The Basketball Tournament brings Baltimore stars back home

For Donte Greene, the motivation wasn’t much different than it had been when he was a teenage star on the rise, developing his skills on courts around Baltimore.

“I was just looking for a good run,” the former NBA first-round draft pick said. “Just some good summer basketball.”

That quest led Greene to hook up with a team of fellow Syracuse alumni, including another former Baltimore high school standout, C.J. Fair. They dubbed themselves Boeheim’s Army as a nod to their college coach and entered a winner-take-all competition known as The Basketball Tournament. After four straight victories, including a 30-point comeback in the last 12 minutes of their quarterfinal game, Greene, Fair and Co. are coming to Baltimore for the semifinals of TBT, Tuesday night at Coppin State. They’ll be cheered on by another Syracuse alumnus and Baltimore product, Carmelo Anthony.

Anthony helped bring the four-year-old event to his hometown. The semifinals and Thursday’s final will be broadcast on ESPN, and the winning team will split a cool $2 million.

Greene has played at the highest levels of basketball, from four seasons with the Sacramento Kings to professional stints in China and Dubai. He says fans will see an excellent product when TBT makes its Baltimore debut. Players are motivated by the money (each member of Boeheim’s Army would take home $150,000 if they win), the chance to reunite with old friends and teammates and the possibility of being noticed by NBA or overseas scouts.

“All the guys are pros, basically, and everybody wants to win, period,” says Greene, who hopes to earn one more shot in the NBA. “I think it’s the best basketball of the summer.”

That’s certainly what TBT founder and CEO Jon Mugar hoped for when he conceived the idea on his laptop in a Los Angeles coffee shop, during breaks from his day job as a writer and producer for several Adult Swim comedy series. Mugar had played basketball at Tufts, and he and a buddy talked about how cool it would be to stage an open-entry tournament with lucrative prize money (their pie-in-the-sky notion was $50 million) for the winner and only the winner. Mugar envisioned it as a blend of the one-and-done stakes of March Madness with the camaraderie of pick-up ball with the skill of professional players still hungry to be noticed by the NBA.

The event would also incorporate fans in an unusual way. Each team’s general manager would be responsible for recruiting not just players but a base of supporters. Those supporters would have to vote the team into the tournament field (a few squads would also get in via play-in games and the defending champion would be guaranteed a spot). Fans of the victor also stood to win 10 percent of the prize.

It was a fairly outlandish notion. As Mugar says, no one really thinks about starting a professional sports event from scratch, with no backing from television networks or corporate sponsors. “I was sort of this insane man from the comedy world pitching this thing,” he says. “I have a lot of ideas, and a lot of them are really dumb. But this one just kind of kept progressing. It became an obsession.”

He pulled together enough private investors to launch TBT in 2014, with a $500,000 prize on the line.

On the first morning of play in Philadelphia, Mugar paced the empty gym nervously. One team, a group of former NAIA players, was present and warmed up. But with tip-off time looming, the other team, led by former Ole Miss star Marshall Henderson, was nowhere in sight. Mugar was three minutes from watching his dream crumble when Henderson burst in the door with a jersey slung around his neck and shouted, “ Let’s play some ball.”

It was the pivotal moment in TBT’s creation myth. That very first day, Mugar says, he was contacted by someone at ESPN, who had heard good things about the level of play. That kicked off discussions that would lead to the network broadcasting TBT games the next year. The prize money doubled to $1 million and then again to the current $2 million. The field expanded from 32 to 64 teams. Former NBA players such as Greene, Jared Sullinger and DeJuan Blair appeared on rosters.

Mugar’s fantasy no longer seems far-fetched. TBT isn’t the only game in town. There’s the NBA Summer League, of course. And the BIG3 league, founded by Ice Cube and featuring half-court games between former NBA stars. But the “insane man from comedy” has found his niche.

In the moments after last year’s championship game at Fordham University in New York, several officials from the Finn Group, a Baltimore-based marketing firm, approached Mugar about bringing the event to Charm City. Anthony’s interest was part of the pitch.

“It just kind of snowballed,” Mugar says. “When you have mayors and NBA stars pitching you, it’s pretty flattering.”

The deal to bring Tuesday’s semifinals and Thursday’s final to Coppin was announced in April. “I’m a believer in chasing after your dreams no matter what. And that’s what this tournament symbolizes to me,” Anthony said in a statement at the time. “Baltimore will always have a special place in my heart, and I’m excited to bring a tournament like this to this city. Basketball and Baltimore go hand in hand. The perfect match. A city that is all about determination. A city that helped build me.”

Greene, 29, recently moved back to the area after several years of globetrotting. He was born in Germany and lived in Guam and Japan as a child, so playing overseas never rattled him as it does some American players. In fact, he described Dubai as “paradise.” His children invariably cried in the airport when it was time to return to the U.S. They never wanted to leave. That said, there’s nothing quite like playing in front of the hometown folks.

“It’s been dope to play on TV but to come back home to where it all started, we’re going to show people some serious hoops,” he says.

“It’s definitely an extra boost,” says Fair, 25, who starred at City. “Basketball is really big in Baltimore, and we have a chance to win something in our hometown.” He played in France last season, and like Greene, he still hopes for a shot in the NBA. But for now, $150,000 and a few more games with his college buddies sounds pretty good.

After a disappointing showing in 2016, Boeheim’s Army gathered in Syracuse for a week of practice before TBT 2017. They won their first game easily but scraped by in their next three, including that remarkable quarterfinal comeback against Team Foe, another group of former college stars. To advance to the Thursday final, they’ll have to get past Overseas Elite, a team that’s never lost in three years of TBT play. On the other side of the bracket looms Scarlet & Gray, a crew of Ohio State alums led by Sullinger, who played for the Toronto Raptors last season.

If it’s just another summer run, as Greene says, it’s an awfully fierce one.

Tournament schedule

SEMIFINALS

Tuesday, ESPN

7 p.m.: Team Challenge ALS vs. Scarlet & Gray

9 p.m.: Boeheim's Army vs. Overseas Elite

FINAL

Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN

Tickets, info: thetournament.com

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