When Kevin Belbey first heard about The Basketball Tournament, a March Madness-style, all-inclusive summer league featuring former NBA players, college stars and pro basketball hopefuls, he knew he had to get involved.
Belbey, who was the head student manager of the 2013 Syracuse men's basketball team that made a Final Four appearance, had the connections necessary to form a Syracuse alumni team.
He reached out to former Syracuse star Hakim Warrick, who was already with the tournament as a member of TYGTAL (Take Your Game To Another Level) along with former Ole Miss star Marshall Henderson and NBA veteran Reggie Williams. Belbey then got former Syracuse player Eric Devendorf on board. From there, it was easy to recruit the rest of the team, Belbey said.
"It was helpful that TBT had existed for a year," Belbey said. "I could show the guys some video, some articles. TBT is an awesome concept. It's almost one of those things that sounded like it was too good to be true."
The Syracuse alumni team, named Boeheim's Army, is one of 64 teams that will compete for $2 million in The Basketball Tournament, which tips of its third season on July 9. The 5-on-5, single elimination tournament has become a proven success since its inception in 2014.
The tournament will include 50 former NBA players this year, including Mike Bibby and Jason Williams, who will form the backcourt for Pedro's Posse. There are also numerous college alumni teams featuring a host of college stars from yesteryear.
TBT founder and CEO Jonathan Mugar first pitched the idea of a professional March Madness tournament to his childhood friend Dan Friel five years ago. Mugar, whose career background is in comedy writing and producing, wasn't sure if he would be able make his idea come to life. But the tournament has become a hit thanks to its hook—anyone over the age of 18 can get involved, and the tournament is driven entirely by social media.
"The premise is it's pretty awesome to sit around and watch March Madness or the NBA playoffs if you're a fan of basketball, like myself," Mugar said. "But wouldn't it be even easier if you could sit there and watch it knowing you can have a team in it? Not just as a player. You can be a general manager or coach or you can be somebody behind the scenes and actually put your own team in and compete in a nationally-televised sporting event. So that was a huge premise, just making the biggest, most open sporting event in the world with a life-changing sum of money."
What started as a 32-team tournament with a $500,000 prize has grown to 64 teams and a $2 million prize. Entry into the tournament is free, and teams consist of a general manager, coaches, boosters and at least seven players.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Team boosters, who are responsible for promoting the team and garnering votes, are usually high-profile names. Tom Izzo is a booster for Spartan Heroes. C.J. McCollum is a booster for defending champ Overseas Elite. JaVale McGee and rapper The Game are boosters for Team Fancy.
Fans at home have a good incentive for voting—the top 100 fans of the winning team will earn 10 percent of the $2 million prize.
"We're taking a sport and applying it to social media," Mugar said. "We're kind of building a sporting event up from the ground that's rooted in social media. Our application process is only possible due to social media. It's like social media's variation of March Madness."
Boeheim's Army has seen a significant amount of fan support. This year, the team has the third highest amount of votes in the tournament with 3,127, trailing Purple and Black (Kansas alumni) and The Bluegrass Boys (Kentucky alumni).
"Syracuse fans are so passionate, so diehard about their basketball," Belbey, the general manager for Boeheim's Army, said. "Once someone finds out about (Boeheim's Army), they say 'that's super cool, how can I get involved.'"
ESPN took notice. Last March, the sports network streamed the final weekend of the tournament. This year, ESPN will stream the Sweet 16 round of the tournament, which begins on July 21, through the championship game.
Though current college and NBA players aren't allowed to play, they see the tournament as an opportunity to organize their own teams and experience being part of a front office. Detroit Pistons forward Marcus Morris, Washington Wizards forward Markieff Morris and NBA free agent Thomas Robinson will run Team FOE (Family Over Everything). Marcus, who is serving as head coach, said the team consists of players he and his brother have known for years.
"This league is mainly just to give the guys an opportunity to play in front of some eyes," Marcus Morris said. "I think the guys on my team are very capable of being NBA players. To get those guys out there and show the GMs and overseas guys, show what they can do. I think TBT is going to give them the chance to show how great they are."
Team FOE includes a number of former college basketball players, including Maalik Wayns of Villanova, Tyshawn Taylor of Kansas, and Mychel Thompson, Golden State star Klay Thompson's brother. The team was slotted into the Philadelphia bracket, which Marcus said plays into his team's favor.
"If you know anything about Philly, man, you know that we have a big fan base," he said. "I'm going to let you know, it's going to be crazy on our side. I don't know what other teams are going to have but our section will be sold out and filled with fans. Every game."
The Basketball Tournament already has big names, high-stakes competition and a broadcasting deal. Next, Mugar hopes to grow the game's global impact.
"Our goal is to make this the biggest, most open professional sporting event in the world," he said. "We have a ways to go, and our goal is to keep growing it. We want this to be as much of a worldwide event as anything. So growing it, continuing to grow beyond the US is definitely appealing to us. I guess we're finding a lot of the things we see this year differently."