Local coach leads City of Gods to ESPN tournament semifinals

Baltimore native Joe Connelly leads City of Gods into semifinals of ESPN's "The Basketball Tournament"

Joe Connelly describes ESPN's "The Basketball Tournament" as "AAU on steroids."

Connelly, who grew up in Baltimore and has coached on all levels, including the NBA, has led his City of Gods team to the semifinals of the tournament on Saturday.

From the frenetic pace of the games to the "posturing" between opposing teams as they walk past each other at the hotel, this second-year, single-elimination event is quite similar to those many of its players grew up with before going off to college and the pros.

There is one significant difference: the $1 million check the winning team will receive after Sunday's championship game at Fordham's Rose Hill Gymnasium in the Bronx.

City of Gods, which is named after a Baltimore clothing store, includes several players with local ties, including former Maryland star James Gist and Omar Strong, a former two-time All-Metro guard at Douglass High who played collegiately at Texas Southern.

"It's been a great experience," Connelly said this week. "When you go about assembling a team, you can pick the most talented guys, but chemistry is so important. I was surprised how into it the guys were. They get paid a lot of money overseas, but they got really into the concept early and stuck with it the whole time. That's been the best part of it so far. It's been very rewarding."

City of Gods general manager Lafonte Johnson, a former two-time all-Metro guard at Towson Catholic and Dunbar High who played collegiately at Nevada-Las Vegas and George Washington, said the fact "that everyone is making the same amount [if the team wins] means that nobody is trying to act like the star."

A former Baltimore City teacher and coach who most recently worked as a skills development coach for the Washington Wizards, Connelly put his team together after reading about the inaugural tournament last summer that was won by a team made up largely of former Notre Dame players.

The Notre Dame Fighting Alumni walked away with $500,000 and gave the Coaches Vs. Cancer charity a check for $40,000.

"It sounded too good to be true, but a friend who played on the team told me it was legit and his team got paid the money right after the game," Connelly, 43, recalled. "I started playing around with the idea [of starting a team] and spoke to a couple of guys. A couple of key guys jumped in really early and once I had those guys the others fell right into place."

Along with Gist and Strong, the City of Gods is led by two former NBA first-round draft choices, Michael Sweetney of Georgetown and DerMarr Johnson of Cincinnati, as well as Pops Mensah-Bonsu of George Washington and David Hawkins of Temple.

Gist figured that City of Gods would be one of the favorites based on how many on the roster went to high-level college programs and are now playing professionally.

Sitting in the bleachers alongside the practice court at the University of Maryland's Xfinity Center before a team shootaround Tuesday, Gist said he's not surprised by the level of competition throughout the tournament.

"Basketball is a worldwide sport. … You have to respect the fact that everybody may have some skill at the game of basketball and in the summertime anybody can get the opportunity to play," said Gist, a second-round draft choice of the San Antonio Spurs in 2009 who now plays in Athens, Greece, after signing a two-year, $1.6 million contract last summer.

The winner-take-all prize in "The Basketball Tournament" was doubled this season.

"When I heard that, my heart started to beat fast," Connelly said. "I had no idea it would be anything like this. It's been something of a surreal experience."

Strong might say the same thing, especially after hitting a ridiculously long 3-pointer to put his team ahead late in the quarterfinals last weekend at DePaul University against Boeheim's Army, made up mostly of former Syracuse players.

Said Connelly, "He's arguably been one of our MVPs, one of our unsung heroes."

Strong compares "The Basketball Tournament" to March Madness, something he never experienced in his two years at Texas Southern.

In his first season in 2011-12, the team lost in the conference tournament championship game. As a senior, Strong was the Southwestern Athletic Conference player of the year but the team couldn't go to the NCAA tournament because of NCAA sanctions.

Now Strong feels as if he has made the Final Four.

"Nobody really knew me or didn't really see me a lot because I didn't go to a big D-I school and get the TV time and everything," said Strong, who has signed to play with a team in Paris this season. "Just for me playing against guys who went to big D-I colleges and actually doing well, and now our team ends up in the Final Four is a really big accomplishment. I didn't get my shot, so now I can show what I can do."

Strong had tweeted after making the long shot, "This has been a dream come true to me! I'm shining on the big stage!!!"

Said Gist, "You see players you've never heard of and players you haven't heard about in a long time. They can be like diamonds in the rough and this could open up doors for a lot of people for a long time."

Gist certainly had his moments at Maryland, including leading an unranked team to victory over No. 1 and unbeaten North Carolina in Chapel Hill as a senior in 2009. Gist said the past couple of weeks have been similar to when he played in the NCAA tournament as a junior.

"The scene at the NCAA was bigger, but at the same time, you have a prize at the end, you have a chance to win a championship and it's going to be televised," Gist said. "To get that type of exposure with the talent that's out there, you can say it's a similar feeling."

This has been the first time in several years that Connelly has coached a team. His coaching career began when he coached his brothers, Tim and Pat, on the JV team at their alma mater, Towson Catholic, where he also helped develop Carmelo Anthony. Tim Connelly is now in his second year as general manager of the Denver Nuggets, while Pat is the assistant general manager of the Phoenix Suns.

Connelly, who gained a reputation as a skills development guru with clients including Trevor Ariza, spent three years in that position with the Wizards. He left the team last summer after Ariza returned to the Houston Rockets.

"Truthfully … the time commitment [to an NBA team] for having a young family is not really that conducive," said Connelly, the father of three.

Coaching the City of Gods could not have come at a better time personally for Connelly, whose wife, Ladina, is pregnant and due in December.

On Tuesday night, most of the team showed up at Maryland for the first of three practices this week before taking the train to New York on Friday. The games this weekend will be shown on ESPN.

"It's been fun," Connelly said. "The competition level has been way higher than I expected."

Come Sunday, so might the reward.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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