Ever heard of The Basketball Tournament?
No? Don't worry. You're not alone. It's pretty much brand spanking new. This summer the $1,000,000, single elimination, winner take all tournament will tip off for just the second time in its history. You may as well jump on the hype now though, because the folks who've conceived TBT may have just tapped into what very well could become a substantially and economically relevant vein of American sport.
In this 21st Century era of social media where random YouTubers ranting or singing into a webcams turn into superstars, where a bartender from Boston can parlay a sports blog into one of the most trafficked branches of ESPN.com, and a lady writing internet Twilight fan fiction can become an international bestseller, the world of sports competition has been woefully behind the curve.
So when The Basketball Tournament's creators correctly identified the dead sports period of mid-summer and no shortage of pro ballers that may find themselves currently outside the NBA or playing internationally - many of which memorable and beloved college stars from across the U.S. - they melded it with the world of kickstarter-esque calls for team by team support, internet crowd sourcing, and Twitter and Facebook cross linking proliferation, and thus this tournament was born.
This isn't 3-on-3 street ball. It's 5-on-5 and squads can assemble rosters of up to 12 players. The stipulation for participation is broad. There is no entry fee to play, and it's open to everyone over the age of 18 who - because of the cash prize - is willing to forgo their amateur status. Theoretically you could stock your team with yourself and a bunch of nobodies from your local rec center who think they have game. Although, you and your boys probably wouldn't make it far as most of these teams are stacked with guys who played college, international, and NBA ball. And that's of course if you gained entrance into the field at all.
Utilizing social media's all in participation model, teams that seek entry first have to field a roster and then garner enough fan support to earn an invite. Fans of teams are encouraged to share and invite others to get behind their teams. Most teams are even structured in a way that they have an appointed "booster" to rally support from alumni bases of colleges where their team's players balled. In the end it can even pay off for these fans. According to TBT's website, 95% of the cash prize is awarded to the players and coaches of the winning team. The remaining 5% is divided among the fans who supported the squad. It's a concept that's as wild assed as it might be brilliant. Hit up the TBT website for more complete information on its model of operation.
As evidence of the tournament's hyper accelerated evolution and visibility, last summer's TBT consisted of a field of 32 teams playing for a $500,000 cash prize awarded after a championship game in Boston, Mass., and this summer that field has expanded to 97 teams, a ballooning cash prize of $1,000,000, games played at four regional sites across the country, and an agreement to play the last four rounds before a live television audience on ESPN. That is a ridiculous step forward in social and sporting relevance.
In this expanded field, over 125 players with NBA or NBA D-Leauge experience will be participating. Among them are three former University of Kansas Jayhawks, Josh Selby, Russell Robinson, and Tyshawn Taylor.
Selby played last year alongside another former 'Hawk in Mario Little. On a different team, Robinson played as well.
Robinson was one of my favorite players on the 'Hawks 2008 Title team. Paired with Mario Chalmers, the two formed the best duo of pickpocketing guards in the nation, both helping to shatter steals records at KU. After Kansas crushed North Carolina in the '08 Final Four, former 'Hawks coach and current 'Heels head, Roy Williams, said of Robinson, "He's the most under advertised and best point guards in the country."
Last summer during TBT, Robinson's squad, Big Apple Basketball, made it all the way to the tournament's final four, thanks in large part to Robinson's second round buzzer beater.
This year Tyshawn Taylor will be trying his hand at TBT, playing for his squad, The Jabroni Project. Personally, I'm extremely excited to watch him play. That Taylor and Thomas Robinson led Jayhawk run to the 2012 NCAA National Title game was a thing of Kansas basketball legend, and my personal favorite of all the Jayhawks teams I've followed. Taylor was tough as hell, an absolute baller, and the unquestioned leader of that team. I can't wait to see what he does in this tourney.
When I found out about TBT I was surprised to see just three former 'Hawks participating.
The defending TBT champions are the Notre Dame Fightin' Alumni. As a Kansas alumnus and a still very active Jayhawk fan, I find this unacceptable. I know it's just two years old - despite it's insane growth after just one year - but why is there no team Rocka Chalka or Phog Squad not suiting up for the million this summer?
There's some great stories behind some of the teams in this tournament. Last summer Sports Illustrated profiled the last team to qualify for the TBT field, Eberlein Drive, named for the street on which the core members of the team grew up together. This summer there's a team made up of combined players from the Florida Gulf Coast team that went on that insane Sweet 16 run as a 15-seed in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, and Mercer who, as a 14-seed, knocked off 3-seed Duke in 2014. Fittingly, this team goes by the name Bracket Busters.
I pored over the list of accepted and eliminated teams on TBT's website, looking for squads with Kansas ties. I found one, unfortunately, on the eliminated list. They called themselves Pay Heed, and had Brady Morningstar's name attached to them. I betchya Brady was hoping to get his hands on some of that million to finally buy himself a comb to deal with that cowlick that was always sticking up off the back of his head during games when he played at the Phog.
It appears that Brady's team was done in by next to no fan support. When the model is built on such a key factor, Kansas fans should take note. Listen Rock Chalkers, with this tourney getting such a substantial boost with a television deal, we all need to be on it for next summer. I want to see a 'Hawks team in the field. The deadline for registration and fan voting comes around in June of 2016. Do your part. Share this info - preferably/selfishly, this article - with your friends. Make it end up on Bill Self's web browser or in his email que so that he may filter it down to past players.
Wouldn't it be great to see Sherron Collins, Julian Wright, Darnell Jackson, Kevin Young and his glorious fro and million dollar smile, on the court again?
Better yet - and plenty of 'Hawk fans may see this as sacrilege - with the Border War unfortunately dead, it would be awesomely twisted to see a joint Mo-Kan squad calling themselves the Border Warriors made up of guys like Kareem Rush, Arthur Johnson, Wayne Simien, Tyrel Reed, Ricky Paulding, Jeff Graves, etc.
The possibilities are endless! And that's the great thing about this tournament.
Last year the Notre Dame Fightin' Alumni took $40,000 of their winnings and made a donation to Coaches vs Cancer. Many teams go into the tournament with a desire to donate all the proceeds to charity. If you look at the roster info of Russell Robinson's Big Apple Basketball squad, for example, it has the salary/prize money cut listed for each player as a single dollar. If their team wins, the plan is to funnel all of that money right back into Big Apple Basketball Inc. a very important non-profit basketball program that benefits a lot of kids in New York City.
I was gonna root for Russ Rob anyway, but that's enough to make me hope they win it all.
The tournament begins July 10, with ESPN U coverage beginning in the Chicago "Super 17" on July 23, and the semi finals and championship on ESPN, August 1 & 2.
So don't forget to tune in and root for Josh Selby, Russell Robinson, and Tyshawn Taylor representing the crimson and blue. Let's get enough fan support behind a 'Hawks team for next summer's TBT.
For more information, check out this ESPN story on The Basketball Tournament from earlier this month.