The Journal Gazette
Monday, June 01, 2020 1:00 am

GMs drawing on friendship

High school teammates creating squads for $2 million Basketball Tournament

JUSTIN A. COHN | The Journal Gazette

Matt Mitchell and Ryan Kay know quite a bit about teaming up for basketball success. If we dialed back the clock more than 15 years, we'd see them helping Blackhawk Christian to some of the greatest success in program history.

Mitchell and Kay now make their roundball moves through phone calls and sales pitches, not crossover dribbles or finger-rolls, but the goal is the same: win games.

They are general managers of teams in The Basketball Tournament, a $2 million winner-take-all, single-elimination event that has several ties to Fort Wayne. Mitchell has been involved with the tournament since its inception in 2014 and is mentoring his longtime friend, Kay, a first-time GM.

“My goal here is to absolutely see him in the championship game, and then it'll be a different story,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell, 31, a health care consultant in Crown Point, manages Eberlein Drive, the tournament's 2018 runner-up. Kay, 34, a financial planner in Fort Wayne, runs Men of Mackey, a new squad of Purdue alumni that includes Fort Wayne natives Rapheal Davis and Grady Eifert.

Kay, a former president of the Fort Wayne chapter of the Purdue Alumni Club, and current chairman of finance for the Purdue Alumni Board, was running a fundraising golf outing last year when he struck up a conversation with Eifert, who had just helped the Boilermakers to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.

“I just said, 'Hey Grady, have you guys ever talked about forming a TBT team? Because there's a really talented player pool to draw on and Purdue's got these awesome supporters and basketball fans,'” Kay recalled. “He was like, 'You know, we actually have been kicking that around.' But that was really the end of the conversation.”

At lunch a month later, Mitchell brought the same idea to Kay – a Purdue team in TBT – and offered to help guide Kay through logistics such as financing, travel and networking.

Kay was in, but it was a role reversal. When they were in high school, Kay was two grades ahead and mentored Mitchell.

“Blackhawk is a small school,” said Kay, who graduated in 2005. “A lot of times, freshmen, JV and varsity are all practicing together. We hung out a lot and did a lot of offseason workouts together, so I think that's really where we became even better friends.”

They helped Blackhawk become the state Class A runner-up in 2004 – it lost to undefeated Waldron – and then to a 2005 semistate appearance. Kay attended Purdue and Mitchell went on to play for Olivet Nazarene.

“For whatever reason, Ryan took me under his wing, and I spent a lot of time with the upperclassmen (in high school),” Mitchell said. “We were good friends on the basketball court, but we goofed around and did a lot off the court as well. I would venture to say most of our memories are built around, obviously, things that happened in basketball and the state tournament runs, but also just doing dumb things and having a good time in the summers and on the weekends.”

TBT is normally a 64-team event. The coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult to get player commitments, and safety measures will be stringent, so this year's field will be 24 teams at one location over 10 days.

The field and schedule will be announced in mid-June. Eberlein Drive and Men of Mackey are well positioned to receive berths. So is Fort Wayne Champs, managed by Garrett Martz with three men who have played for the Mad Ants – Stephan Hicks, Ben Moore and Trey McKinney Jones.

“Knowing Ryan's personality, and the role he has at Purdue, just his professionalism and the fact they he's running these big events, I knew he'd be a perfect candidate for being a general manager,” Mitchell said. “I just started to try to feed him as much information as possible, but the biggest thing was to start the interaction and the dialogue with the folks at TBT (early) because they obviously like the idea of big alumni.”

Mitchell joked that Kay has already surpassed him in some GM duties.

“He's got weekly Zoom calls with his players, and I can't get texts back sometimes from some of mine,” Mitchell said, “so I've got to give him props for that.”

Eberlein Drive's roster, so far, includes pros J.P Macura, Josh Magette and Kaiser Gates. Men of Mackey has Ryan Cline, Isaac Haas and Jonathan Octeus. 

Kay has probably had an easier time than Eberlein Drive or the Champs at convincing players to commit to the tournament despite the need to be sequestered with potentially no financial payoff. Last year, Carmen's Crew, an Ohio State alumni team, won TBT.

“It's a little bit different, I think, for me compared to Matt because the alumni team you kind of have a built-in player pool,” Kay said. “And then you've got this kind of family atmosphere among them and even some of their friends.”

Mitchell and Kay know how important it is to have friendships on the court and, now, as GMs.

“My wife has to remind me sometimes that this is not my full-time job, that this is a hobby,” Kay said. “It is extremely fun, and Matt has been just unbelievably helpful. We wouldn't be where we are as a Purdue alumni team without him.”

Mitchell is more than happy to bring good people into his beloved pastime.

“I literally love TBT. It's my favorite thing all year. And I'm so hyped about it; I talk to everybody about it and they probably look at me like I'm crazy because a lot of people don't really understand how big of a deal it is,” Mitchell said.

“I've seen it kind grow and change and adapt. It continues to get better and better every year, so I'm incentivized by just seeing others enjoy what I've been experiencing myself. I'm excited to see Ryan have a chance to do it, too.”

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