PHILADELPHIA -- Eberlein Drive was a lost cause long before its shooting guard ended up in a hospital. It was difficult to pinpoint the exact moment, but it may have been lost as soon as three college students -- none of them actual college basketball players, and one who hadn't played past the eighth grade -- named a team after the street they grew up on in Fraser, Mich., and managed to earn one of 32 bids in The Basketball Tournament, an inaugural, 5-on-5, single-elimination event open to professionals, with a winner-takes-all prize of $500,000.
Or maybe it was when the family connection Eberlein believed might land them Corey Maggette -- he's married to one of the students' cousin's wife's sister -- failed to coax the ex-NBA forward out of retirement. Or when one of the ex-college players they did enlist for Eberlein bailed the week of the tournament, long after the rosters had locked. Or when a second ex-college player bailed on the opening morning of the tourney, via text message, and then a third did, too, and a fourth just went incommunicado and never showed.
Not hopeless enough yet? Then maybe it was when the Eberlein Drivers asked their mascot -- a friend who also hadn't played past eighth grade, and who had joined them for the 10-hour drive from Fraser with plans only to wear a neon-green foam alien head on the sideline -- to suit up for the sake of depth. Or when the starting lineups were announced Friday morning in Philadelphia University's gym and their first-round opponent, Big Apple Basketball, had alma maters that included Kansas (Russell Robinson), Vanderbilt (Lance Goulbourne) and Fordham (dreadlocked ex-Laker Smush Parker), while Eberlein's co-founders, Jacob Hirschmann and brothers Craigen and Joe Oster, were all introduced as being from Saint Thecla -- their Catholic K-through-8 school. Or when Craigen, who's 5-foot-9, lined up for the tip-off opposite 7-foot former NBA D-Leaguer Luke Bonner, brother of Spurs forward Matt Bonner.
By then there was no turning back, even though their matchup issues seemed rather problematic: Big Apple's front line went 7-foot and 6-9, while Eberlein's lineup was five guards 6-2 or shorter.
Their coach, the Osters' dad, Dave, a high school teacher, admitted that he had looked up Big Apple's roster online with some of his students and become alarmed. "I said, 'Oh God -- I don't know if we'll last a half,'" he recalled. "But my students have learned from me telling them to stay positive, to want the white picket fence and the happy ending. I always tell them, 'None of this is nuclear war.' So they were like, 'No, Mr. Oster. It's going to be the greatest story ever! It's going to be like Hoosiers!'"
The Basketball Tournament itself is an underdog story. Three years ago, Jonathan Mugar, a 38-year-old television producer who has worked on Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and Comedy Bang! Bang!, texted childhood friend Dan Friel, a federal prosecutor in New Orleans, about his idea for an open, national hoops event that might have 1,000 teams, a $10 million prize and a nationally televised final. Mugar eventually pitched the idea to Hoop Group president Rob Kennedy, an expert in tournament logistics, and found a group of Boston investors to back the project. This past weekend in Philly, the first incarnation of TBT actually happened, with 32 teams in slick, tourney-issued jerseys, officiated by Division I refs, playing for a half-million-dollar purse.
Because the inaugural TBT did not have a TV deal, it operated at nearly $1.5 million in the red, but that was a loss the organizers were prepared to stomach. They hope that TBT will grow into a multi-region event (possibly Philadelphia, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles) with a Final Four site and a multiplatform media deal for 2015 and beyond. Relying almost exclusively on Internet and social-media buzz -- TBT's advertising budget consisted of one $1,000 Facebook ad buy -- they reeled in a 2014 field filled with where-are-they-now players, many of them professionals in the NBA D-League, Europe or South America. Over three days in a Division II gym, the first TBT yielded upsets (a Hakim Warrick/Marshall Henderson team was knocked out in the Sweet 16 by a Cinderella from Chicago; a squad of Villanova alums led by Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fischer was upended by relatively anonymous overseas pros), near-upsets (a crew of Princeton alums almost beat four ex-NBA players), absurdity (Josh Selby scored 44 points for a losing team that had just four players and was coached by twin brothers and Phoenix Suns forwards Marcus and Markieff Morris) and nearly a brawl (when former Maryland player John Auslander, coaching DMV's Finest, angrily confronted ex-Duke star Dahntay Jones over a garbage-time dunk).
The final, scheduled for June 28, pits Team Barstool, led by ex-NBAers Jones, Matt Walsh, Andre Barrett and Josh Boone, with two Barstool Sports bloggers as their bench mob, against the Fighting Alumni, a group of former Notre Damers that includes Chris Thomas and Rob Kurz. "It's exactly the kind of matchup we hoped for: pros versus college," Mugar said. Len DeLuca, a former CBS and ESPN executive advising TBT on its media future, even tried (in just a bit of a stretch) to compare it to the 1990 national title game between UNLV and Duke.
The site of the final will be determined by a vote this week at thetournament.com -- each team had to nominate a location and will leverage its social-media presence for votes. The social-media component of TBT was so prominent that teams had to register a minimum of 100 fans to qualify for the field, and the teams with the top 24 fan bases earned automatic bids. That's why it was advantageous for the Jones-Walsh crew to partner with Barstool ... and that's also how a team of motivated college students with an abundance of free time could sneak into the bracket.
Eberlein Drive had a grassroots fan-accumulation strategy. They built a base by enlisting college classmates at John Carroll University, where Hirschmann is a rising junior, and the University of Detroit Mercy, which both the Osters attend. Hirschmann's father, a recently retired police officer, signed up cops at the Roseville, Mich., police station, and Dave Oster signed up his high school students. The players' mothers bombarded their email contact lists and helped Eberlein Drive make the final cut. They had the fans; they just needed legitimate players.
The recruitment responsibilities fell mostly on Hirschmann, a sportswriter for his school paper who last played organized hoops in eighth grade. His first target -- "the big fish" -- was Maggette, a distant relative whom he'd met on a few occasions. After Maggette was unable to commit, Hirschmann's next move was to scan the past few seasons of NBA rosters on basketball-reference.com and try to identify players no longer in the league, then message them on Facebook. How many of those guys did he contact?
"Oh geez -- I would venture to say it was over 100 players total, and most of them did not respond," Hirschmann said. "I mean, I'm just some kid from Detroit that they don't know, and the whole thing didn't sound real."
His messages would go along the lines of: Hey Bonzi, would you be interested in playing a basketball tournament in Philly from June 6-8 this summer. Grand prize for the team is $500,000. ... You'd be making a minimum of $50,000 if we win it all. Hirschmann got 15-20 responses, including a serious bite from Von Wafer that led to a discussion with his agent, but Wafer eventually said he couldn't make it out of an obligation in Puerto Rico.
Hirschmann had more success Facebooking lesser-known, local targets. He actually signed up Chase Simon, a 6-7 guard who played at Detroit Mercy from 2009-12; Demetrius Ward, a guard at Western Michigan from '08-12; and David Merritt, who was one of Michigan's captains in '08-09. As the roster-setting deadline neared in May, Hirschmann reached out to Philly-area players and landed ex-Robert Morris guard Velton Jones and ex-Philadelphia University guards Nick Christian and Tayron Thomas. Eberlein Drive was set to have a starting lineup of all former Division I or II guards and at least an outside chance of upsetting Big Apple Basketball, which had Parker and former North Carolina star Rashad McCants on its roster.
Dave Oster drove Craigen, Joe and Hirschmann 10 hours from Fraser to Philly in his Chrysler minivan, and they arrived at the venue on Thursday afternoon to register and shoot around. Christian happened to be in the gym; he got a glimpse of Hirschmann and the Osters, realized they were Eberlein Drive's founders, and immediately thought, "It's over for us." And that was before Christian was aware of the no-shows.
Merritt had apologetically bowed out earlier in the week, saying he couldn't afford the trip to Philly, and Hirschmann woke up to a surprise on TBT's opening day: a 6:13 a.m. text from Ward that read, Hey bro I'm sorry, I can't make it. When they showed up at Philly U that morning, there was no sign of Simon, who hadn't been responding to messages; he, too, was out. Thomas, at least, had been communicative. On Thursday night, he texted Craigen to say:
I think I will be on fire tomorrow if I get a baby sitter
today I had a game
Hit like seven NBA threes in a row in five minutes.
Thomas also texted that he'd beaten Smush Parker twice in Venezuela this season, and even directed them to a YouTube of one of the games. Craigen replied: You're gonna go off tomorrow. Take it to Smush all day baby!
Eighty minutes before tip-off on Friday, while sitting in Philly U's bleachers, Craigen looked at his phone and said, in disbelief, "Aww. No. Noooo. ... This is what happens when we recruit guys we've never met." Thomas had texted again: Hey I want to say sorry but I woke up late & didn't get a baby sitter for my sick child! I wish you and the team good luck & success today! Have a bless day.
That meant Eberlein Drive was down to two former college players -- Jones and Christian -- and the founders. "At least we no longer have to argue over who should start," Dave Oster told them. It was dawning on the Osters, who last played at Bishop Foley Catholic High School, and Hirschmann, who hadn't suited up since Saint Thecla, just how much they'd have to play. They were basketball junkies in awe of the competition, and their initial plan had been to only see a few minutes of action each. "You realize," Hirschmann said, "that we're going to be trying to guard Smush Parker."
They got permission from TBT to let friend and Michigan State student Aeneas Koosis, who'd intended only to be their alien-headed mascot, suit up in Simon's jersey and borrowed Nikes. In the locker room, Hirschmann theorized that they'd have to shoot 1,000 threes and then put a defensive game plan on the whiteboard: a 2-1-2 zone packed entirely in the lane. He drew Parker on the perimeter, "missing threes," and McCants -- a no-show after his allegations about North Carolina's fraudulent academic practices had gone public that morning -- off on the sideline, "missing class."
Jones, who was last in the public eye when he helped Robert Morris upset Kentucky in the opening round of the 2013 NIT, sat on a locker-room bench, trying to keep a straight face while he laced up his sneakers and listened to Koosis optimistically proclaim that while Big Apple's players were "out of the NBA, we just haven't gotten there yet." When asked for a prediction on how things would play out, Jones insisted, "This isn't going to be that bad." He was not all that convincing.
What they'll remember most is the first two-and-a-half minutes. That was their stretch of Hoosiers-like glory. Christian, who matched up surprisingly well with the pros, scored on Parker multiple times and announced that he would be "owning him all day." Hirschmann's first shot attempt, a three from the left corner, found the bottom of the net, and he began to goad Russell Robinson to match him. Eberlein Drive actually took a 10-3 lead against an all-professional starting five, and the kids from Fraser wanted to freeze the image of that scoreboard forever, as evidence that they were not, entirely, a lost cause.
That was also well before Hirschmann was taken off on a stretcher. As momentum changed and Big Apple headed toward a 61-37 halftime lead, the 7-foot Bonner accidentally discarded the 5-foot-9 Hirschmann while battling for a rebound; he landed on his right elbow and played the final minute of the half with it swelling to a grotesque degree. When an EMT examined Hirschmann's elbow at the break, it had a still-growing, baseball-sized bulge and was starting to change colors. He heeded advice to seek treatment at a nearby hospital, yet was smiling as he was wheeled off the court; he saw it as an opportunity to spread a myth. On the way out, when some just-arriving fans asked what had happened, Hirschmann told them, "I dunked on Smush."
What really happened was not so bad: They went on to lose 113-71, with Christian accounting for 34 of their points, and all of the founders scored at least once: Hirschmann had nine points (on three treys) before being hospitalized, Joe Oster also had nine and Craigen had three. Only the mascot, Koosis, whose main basketball connection was that his mother had once dated Hedo Turkoglu, was held scoreless in 19 minutes of playing time. After mercilessly swatting a Koosis shot earlier in the game, Bonner backed off late in the game, trying to let him get on the board -- but he shot it off the bottom of the rim. He finished with a -4 PER, and the alien head spent the entire game stretched over the top of a chair at the end of the bench.
After participating in their first-ever press conference, in which Joe Oster proclaimed TBT to be the "coolest thing I've ever been involved in, sports-wise," they went to retrieve Hirschmann from the hospital. A doctor -- who did not seem to believe Hirschmann's story about playing in a $500,000 basketball tournament -- diagnosed it as a merely a bad bruise and wrapped some ice on his elbow with an Ace bandage. The Eberleiners were back at Philly U for the evening-session games, taking particular interest in the Villanova alums' rout of a team led by former WNBA player Nikki Teasley -- mainly because there was a chance Teasley's team might lose by more points than Eberlein's final deficit of 42.
"This is our lives -- this is what [it's come to us] rooting for," Hirschmann said, shaking his head, as Scottie Reynolds & Co. kept running up the score. But Reynolds missed a three at the buzzer, keeping the final margin at 41. Eberlein maintained the dubious distinction of biggest loser. They took solace in having witnessed a kid they'd never met buy a t-shirt with their logo on it from the souvenir stand; he later Tweeted at them that he was a fan, and when they checked out his Twitter bio, the location said "Eberlein Drive."
It was a development that, for them, was simultaneously awesome and difficult to grasp. Prior to their appearance in TBT, no one had heard of their street name. Soon they would be making the long trip back, winless but with jerseys and T-shirts and box-score evidence and a ridiculous story to tell. Eberlein Drive, if you find it on a map, is actually a one-block dead-end -- or if you're being nice, a cul-de-sac. There's enough pavement in front of the Osters' house for a car to turn around. "When we come back next year, if we can get Corey [Maggette] and a few other guys," Hirschmann said, undaunted, "I really think we'll have a shot."