Still, the entire “Championship Weekend,” as its called, had a pickup basketball feel to it. Seating in Wintrust, which can hold up to 11,000 in a sell-out, was limited to the northern side of the lower bowl, and though attendance was somewhat lower than preceding rounds — an unconfirmed source says the games in Wichita all sold out at $25 a head — the crowd hooted and hollered like the sideline spectators at any playground.
The fan interaction wasn’t limited. Tables were pulled up to courtside and a slightly (well, maybe a bit more than slightly) inebriated fan carried a running dialogue with the referees, who smiled and threw a spare word his way as they jogged back up the court. During the last quarterfinal on Friday, Isaiah Miles of Team Hines went to the line for a three-shot foul. After he hit the first two in relative silence, a fan yelled out, “He ain’t never hit three in a row!” Miles sank the final free throw, then stared defiantly toward the nameless heckler.
The best moment came on Sunday during the last semifinal matchup between Hines and Golden Eagles Alumni, the Marquette alumni team. A man in a yellow-and-black striped jersey standing in the first row shouted “Come on, Rednose! Go to work, Rednose!” for the entirety of the game.
Everyone around couldn’t help but notice him, and he got into a long conversation with whomever on the Hines bench would talk to him. He advised Thomas Walkup to fire his agent and get a new one and went back and forth with former Houston Rocket Joey Dorsey. Finally, Dorsey playfully asked him, “Who is ‘Rednose’”?
“Rednose” turned out to be Elgin Cook of the Golden Eagles, No. 5. After the won, Cook vaulted the bench and ran straight to the man, who picked him up and ran nearly to the scorer’s table and back before setting him down again. The crowd was in ecstasy. It’s not what they paid for, but somehow, it’s what they came to see.
The Golden Eagles victory in the semis was sweet, it broke them through to the TBT Finals for a first time, but it lacked the gravity of, say, the Toronto Raptors finally achieving their championship dreams by dethroning Golden State’s dynasty.
Overseas Elite lost in the other semi to Carmen’s Crew and ruined a chance the Marquette alums had for poetic revenge against the squad that beat them in the semifinals last year. The players didn’t seem to mind losing out on a chance at payback, though. They had an overall appreciation for the moment.
“Every year, you want to get better. Obviously, you want to win money,” said Golden Eagles coach and Marquette alum Joe Chapman. “Our alumni are really strong in Chicago, so it gave us a boost. It’s a big advantage being here, so close to home.”
Sharpshooting guard Travis Diener wasn’t even playing with the team in their regional games in Wichita, and he retired from pro ball two years ago before coming back on in Italy. That didn’t stop him from nailing a dramatic three-pointer that put the Golden Eagles into the finals.
His years playing in the NBA and overseas might have given Diener some perspective on the organic joy of playing in The Basketball Tournament, as the competitive aspect wasn’t lost on him.
“Once the ball goes up, you’re not thinking, ‘$2 million.’ It’s basketball,” he said. “Leading up to the game, you’re thinking about it, but once that ball goes up, you’re a little kid again, and you’re trying to compete as best you can.”
Carmen’s Crew–wait, sorry. The Ohio State alumni team renamed themselves Carxen’s Crew after realizing no self-respecting Buckeye team would permit that hated letter “M” anywhere in their team’s name. The tongue-in-cheek absurdity of seeing the letters crossed out on the team’s giant banner above the baseline and on their jerseys lent even more of a playground air to the weekend.
Anyway, Carxen’s Crew did not require the motivation of previous heartbreaking losses in the late rounds. They were stocked with former big names from March Madnesses past, including the aforementioned Lighty, Diebler, Buford and Evan Ravenel.
And Aaron Craft is there, of course. Where else would he be? The defensive ace brought his particular brand of disruption to bear on the four-time champions and they were damn near helpless, falling behind by 11 early on. Craft hounded Jeremy Pargo early and late, chased down loose balls and ordered his mates about the court with a controlled frenzy that would have made James Brown smile.
In the fourth quarter against Overseas, Craft turned the ball over underneath his basket. The ball was scooped up and zipped ahead to halfcourt, then passed again to Jamarr Sanders for an easy layup. Well, it was going to be until Craft stole the ball from Sanders and careened out of bounds before he could throw the ball off his opponent.
Aaron Craft, 28 years old and five years removed from his last amateur basketball game, was still playing the same way as he did at Ohio State. As if to drive the point home, he passed by the court during the second semifinal and snarled, “No defense being played!” before heading to the locker room.
Carxen’s Crew won their semifinal, of course. They defended the same way their captain did. So it came down to the Ohio State guys versus the Marquette guys for the championship. A Midwestern final pairing, set in Chicago. What more could anyone want?
Something That Means Something
The Elam Ending employed by The Basketball Tournament is meant to squeeze the most possible excitement out of a basketball game. After the first dead ball with four minutes or less remaining, the game clock is turned off and eight points are added to the leading team’s score. Whichever team reaches that target score first wins the game.
Ideally, this format eliminates intentional fouls and stalling and typically means one team will win on a made basket. This year’s final did not have quite the drama. William Buford was fouled on a rebound, Carxen’s Crew was in the bonus, he walked to the foul line and drained two free throws. Ballgame over.
The men in scarlet and gray recovered from a halftime deficit to win the money, and their defense brought them home once again. Only Maurice Acker (plus-3) had a positive plus-minus for the Golden Eagles Alumni in the championship game. Lighty scored 17, Diebler 11 and Buford, the eventual tournament MVP, had 14 points. Cook and Acker scored 17 and 13, respectively, but it wasn’t enough. Carxen’s Crew split two million bucks amongst each other, celebrated and then all the players went back to the business of getting ready for their real seasons.
This one really meant something.
Acker, the 5’8” lead guard for the Golden Eagles, walked off the court with a hand over his eyes. He’d hit long shot after long shot during the tournament but it had come to nothing. Jamil Wilson, who had been lethal in the quarterfinals, hit a three after the Elam Ending began to give the Golden Eagles the lead, but they would not score again.
Even with the prospect of millions more dollars waiting for them at a destination far away, the players at The Basketball Tournament wanted to win for their friends, their fans and themselves. McCamey, the former Illinois standout who joined up with the Ohio State alums, underscored that point.
“My best friend Evan Turner was playing for the Buckeyes and I played against him in college and it was tough,” McCamey said. “But [TBT] was a good chance to get together. We had a good team and good chemistry and it was great.”
He added that the competition was “like playing overseas in the top league like the EuroLeague or the EuroCup.”
Turner agreed. “These guys are some of my best friends on Earth, and to be able to see them compete against some of the best–I have the most fun around basketball when I’m [in Chicago],” he said. “Great energy, great game. It’s been dope.”
The passion of TBT radiated throughout the entirety of the tournament and it’s sure to stay with the players, winners and losers, until next year. Even Diener, who reportedly is playing for one final year in Italy, might find it within him to return to the Golden Eagles Alumni next year and avenge this latest loss.
“It means a lot when you put on a Marquette jersey,” said Diener. “That’s why it hurts even more.”
Josh Hicks contributed to this article.
Chris Pennant covers professional basketball for WARR Media