It could have been an NBA bench. In a lot of ways, it was.
Markieff Morris sat at the far end. The Philly native and Phoenix Suns forward was seated next to Blazers forward Thomas Robinson. At the other end of the bench, Marcus Morris chatted with another local: Maalik Wayns, who went to Roman Catholic High School and Villanova before playing 29 games in the NBA, 21 with the 76ers during the 2012-13 season.
Dionte Christmas stood behind the bench and talked to friends and well-wishers. The Philly product went to Temple, then signed a deal with the Suns this season. He played 31 games in Phoenix with the Morris twins.
“A lot of people have been talking about this for a while,” Christmas said. “It’s great, man. I’m gonna be in here all day for the next three days. There’s definitely a buzz about this tournament.”
They were just a handful of familiar faces to show up at Philadelphia University’s Gallagher Athletic Center on Friday for the first round of The Basketball Tournament, a 32-team, single-elimination, winner-take-all affair. The second round will be held on Saturday, with the semifinals on Sunday. All of which will be played at the Gallagher Athletic Center. The location for the title game will be determined by a fan vote on The Basketball Tournament website. The champs will be awarded $500,000.
The tournament is the idea of Jon Mugar, a 30-something who played Division III hoops at Tufts and convinced a small group of Boston-based private investors to front the money. They hope the tournament will eventually grow into a broadcast property and expand around the country.
In its initial incarnation, there were 152 applicants, with the field funneled down to 32 teams of former prep, college and even some professional players. Former is the operative word. Initially, there was speculation that Nets center Andray Blatche might play. Because he is under contract, that prospect was quickly scuttled. Same with former Villanova standout Dante Cunningham, who is under contract with the Timberwolves. He was set to play for a team that features many of the Wildcats that advanced to the 2009 Final Four.
That’s why Wayns was on the bench watching Team FOE vs. Sideline Cancer rather than taking the court for Team Foe as expected. Wayns, who played two games for the Clippers this season, said he is close to signing a deal with an NBA team. He didn’t want to mess that up. And, no, he wouldn’t say which team. He didn’t want to mess that up, either.
“I wanted to play,” Wayns insisted. “It looks like fun.”
As a result, Team Foe was forced to take the court with just four players. One of them was Josh Selby, who played a year for the Kansas Jayhawks and 38 games over two seasons for the Memphis Grizzlies. Selby had a great game while the Morris twins, Christmas, Wayns and Robinson watched and (kinda, sorta) coached. Selby hit many threes. It wasn’t enough. Team Foe lost. Tough to play with just four players, no matter how talented.
On the other court, a small forward named Stephen Elmore was leading a squad called The Hittas to victory. You probably don’t know Stephen Elmore. Growing up, he was better at baseball, though he’s pretty good at hoops, too. You almost certainly know his dad, though: Len Elmore, who played in the ABA and NBA before becoming a basketball commentator for ESPN and CBS.
“My son played with a team called the Hittas,” Elmore said, explaining why he was on hand. “That was one thing. But the other thing was curiosity. When he first told me about this tournament, I kind of looked quizzically at him. But it’s interesting. The way people have characterized it is the field of dreams of basketball where you can come out here and rec league guys can play with former pros and former collegiate players, and former collegiate teams can try to relive their glory. And everybody gets to play for the money.”
A good portion of the Cornell team that reached the Sweet 16 played on Friday morning. They lost. They were not happy. Several former Temple Owls put together a squad. Penn product Fran Dougherty joined up with a bunch of guys who played at Virginia. They stomped an overmatched team of what appeared to be high school and pick-up players. Dougherty, by the way, signed with an agent and is talking to various teams in Europe.
Who else? Former Sixers coach Randy Ayers, now an assistant with the Pelicans, was on hand to watch his son, Ryan, play for a team of Notre Dame grads. Hakim Warrick played. There were rumors that legendary New Jersey hoops coach Bobby Hurley Sr. would make an appearance -- and whispers that Allen Iverson might show. And on it went. And that was the first few hours of the first day.
But back to that Team FOE game. Christmas was watching intently, pointing out players and tendencies and how he might attack the defense. He was into it. Probably more into it than you’d expect for someone of his ability. He looked like he wanted to play. If he wasn’t under contract, would he?
“If I wasn’t under contract,” he replied, “I would have been out there at 8:30 this morning.”