WASHINGTON, D.C. — The air inside the gym at Bard High School Early College is not much cooler than the air outside on a stifling July morning. And, with each passing minute, the din and sweat of just over a dozen basketball players playing shirts and skins is adding to the pressure.
They’ve been at it an hour already, drilling through offensive sets for a tournament that starts in days. They’ll be at it another hour yet, and then they’ll pack up, drive 45 minutes to Potomac, Maryland, and scrimmage for a few hours more. Coach Nima Omidvar wants to give his players encouragement: “We’re going to break after this.”
He looks down at the notes in his hand. Wait.
“No we’re not,” he corrects himself. Too much still to do.
This is a practice for Shell Shock, a team nominally of Maryland basketball alumni that will be one of 64 squads of pro hoopers hoping to be a million dollars richer by Aug. 3 in The Basketball Tournament, a single-elimination, winner-take-all affair whose champions get to divide a million any way they want.
But it’s not exactly a well-oiled machine of longtime teammates: Initial hopes that well-known alums such as Melo Trimble and Jake Layman would suit up for the team’s first game Tuesday in Louisville, Kentucky, were dashed by contract stipulations of their overseas teams. Roddy Peters – who would have been one of the team’s most important playmakers – twisted his ankle in an alumni game in West Virginia a week ago.
The roster has been whittled down to five players with Maryland ties (including one-year Terps Xavier Green and L.G. Gill), a group strung together by Omidvar, who was a Mark Turgeon assistant and now coaches at Coastal Carolina. He’s installing concepts in this weekend cram session with some brand-new roster additions, each of whom cost $1,000 because they were added after July 1. Some sponsors defray the overall cost of flights to Louisville for the opening game against a team of Florida alums, but the team is still asking for donations on GoFundMe.
This whole enterprise feels like a labor of love, I joke to Damonte Dodd, a Centreville native who racked up 141 blocks for the Terps in his four-year career.
“Not always love,” he quips back.
It’s perhaps even generous to call Shell Shock a “long shot” in TBT. Despite so many entrants, the tournament can lead to predictable outcomes. There were four straight years when the Overseas Elite team won the money. Everyone else who comes up short doesn’t get much at all.
So why do it? Why even enter? Many of these players spend 10 months of the year overseas. Why use your summer break in a competition where you might only get a pat on the back for your efforts?
“Because we have irrational confidence,” says C.J. Williams, a 33-year-old forward who has played in TBT before. “Every team believes they’re gonna win it all. And you have to have that in basketball, but especially in this tournament, you have to have that belief that you’re supposed to win that money.”
The motivations of Shell Shock may have less to do with $1 million than other, more quintessential dreams. Just about every serious young, male basketball player hopes to live out NBA aspirations and make gobs of money. But even when those dreams fade, the competitive spirit lives on – and that’s why TBT persists in spite of the low odds of winning and the smaller fanfare than, say, March Madness.
These guys aren’t done with the game.
Darryl Morsell, a Mount Saint Joseph alum who played for Maryland and Marquette in his college career, will likely be one of the team’s best players (he is allotted a $100,000 share if Shell Shock wins compared to $60,000 for most of his teammates). He spent his first pro season in a better situation than most, playing in the G League for Raptors 905 and still able to see his family most of the year.
Why do this at all?
“I like to play basketball, first and foremost,” Morsell says. “I felt like this was a good opportunity to play against some good players, get some bump in, represent Maryland, because it’s always home for me.”
Others don’t play as much on American soil as Morsell. Before and after Shell Shock practices, players compare notes on the tax practices of France and Israel. Dodd tells me he preferred playing in Dubai to playing in Kosovo last year because he loves the Middle Eastern heat. For a great number of players on this team and in the larger tournament field, it represents a chance to play a national showcase in the U.S., where they long to display their talents no matter how short the run might be.
“You’re in the United States playing,” says Mo Creek, who once played in a final in 2020 for the Sideline Cancer squad. “I feel like that’s why they come out. And everybody want the money, and everybody feel like they got an even shot, just like us.”
That doesn’t make it easy to get a team together. Over a series of months, Omidvar recruited a number of Terps alums who backed out for various reasons, many of them because of their overseas commitments. He’s learned a lot, he says, and he’s been able to host practices thanks to Maryland hoop connections such as Byron Mouton, the 2002 champion who opened his gym a few weeks ago at a church in Lanham.
The future of Maryland alum teams in TBT might rest at least a bit on how this incarnation performs. College alumni have one-year runs all the time. In 2020, a Marquette alumni team won the whole thing. This year, it doesn’t have a team at all.
Shell Shock believes it has a slight edge, at least, in its first game against a Florida alumni team that has a number of players in their late 30s, including longtime NBA vet Corey Brewer. But, for any of these games, belief is the top prerequisite – the fuel that keeps the competitive fire burning in spite of the odds.
“Any team that would say that they would win it, at this point, sounds crazy. It would seem like delusion,” Morsell tells me. “But somebody gotta do it. And I feel like we got the depth, the pieces.”
The biggest thing Omidvar says is for the alums to play together. After one of their weekend sessions, he lauds the team for being willing to pass, “but if our guards are open, we gotta let it fly.” They hope the cram session is enough to keep Shell Shock in the tournament through at least the three rounds in Louisville, against a field that includes some Louisville alumni (The Ville) who will have home-court advantage.
The language of basketball is somewhat universal, Williams assures me. They’ll have enough installed to get a good showing for their Tuesday afternoon start on ESPN+. “We have to be connected to get the money,” he says.
“And I want my money.”