Everyone wants the $2 million that's up for grabs, that's for sure. But for the Fort Wayne Champs basketball team, win or lose, getting back together makes it worthwhile.
The Champs are made up of all former Mad Ants players, many of whom were part of the team that won the 2014 championship in the D-League, the NBA's developmental league now known as the Gatorade League.
“The money is obviously the goal, the end game, but playing together is a blast as well,” said guard Matt Bouldin, who will be joined on the court today in the first round of the winner-take-all The Basketball Tournament by Ron Howard, Stephan Hicks, Travis Leslie, Jordan Loyd, Will Frisby, Ramon Harris, Anthony Harris and E. Victor Nickerson.
Trey McKinney Jones had been slated to play in Peoria, Illinois, before injuring his shoulder at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, where Leslie and Loyd were also playing. Adam Woodbury is also out because of an injury.
Formerly known as Ants Alumni – the name was changed this year at the request of the NBA's Indiana Pacers, who own and operate the Mad Ants – this team made it to the 64-team TBT semifinals in 2015 and lost in the first round last year. Not all of the players were with the Mad Ants at the same time, but they recognize the common thread of Mad Ants basketball.
“It's almost like a brotherhood, somewhat like a college situation where you respect the guys behind you (that have played for the Mad Ants) and you know about the guys who played ahead of you,” Bouldin said.
While Howard and Frisby have retired, most of them still play professionally. Last season, Hicks, Leslie, Loyd and Nickerson were with the Mad Ants. Bouldin, meanwhile, played in South Korea.
“It's amazing playing there. It's a great league and they take care of you,” Bouldin said. “They want it to be very professional, like the NBA, so they do everything they can to make it that way. It's a lot like most places over there; you tend to practice a lot more than here. It's pretty stressful that way.”
Garrett Martz, former vice president of sales with the Mad Ants and the Champs' general manager, first found out about TBT when it was won in 2014 by a team with three former Mad Ants.
“I looked into it. What is this? It's for real money? So I started to think about it and the regionals were in Chicago and we just had won the (D-League) championship,” Martz said. “It's like, this would be easy to get guys, and I knew we would be a big favorite to win it.”
Martz pays most of the expenses, namely travel, lodging and practice time for the players.
“I look at it two ways. First, it's like a summer vacation type of a thing. Opposed to taking a cruise, I get to do this,” he said. “But also, I think we have a good chance to win. ... If we did this a bunch of times, we'd be a good bet in a gambling sense and I enjoy it.”
Former Indiana University and Mad Ants player Rod Wilmont coaches the Champs, who are seeded sixth in the Midwest region and play the Peoria All-Stars, who certainly will have home-court advantage at 6:45 p.m. today on ESPN3. If the Champs win, they would play again Sunday for a chance to move on to games at Brooklyn, New York, at which point TBT would cover travel costs.
“I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the money,” Martz said. “But it's also great to see these guys. Especially in the D-League, this doesn't happen where guys get this kind of bond. These guys genuinely enjoy being together.”
Unlike the G-League, where winning can take a back seat to developing young players, the Champs' directive is to do whatever it takes to make it to the next round.
“These tournaments are truly about winning games,” Bouldin said. “It's different when you're playing in the D-League. Obviously, everybody wants to win games but they're also trying to set themselves up for something better, a call-up or whatever the case may be. But with this, no one is getting anything out of it except the end game. As cliché as it is, it's about buying into each game, and it's all about winning.”