Friday August 7th, 2015

NEW YORK — There are basketball ghosts, and then there is The Basketball Tournament, the fledgling summer contest that takes cues from March Madness and dangles a $1 million pot in front of any so-inclined basketball player on the planet. At the tournament’s Final Four weekend, within Fordham’s Hoosiers Rose Hill arena, basketball’s wayward travelers resurface on live television, focused on the final leg of a 97-team, three-week gauntlet. For the trivially inclined, DerMarr Johnson, Michael Sweetney and Jamario Moon all played in this year’s tourney. Here, among the hangers-on and hopefuls, is where the former All-American makes his case.

Myck Kabongo has been out of the spotlight for two years, but appears much the same as ever, boyish looks muted by a thin mustache and goatee, head shaved to the top save for a mop of twists. He’s 23 now, young by almost any measure, but nearly 10 years removed from bursting onto the scene as a touted recruit. Kabongo has spent parts of the last couple seasons in the D-League, where the highest base salary a player can make is $25,500. A win today will net him more than four time that amount. But this “long trip” of a tournament, as Kabongo will call it, was never about the payout.

“I don't know who’s watching, but I think anytime you win anything, it's great exposure,” Kabongo told SI.com. He entered the tournament between contracts, assessing his options and hoping for a new platform. He says winning takes care of everything, and oftentimes, it can. “I think a lot of good is going to happen for a lot of our teammates.”

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Today, Kabongo takes advantage. He retains his old burst, flashing an extra gear as he darts across the floor, never forcing shots. Generating havoc around the ball, Kabongo dives, swipes, gambles and occasionally fouls, greeting teammates with daps and the occasional bit of instruction. Opposing guard Davin White scores 34 points on 20 shots, nobody else scores in double figures, and Kabongo works to slow him as much as possible, face-guarding and often defending on an island. He still loves to drive and dish, and finds open teammates even in mid-air. Today, those teammates include C.J. McCollum’s older brother Errick, who had an 82-point game in China last season averaging nearly 40 per game, and Travis Bader, who made more threes than anyone else in college basketball history.

It’s mildly amazing Overseas Elite is here at all, after playing much of the tournament deploying four guards at a time. The team held its fist practice a couple of days ago. The uncertain nature of non-NBA life means commitments constantly shift, opportunities appear and disappear without warning, and that it’s a chore to assemble the bare minimum of five pros for an early round game in an all-or-nothing tourney. Overseas Elite wouldn’t have been able to play at all if Bader hadn’t caught a flight to Atlanta from Orlando after an 8 a.m. Summer League game with the Thunder in time to play 40 minutes in his second contest of the day.

A charmed run for a curious team ends in a fast-paced, occasionally sloppy two-point win, and before long, they hoist an oversized prize check at center court. Kabongo nearly misses the team photo after taking a selfie with commentators at the scorer’s table. He slides in at the last minute, sprawled on his back in front, flashing a literal million-dollar smile. His final line of four points, six rebounds and four assists was modest. But after all he’s been through, perhaps it’s time Kabongo caught a break.

Born in the Congo, Kabongo and his family moved to Toronto when Myck was six, his father fearing the conflicts breaking out around the war-torn country. He’s the second youngest of six siblings, all of whom wound up playing college basketball (youngest brother Jonathan is a rising sophomore at Huntington Prep in West Virginia). Idolizing John Stockton and Steve Nash, he set his sights on American competition.

At 13, Kabongo shipped off to New Jersey’s St. Benedict’s Prep with fellow Torontonian Tristan Thompson, who was a class ahead of him. They knew the school’s reputation as a basketball factory under coach Dan Hurley.

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“Us Hurleys, we're pretty demanding of our guys,” Dan Hurley, now the head coach at Rhode Island, recounts. He’s remained close with Kabongo and fondly recalls their time together. A year after Thompson committed to Texas and a year before Cory Joseph would, Kabongo committed to the Longhorns in 2009. “We make our guys better, but we push hard,” Hurley says. “[Myck] was one of my favorites I ever got to coach. He loved to work, he was a great leader. He was a hungry kid.”

In 2010, Thompson was kicked off the St. Benedict’s team after a heated on-court disagreement with Hurley and transferred to Las Vegas powerhouse Findlay Prep for his senior year. The next season, Kabongo did the same. Though he briefly de-committed from the Longhorns early in the school year, he stuck to his decision. With teammates including Nick Johnson and Anthony Bennett, Kabongo and Findlay went 28-4. Kabongo made the McDonalds and Jordan Brand games before shipping off to Austin.

Handed major minutes and a leadership role as a freshman, Kabongo averaged 9.6 points and 5.2 assists and made the Big 12 All-Rookie team. Then came the fork in the road. Kabongo says he’s done talking about what happened at Texas, the before and after it created. “It’s all behind me.” The story, as it stands, goes as follows. 

An off-season flight to Cleveland and a workout with a professional trainer raised eyebrows, and brought an NCAA investigation related to his reported relationship with NBA agent Rich Paul, who represented Thompson. Paul had reportedly been calling NBA teams to gauge Kabongo’s draft stock. Thompson, a member of the Cavaliers, later admitted to paying for the flight and said he was reimbursed by one of Kabongo’s brothers, but the NCAA declared Kabongo had to donate $475, the cost of the trip, to charity. The NCAA banned him for the season before later reducing the suspension to 23 games.

“I’ve matured as a person. Going through adversity, there's things that make you or break you.” Kabongo says. After returning in February, he averaged 14.6 points and 5.5 assists in 11 games. In April, he announced he was leaving for the NBA and in June went undrafted. He headed to Summer League with the Heat, played one preseason game with the Spurs and landed a job with the team’s D-League affiliate, the Austin Toros.

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In 2014 he bounced around again, playing Summer League with his hometown Raptors, then returning to the D-League with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants and later the Texas Legends. He spent less than a week back in Texas before leaving the team in January because of personal issues. “It’s made me better, made me appreciate things a lot more,” Kabongo says of his experience. “I’m just thankful for any opportunity I get. With basketball, it's all about taking full advantage of it.”

Returning to his family in Toronto, Kabongo set out to clear his mind with a break from organized basketball. He’s been working out daily with a hockey trainer to strengthen his lower body and refine his movements. He’s spent much of the summer playing in Toronto’s Crown League Pro-Am. Kabongo is so focused on self-improvement, he says he no longer carries a personal cell phone.

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“Myck’s just trying to find his way a little bit,” says Peck, who left Findlay to coach in the D-League for two seasons and recently took an assistant job at Santa Clara. He coached against his former star last season with the D-League’s Idaho Stampede. Peck preaches patience for a player in Kabongo’s brand of limbo. “You gotta have a niche, be what a team is looking for. All 30 [NBA] teams don't need to want, like or need you. It only takes one.”

Kabongo remains tight with old friends Thompson and Joseph, though both have had busy off-seasons and haven’t been around quite as much. After reaching the Finals with Cleveland, Thompson waits to finalize a deal with the Cavs; Joseph came home, cashed in long-term with the Raptors, and has Drake wearing his jersey on stage. Kabongo says the three keep in touch. He doesn’t know where the path leads next and will weigh his job options, but says he isn’t concerned about the NBA. It’s easy to forget that had he stayed, he’d have just graduated college. And so he waits, hopeful for another opportunity ahead.

“You just learn so much about the game as you grow, and if you take the craft seriously. If I came out this time around, I know I would have been where I wanted to be,” he says. “But this is my route. I'm just thankful to still be here.”

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