“You guys need a fifth? I’ll suit up, man.”
At most basketball games, comments like that would be taken as a joke, but it was a serious question.
Josh Selby, former NBA player and Kansas graduate, and the rest of the members of his team, Team FOE, were warming up on the court, notably short one player.
Selby turned to the man shouting at him from the stands and simply said, “Don’t worry, we’ll be fine,” before flashing a smile, turning around and knocking down a three-pointer from several steps behind the line.
Though Selby wasn’t entirely right, as his team would go on to lose their opening round game, his attitude was characteristic of the pure basketball paradise that was The Basketball Tournament. Put simply, it combined all the best parts of basketball.
There were Cinderella stories upon Cinderella stories.
One team that only started one player over six foot went against a team with former NBA talent. Another was comprised of athletes from Olivet Nazarene University, an NAIA school, yet held its own for most of a game against former Ole Miss star Marshall Henderson and NBA veteran Hakim Warrick.
There was a game of four-on- five, as mentioned above, where the score was close the entire way.
There was raw athleticism on display and alley- oops and highlight- reel dunks abounded.
There were teams of alumni suited up in their school colors and teams brought together who had clearly spent little time playing together.
And in the end, I was left with a resounding feeling that this was the epitome of what basketball can be.
I’ve been to plenty of basketball games in my life at a variety of skill levels, but The Basketball Tournament was different.
Most games involve two well-disciplined teams with full coaching staffs and well-thought- out plays and rotations. These games often have very little on the line, just another win or loss on the record. The vast majority of the time players are on those teams because they were selected, not by their own choice.
The Basketball Tournament was none of that.
Instead this weekend there was something unique. Teams came out, each brought together by some meaningful connection, and played with energy and passion and, most of all, without inhibition.
For once, there was nothing stopping Selby from taking a long three-pointer because he saw an opening, or Smush Parker, a former Lakers point guard, from throwing an alley-oop off of an inbounds play.
Teams could play without coaches, without full rosters and without real playbooks.
Were there plenty of shots that most coaches would have screamed their heads off about their players taking? Certainly. But for every terribly chosen shot, there was one that blew the small crowds in the arena away.
You might expect more discipline in a tournament where the teams were all brought together by the prize of $500,000, yet it became clear that the prize wasn’t on the minds of the majority of teams.
Players were there for the experience, for the love of basketball and for the chance to play with teammates old and new. It was clear in their faces and in their press conferences.
After facing the Philly Patriots, a team with a number of UVA players and Penn’s Fran Dougherty. Pat Fisher, a 5-foot-9 Pitt graduate from the Philadelphia area, had nothing but praise for his opponents following the loss. For Fisher, it was all about the experience of getting together a good group of friends and having the opportunity to play against top level talent.
So while the first part of The Basketball Tournament is over and only the final remains to be played, the experience will last for a while, because I doubt I’ll ever see basketball quite like that again .
I’m not sure if I’ll ever stand agape from displays of pure athleticism and basketball skill as often as I did this weekend, and it’s not just because of the number of games played.
Here’s to hoping that The Basketball Tournament wasn’t just a one time deal.