“Hey, can you do me a favor and vote for my basketball team?”
“Sure, what’s this about?”
“We are trying to get into this winner take all $2,000,000 tournament and we need fan votes.”
“Yeah, or is it more plausible that I would make the whole thing up for shits and giggles?”
“I voted, but that was a pain in the ass.”
Thanks to everyone who voted, Jason Williams, Mike Bibby and Juan Bernal, we received word at the beginning of July that we made TBT 2016. Our roster remained a work in progress until the week of our first game with twice as many names discussed and contacted than the 10 guys that made the trip. We featured two former NBA stars in Jason Williams and Mike Bibby. Two former Florida State Seminoles in Deivedas Dulkys and Luke Loucks. Local players Alex Castillo, Josh Warren and Bryan Richardson, along with imports Torlyn Fitzpatrick, Bobo Morgan and Amadou Mbogi.
Our preparations consisted of two scrimmages during Juan’s Pro Exposure camp the week before our first game. We had a partial squad and played poorly in the first game losing a close one, but were vastly improved in the second rolling to a 25 point win. Other than some general camaraderie it was difficult to assess what we accomplished during the weekend.
The team arrived piecemeal in Chicago on Thursday and Friday. I flew up with Alex Castillo who shared my sense that any outcome ranging from getting blown out in game one to winning the damn thing were on the table. We drove directly to practice where we did some skill and press work with seven of our ten players. Mike Bibby’s flight was delayed from Los Angeles, and to make matters worse, Juan received a distressing text message from Bryan Richardson midway through practice advising that he and Jason Williams had yet to leave Orlando. Juan, who rivals Chuck Daley as the Prince of Pessimism, plunged into a dark mood for the remainder of practice.
After practice, we returned to our hotel on the outskirts of civilization (and the city of Chicago) to find Jason, Bryan, Mahmood and a wildly intoxicated Cliff Smith chilling in the parking lot delighted at the stress they had caused Juan. Bibby was still en route, but we would have a productive second practice later that night.
Jason took control of the practice introducing basic sets to the delight of a youth team that lingered after their practice to see Jason, but not the rest of us. Cliff was in rare form as practice wound down hoisting jump shots and challenging players to one on one while he wore flip flops and pulled the front of his shirt over his neck exposing his sizeable, tattoed stomach.
As the hotel was 45 minutes from anything fun or interesting, we had a team dinner at the hotel restaurant. Truth be told, it was a good meal and a great time with the guys, many of whom were getting to know each other for the first time. We were loose and still clueless as to what to expect the next day.
On Saturday morning, I drove to the game with Bobo, Auguste and Amadou. We met Mike Bibby (for the first time) at the front door of the arena and the rest of the players filtered in thereafter. Games were ongoing and the TBT 2016 staff was fantastic in taking care of our pregame needs. We shot around in a spare gym, and Mahmood went to work stretching our guys in the training room. At 12:30 pm, we took the floor against Eberlien Drive for our first game. Eberlien Drive featured Justin Dentmon, Renaldo Balkman and the Milsap brothers, and much like ourselves was something of a hodge-podge of talented players.
Jason started the game brilliantly with steals, buckets and assists giving us an early lead. We had difficulty containing Dentmon on the other end, but the game turned in our favor with the insertion of Bryan Richardson, who promptly nailed 3 triples leading Eberlien’s coach to berate his players for not noticing Richardson shooting prowess on Home Team Hoops youtube videos. We led by as many as 24 in the fourth quarter before enduring a sloppy finish to win 96-86. It was a great moment. Everyone on the roster delivered what they were brought in to do and we played entertaining basketball.
The players returned to the hotel to rest, but the staff stayed on to scout our next opponent. Purple and Black, a Kansas State alumni team, prevailed in a close game. They were led by scoring guard Jacob Pullen, but lacked depth.
We enjoyed another team meal at the hotel reveling in our victory, bemoaning the lack of fun at our hotel and combing backpage for potential hijinx. On the way out of dinner, we encountered a lacrosse team with their parents. One of the dads recognized Jason while most of the kids just marveled at the relative height of our players. I went up to hang out with Bryan Richardson, Jason, Mahmood and Cliff. Things had gotten chippy between Mahmood and Cliff. Trash talk was incessant. Cliff changed clothes several times while threatening to go out, but sadly fell asleep on the floor with a makeshift blanket. I had to take a dump, and for the courtesy of the guys, returned to the lobby where the lacrosse gathering was breaking up. I got on the elevator with three teen lacrosse players. One of them was thrilled to have seen Jason Williams, but his friend claimed he did not know who he was which triggered the response of “Dude, you don’t know sports! Jason is the OG “white chocolate”.”
We arrived in good form to play Purple and Black. They had only five players available, but took an early lead. Again, Bryan Richardson hit a few threes to get us going and Jason was our catalyst. Purple and Black rallied in the latter part of the first half but Jason hit a pull up three from 28 feet and left a drop pass for Bryan on another three to give us a one point lead at the half. There was cause for concern though as Purple and Black was small and athletic. We could not play with them with two bigs on the floor. We went small to start the second have with Fitzpatrick at center and he was fantastic in helping us build a solid lead. Purple and Black ran out of gas late succumbing to our patient ball movement and slick decision-making. We won 94-80.
By reaching the Sweet 16, TBT 2016 picked up the cost of travel and lodging for our trip to Philly the next weekend and ESPN2 would broadcast our game the following Friday. The minutes after the game were a fantastic whirlwind. We moved our team up the TBT 2016 bracket and took team photos before being whisked to a room for individual photos. Without much of a team talk, we were escorted to another room to book travel arrangements. Again the players scattered and the coaches remained to watch Always a Brave, a Bradley alumni team play the next game. Always a Brave played an up and down game trailing by 5 with seconds to play. They hit a 3 with 5.6 seconds left to cut it to 2 then benefitted from a colossal blunder as their opponent, with a timeout in their back pocket, threw the ball away allowing Always a Brave to hit the go ahead 3 with a second left. The narrow escape was disconcerting. Alex Castillo astutely noted that we would have a far easier go with the opponent who was talented, but not particularly well organized. Always a Brave was coached and would clearly have a plan in place against us.
I arrived in Philly and met my parents and sister at the airport. I got to the hotel around 3pm and found Juan immersed in game film. I got word of a team dinner with our assistant general manager and chief financier, Dave Farber, at the Outback around 5:30. I left the room for the lobby at 4:45 and had an uneventful walk to the lobby. By 5:15 the rest of the guys started to arrive with tales of a pile of shit lying in the middle of the hallway. It was described as large, foul-smelling, and believed to have come from a large dog. Later, the hotel staff would confirm that it was in fact human feces and there was video of the perpetrator (not a member of our traveling party). I have to confess to admiration for any man with the sheer audacity to take a dump in the middle of a hallway on a late Friday afternoon.
Our pregame meal was largely uneventful. Most of the guys wisely selected grilled chicken of some sort. Jason, who remained back in Club 207 (his room), texted a request for two whoppers and a large coke from Burger King.
At the arena, I was watching the earlier game when a coach from Always a Brave approached and asked me to convey a message to Bryan Richardson about a long ago game between Bradley and Richardson’s Tennessee-Chattanooga team. Richardson’s head dropped slightly when I relayed the story with the realization that he was unlikely to get a clean look all night. Nonetheless, we warmed up in the same gym as Always a Brave and I felt confident that we were better.
For the first 8 or 9 minutes, I was right. We led 20-15 and moved the ball well. We missed 4 lay ups though and with it the chance to take a double figure lead when we were in top form. Fouls accumulated. Always a Brave hit shots and took a lead in the later part of the first half. We kept Jason in the whole half to insure we stayed within striking distance, but he was gassed by halftime. Always a Brave was killing us on the glass including an offensive rebound of a missed free throw and a follow up three that gave them a 5 point lead at the half.
We had not played well, but at 41-35 were very much in the game. Unfortunately, Always a Brave hit the first 4 shots of the second half for a quick double figure lead. We had one window to get back in the game trailing by 10 at the 13 minute mark. We defended well, almost created a steal, but they got the loose ball and hit a 3 at the end of the shot clock to go up 13. We missed on the next possession and they scored again to go up 15. Game over. We lost 92-65. It was a bit embarrassing by the end. We mismanaged our bench, got exposed for our weaknesses and did not catch a break all game.
Jason uncorked an epic post-game presser. He praised Kevin Durant for joining the Warriors, called Charles Barkley a “fat loser that nobody wanted on their team”, described himself as “one irresponsible 40 year old” and concluded by saying when asked if he would return to TBT 2016 next year, “do fat hogs fart?”
We returned to the hotel and specifically Club 207 to heal our wounds before heading out on the town. We hit downtown Philly with a vengeance. Our first stop was a strange bar that featured 90’s music and white guys dancing with Christmas hats. We looked for something better and found Sixers rookie Ben Simmons on the street. He invited us to his VIP room at a much cooler club where we spent the rest of the night. We lived in the moment and even tried to convince a seedy establishment to stay open after hours to accommodate our circus.
Saturday, I toured the city with my parents in the morning, and hung at Club 207 most of the evening. The highlight, beyond the standard fare of Jason stories and life wisdom, was Mahmood’s long overdue ambush of Cliff Smith as he entered Club 207. Mahmood struck from the rear, but Cliff, fueled by alcohol and retard-strength, managed an improbable reversal. Mahmood contended that he was only playing, but was visibly shaken by his under-estimation of Cliff.
The players departed early Sunday morning, but I stayed on with Juan and Greg Miller, NBA aficionado and Lebron fanboy. We toured the city exchanged witty, jaded barbs and settled for a Geno’s cheesesteak before returning our rental car and flying home knowing that Pedro’s Posse, like MacArthur in the Phillipines and farting fat hogs, would return.