A chance to win and split $2 million drew the old gang back together again, or at least part of the old gang.
Six players from the 2014 Fort Wayne Mad Ants team that won the NBA Development League championship are reuniting – schedules permitting – to play as the Fort Wayne Champs in The Basketball Tournament, a winner-take-all $2 million single-elimination event.
They'll share hugs and stories, and then get down to business.
Only one team makes money in this tourney, and it would be the biggest payday in most of their careers.
“The game is totally different,” Ron Howard said. “It's a weird vibe to the game that's kind of difficult to explain, honestly.”
Howard, the MVP of the championship team, still lives in Fort Wayne. He was joined at practice Wednesday at Turnstone by old teammates Matt Bouldin, Anthony Harris and Will Frisby, along with younger, more recent Mad Ants players Steph Hicks and E. Victor Nickerson. Two other alums from the 2014 title team, Trey McKinney-Jones and Sadiel Rojas, will join the team for their first game Saturday in Peoria, Ill., if they can. McKinney-Jones is playing with the Miami Heat in the NBA Summer League and Rojas is playing in the Dominican Republic.
Mad Ants players from last season Travis Leslie and Jordan Loyd could also join the roster, if their NBA Summer League stints end soon enough, too.
“It won't take a long time (to gel), you hope,” Howard said. “It definitely helps to have guys you played with before. A lot of us have played together and know how to be in position to be successful.”
This will be the third year of the team, which was organized by former Mad Ants vice president of sales and marketing Garrett Martz. The team was previously known as Ants Alumni, but the Mad Ants requested Martz not use the name anymore since he is no longer affiliated with the franchise.
The roster remains full of Ants alums, nonetheless. In addition to the players, the team will be coached by Kevin Bloom, who has coached and scouted for the Mad Ants, and Rod Wilmont, who played and coached with the Mad Ants.
A reunion is nice, but the payday is the true incentive. If they win the tournament, each of the players will be paid $140,000 of the winnings.
“This is probably the first time in our lives where any personal things, points or whatever the case may be, doesn't matter,” Bouldin said. “It's all about winning. Whoever has the hot hand, feed them. Whoever is playing well, feed them. Everyone gets paid, but you have to win the game.”
Bouldin played last season in South Korea and Harris played in Canada. Harris and Frisby, who didn't play last season, have signed to play in the Champions Basketball League, a summer league filled with former NBA players.
The Basketball Tournament, meanwhile, is a different animal altogether. The Ants Alumni reached the Final Four in its first season, but was bounced in the first game last year.
“It's a different breed of guy that it takes to play in this,” Frisby said. “Just because guys have played in the NBA or overseas doesn't meant they're fit to play in this (tourney). These guys are dogs, they're hungry. You see that last year. We went out and got our heads taken off.”
There is no fee to enter the tournament, but Martz and other contributors pay for the players' travel and housing during the first week of the tourney.
“If you look at the history of money tournaments, it's usually street ball,” Harris said. “Small gym, referees local. It gets real hectic.”
The Basketball Tournament has done a good job of controlling the type of teams allowed to play, and the venues where the tournament will be played, Harris said. The Fort Wayne Champs will play the Peoria Allstars at 5:45 p.m. Saturday at Bradley University in Peoria. The game can be seen online via ESPN3.
The semifinals and championship games Aug. 1 and Aug. 3 will be televised on ESPN.
“We're lacking a little in the size area,” Frisby said. “But what we lack there, we make up for with heart and grit. Matt and Ant (Anthony) and those guys have more dog in them than any guys I know.”
“More dog” is a compliment referring to their determination, aggression, passion and commitment.
“There's a brotherhood after that championship team,” Bouldin said.
Harris said he looks forward to helping the newer players fit into the mix, even though they weren't part of the original team.
“Even if it's a guy you didn't play with, some of them are guys you played against,” Harris said. “A guy like Travis Leslie, who I've never played with, I've played against him on so many different occasions. We've scouted each other, so you have a feel for what his strengths and weaknesses are.”
The only indispensable strength is willpower, Frisby said.
“This tournament separates the men from the boys,' Frisby said. “That's real talk.”