By Tim Casey
PHILADELPHIA -- Kobe Bryant once called Smush Parker "the worst," ripping his former teammate in an October 2012 session with Los Angeles reporters. The only reason Parker started for the Lakers for two seasons, according to Bryant, was because they wouldn't pay for a better point guard.
This past weekend, more than six years since his last NBA game, Parker competed in an inaugural event at Philadelphia University that brought together an eclectic group of players, many of whom were once recognizable to basketball junkies but had fallen off the radar. Simply called "The Basketball Tournament" or "TBT," it featured 32 teams in a single elimination, winner-takes-all format for $500,000, the largest purse anyone could remember and one that brought about suspicion.
There was no entry fee, and anyone 18 years or older could participate as long as they waived their college eligibility and amateur status. The only caveat: teams were required to attract at least 100 fans online to gain entrance. They were also encouraged to spread the word about TBT through Twitter, Facebook and other mediums. For Parker, promoting came naturally.
After Parker's team won its first round game, teammate Jason Curry asked reporters and tournament officials to forward photographs to Parker, who planned on putting them on the team's website.
"He's also our social media coordinator," Curry said.
"Manager," Parker said, correcting Curry. "And the mascot."
Parker wasn't the only familiar name at TBT. There were first-round NBA draft picks and veterans such as Hakim Warrick from Syracuse, Dahntay Jones from Duke and Josh Boone from UConn, along with ex-college stars like Marshall Henderson (Ole Miss), Andre Barrett (Seton Hall), Matt Walsh (Florida) Russell Robinson (Kansas), Josh Selby (Kansas), Antonio Anderson (Memphis), Austin Freeman (Georgetown) and Chris Wright (Georgetown). There were also alumni squads from Notre Dame, Villanova, Cornell, Princeton and Air Force as well as underdog teams that participated thanks to their success attracting an online following.
The 24 teams that gathered the most votes on the TBT website from March 4 to May 1 were automatically in the field. The event organizers chose the final eight. They all gathered to compete for a prize that at first led to rampant skepticism.
Rico Hill, a second-round pick in the 1999 NBA draft, was on a team last summer that won $100,000 in a tournament sponsored by AND1. But a half-million dollars? It didn't make sense to Hill or others, including Kieran Piller, a former walk-on at Notre Dame who heard about TBT through a law school friend.
"My first question was, 'This seems like some sort of scam,'" Piller said.
After researching the event and realizing it was legit, Piller asked several former Fighting Irish players to join his squad. They reacted with similar astonishment.
"I said, 'Is it real?' How do you know?' 'Where did you hear this from?' and 'Is it really $500,000,'" said former Notre Dame guard Russell Carter, a first-team All Big East selection as a senior in 2007. "Then I said, 'Who's on our team?'"
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Jon Mugar was accustomed to the naysayers. Three years ago, Mugar reached out to his childhood friend, Dan Friel, with an idea. He wanted to stage a basketball tournament modeled after the FA Cup, a soccer competition in England open to teams of all levels.
Mugar, a television producer who has worked for Comedy Central and Adult Swim, had played basketball at Division III Tufts University near Boston and had always been fascinated with different formats of sporting events. He thought TBT would give people a chance to compete with or against players with major college or professional experience, an opportunity similar to pro-am events at golf tournaments, although those don't involve any prize money. He didn't anticipate, though, the obstacles that lay ahead.
"You don't see a lot of professional sports leagues start up for good reason," Mugar said. "It's extremely challenging to come up with an idea that could potentially work."
Still, Mugar and Friel continued to hash out details. They put together a five-page summary of their vision and presented it to sports industry veterans who served as their advisors. The group included former Oakland A's, Memphis Grizzlies and San Francisco 49ers executive Andy Dolich, former ESPN and CBS Sports programming executive Len DeLuca and former Anheuser-Busch sports and media marketing executive Tony Ponturo. Between them, the three men had more than 100 years of high-level experience and were used to hearing pitches.
Mugar, 38, initially hoped to sign a national television deal, secure major sponsorships and host games in multiple locations. He soon found that television and advertising executives were risk-averse and didn't see much value in putting their money behind someone without a track record of promoting and running revenue-producing events.
"It's only natural that at first they're going to be skeptical, and it's not so much that they're going to be skeptical on the idea, but can you execute?," Ponturo said. "It's sort of understandable, to some degree, to some people that spend time in the industry that you just can't knock on the door and say, 'I have this amazing idea.'"
With guidance from Dolich, DeLuca and Ponturo, Mugar decided late last year that he would launch TBT on a smaller scale. He compared the first year to a test pilot in the television or marketing industries, where companies evaluate series or products in certain markets and see if it makes sense to expand. He realized he had to prove he could make the tournament successful before turning it into as big of an event as he had originally planned.
"It became clear to all of us, and ultimately to Jon, that people were going to have to touch and feel it before they were going to really commit in a big way," Ponturo said. "It was too good of an idea to just keep on the sidelines."
Instead of spending money on advertising, Mugar and his group spread the word mostly through social media and their friends, colleagues, family members and business partners. They set the field at 32 teams and considered several venues in the Northeast. They chose Philadelphia University because its gym had two courts next to each other and its location was within driving distance of several major cities.
A group of investors from Boston provided TBT with $1.5 million in funding to cover the $500,000 prize plus expenses such as paying for the event staff, referees, uniforms, travel costs and production crews that compiled game and behind-the-scenes footage that TBT plans on pitching to television networks. Although TBT's organizers could not secure a media rights deal and did not sell sponsorships, Mugar wanted the inaugural competition to resemble a professional or major college atmosphere, so he contracted with organizations with experience managing big events.
Hoop Group, a New Jersey-based company that runs basketball camps and tournaments, handled the basketball operations and hired referees who had officiated college games. Octagon, a sports marketing agency, was in charge of the event marketing. Mark Sullivan, a former director of the U.S. Secret Service, was responsible for security personnel. In all, 75 people were hired for the weekend. Friel was so committed that he took an unpaid, six-month leave from his job as an assistant U.S. attorney in New Orleans and devoted himself full-time to TBT.
With the logistics set, the last step was convincing players to compete. That responsibility mainly fell to Hoop Group president Rob Kennedy and TBT employee Jesse Leeds-Grant, a 2012 UMass graduate.
"It's not like we went into this with teams lined up and players lined up to play," Mugar said. "We literally just kind of put the idea out there and then launched it, crossed our fingers and hoped that the players would think it's a fun and interesting format."
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The tournament's third game encapsulated Mugar's vision of an open tournament and his group's ability to attract players of varied backgrounds. One team featured Parker (274 career NBA games), Robinson (a starter on Kansas's 2008 national championship team) and seven-foot center Luke Bonner, a starter at UMass who played a few years professionally. Their opponent was Eberlein Drive, the name of the street that brothers Joe and Craigen Oster and their friend, Jacob Hirschmann, grew up on in suburban Detroit.
Hirschmann and the Osters are college students who never played past high school, but they gathered enough votes to compete and convinced two former players from Philadelphia University and one from Robert Morris to join them last Friday. Craigen Oster referred to TBT as "the best thing that we've ever been a part of, sports-wise," even though Eberlein Drive lost 113-71. Joe Oster recalled watching Parker start for his hometown Pistons two days after the November 2004 "Malice in the Palace" brawl between the Pistons and Pacers.
"To think, I was in fourth or fifth grade at the time," Joe Oster said. "Now I'm playing against him. I was guarding him. I tried to strip him, but he crossed me over."
Parker's team advanced to the semifinals before falling in overtime to top seed Team Barstool, which was named after Barstool Sports, a popular website and company based in Massachusetts. Barstool Sports founder David Portnoy, who has more than 147,000 Twitter followers, helped his squad gather the most votes in the tournament. His teammates included a 10-year NBA veteran (Dahntay Jones), four-year NBA veteran (Josh Boone) and four players with experience at major colleges and in professional leagues: Matt Walsh, Andre Barrett, Donnie McGrath and Justin Burrell.
Thanks to winning an online vote earlier this week, Team Barstool will host the championship game on June 28 in Boston against the Fighting Alumni, a group of former players from Notre Dame, including guards Chris Thomas and Russell Carter and forwards Ryan Ayers, Tyrone Nash and Rob Kurz. Like the previous games, the final will feature two, 18-minute halves and six fouls per player. By gathering the most votes, Team Barstool was able to choose the length of the shot clock and decided on a 24-second clock instead of the 45-second clock that was used in the first four rounds. The stakes are high. The champion earns $500,000 to split, while the runner-up gets nothing.
So far, TBT has not drawn large crowds, but the participants and fans have been pleasantly surprised at the quality of play and the tournament's professionalism. At Philadelphia University last Friday, Saturday and Sunday, approximately 2,000 people purchased tickets for the games at $20 per round. Legendary high school coach Bob Hurley rooted for some of his former players on Friday night, broadcaster Len Elmore watched his son compete and Suns forwards Marcus and Markieff Morris cheered on some old friends.
Thomas and Kurz, both of whom recently retired from professional careers, didn't know what to expect when they arrived. The games weren't glorified pickup contests as they had feared. Instead, each game had three referees. Teams had their own locker rooms and even received their own uniforms, among other perks.
"These jerseys are dang near the same as Notre Dame," Thomas said. "This is the real deal."
"This is more professional than Europe," Kurz said.
Piller, who received his undergraduate and law degrees from Notre Dame, helped put together the Fighting Alumni team and served as its coach. Before the event, he was a little leery about how well the organizers would do, but his fears quickly dissipated. His only minor complaint was that the May 1 deadline for rosters was difficult because a lot of players were still competing overseas and didn't know if they would be back in the United States by early June. Other than that, Piller was effusive in his praise.
"Obviously you're going to have some growing pains in the first year, but I think it's remarkable how well it's gone," Piller said. "They've done such a commendable job. Everybody that's a part of it is so appreciative of this because I think everybody recognizes how hard it is to put something like this together."
Mugar is already planning ahead. Next year, he hopes to have more teams involved and have a few regions similar to the NCAA tournament. He also anticipates a higher overall purse, possibly $1 million or more, which would be shared among multiple teams.
Throughout the weekend, camera crews followed and interviewed players and coaches and posted videos on TBT's YouTube channel. Mugar and his advisors plan on showing footage to television networks and sponsors. Dolich could see TBT becoming a behind-the-scenes, documentary or reality series during the summer. He mentioned HBO's Hard Knocks and 24/7, Golf Channel's The Big Break and Fox Sports's The Ultimate Fighter as models.
Still, Mugar, Dolich and everyone else involved with TBT understand those are grand ambitions. For now, they are glad the inaugural event went off without any major issues.
"The questioning and skepticism was out there," Dolich said. "What we had to do was prove ourselves. We're not at the point where it's perfect by any stretch, but people know that it's real now. There's no question about that, and it could become a lot bigger and better."
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Tim Casey is a freelance sports writer and a former Sacramento Bee sports reporter. He works for HMP Communications, a health care/medical media company.