64 teams, single-elimination rounds, and one winning team that can write itself into the pages of history. Does this premise sound familiar? No, we’re not talking about March Madness, rather a different, The Basketball Tournament, TBT for short.
TBT got off the ground in 2014 and quickly grew into a summertime spectacle where fans could see some of their “not ready for prime time” players resurface to fight for a share of a one million dollar prize and a potential look at an NBA roster. TBT steadily evolved and began to attract top-level pros from European leagues and serious attention from ESPN. In 2018, TBT fully implemented the innovative Elam Ending, which eliminated the drudgery of late-game fouling by setting a target score instead of counting down to the final buzzer.
After an abbreviated tournament last summer, TBT is back in full force for 2021. It also happens to be the first TBT with a team that has substantial Marist connections.
About a week before the Marist men’s and women’s basketball teams embarked on their respective trips to the MAAC Tournament in Atlantic City, Sean McGee ‘20 had an idea. The former men’s basketball head manager wanted to create a Marist alumni team for this year’s TBT.
“I reached out to Rik Smits and Jared Jordan (two of the most accomplished players in program history) to see if they wanted to be part of an alumni team as a GM, or in Jared’s case, a player-coach,” McGee said. “They ended up being too busy, and a lot of the players were hit or miss. Honestly, it was kind of hard because not too many alumni are playing professionally. After that, we pivoted.”
Current Marist senior and men’s basketball Head Manager Zach Kelley heard from McGee via Snapchat about forming a team during the MAAC Tournament in Atlantic City. The pair joined forces and sought a new idea for a TBT squad.
The tournament mainly consists of alumni teams and squads that play for a cause (i.e. Sideline Cancer). It took a few weeks of searching, but in April, McGee and Kelley united on what the team should play for: Mental Toughness TBT was born.
“We thought mental health awareness was the perfect cause to play for, especially because Sean and I were well connected to it,” said Kelley, who juggles a handful of roles for the team. “There hasn’t been a team to represent mental health in the tournament, and it’s such a huge issue not just in sports, but in society.”
McGee and Kelley partnered the team with the JCK Foundation, a non-profit that raises mental health awareness in schools. It’s safe to say it has been a match made in heaven with founder John Tessitore.
“Once we talked to John, we just fell in love with the organization,” Kelley said. “He just has this amazing energy that you can’t match. He’s such a great guy, and we’re so happy to have partnered with them.”
With a worthy cause and a solid partnership, the roster was the next thing to take shape. McGee is a graduate assistant at Manhattanville College, and Kelley is going into his senior year at Marist. The two don’t have very many connections in the basketball world at this point in their young careers and knew they needed help to put together a competitive squad. Luckily, guidance lay in a familiar face.
“That’s where (Marist assistant coach) Kevin Driscoll came into the picture,” said McGee, who also handles several roles for Mental Toughness. “He’s been absolutely great for us. The three of us work very well together, and he’s the person who has recruited most of our players.”
Driscoll, who serves as Mental Toughness’ GM, used his decade-plus of college coaching experience to begin connecting with players and coaches scattered across the globe. Mental Toughness’ Head Coach Josh King coached last season at MHP RIESEN Ludwigsburg in Germany’s top basketball league. Mental Toughness’ first player signing, Jehyve Floyd, played for Driscoll when he was an assistant at Holy Cross, and is proving to be a solid pro in Europe.
“As soon as he (Floyd) said he was in, then we could tell other guys, ‘Hey, we got this guy, he’s the top shot-blocker in Israel, averaging 12 points and 10 rebounds,’” Driscoll said. “Getting a guy like that meant that other players would want to play around him.”
The first player Floyd wooed to the team was former Loyola-Chicago star Marcus Townes, who led the Ramblers to a Cinderella Final Four run in 2016. From there, the roster filled out with many high-level American pros playing in Europe, some of whom played high-major college basketball and had stints in the NBA G-League. More importantly, the players believe in mental health awareness.
“We have guys who said they’re excited to play for mental health,” added Driscoll who, himself deals with anxiety. “We have guys who are open about their struggles with depression. Jehyve Floyd is a published author, and he talks about his battles with depression in the first few pages of his book.”
Driscoll’s part in building the roster attracts the most attention, but he is quick to give credit to McGee and Kelley.
“Sean and Zach have really done most of the work from the administrative side,” Driscoll said. “There’s been a lot going on, but they’ve used the managerial skills they’ve learned in this role. Those are the guys who are driving the vehicle.”
McGee and Kelley are the reason why Mental Toughness is still plugging along ahead of their game on Saturday in Wichita, Kansas. The duo orchestrated fundraisers, social media campaigns, and many other behind-the-scenes activities to raise awareness for the Mental Toughness cause.
“We’ve just kept grinding over the past few months,” Kelley said. “It’s taken off into something much bigger than I ever expected, but I think Sean knew we were going to get there. It’s just been crazy.”
“It’s always logistical stuff,” McGee, who also helps coach an AAU team, added. “I’ve been pretty busy this summer, so without Zach, I don’t know if we could have done this.”
110 teams applied for 64 spots in this summer’s TBT. As a new team, Mental Toughness’ prospects of making the field were not anywhere close to a sure thing. There was a chance that all the work might not get them to the promised land, but it was something that McGee and Kelley refused to acknowledge as they strengthened their relationships with people inside TBT.
Finally, a few days ahead of TBT’s selection show in June, McGee got a call.
“I got a call from one of the TBT interns asking for information about our team for the ESPN commentators,” McGee said. “I’m thinking, if I get this call, I’d have to imagine we made it. He eventually told me we were going to the Wichita region, and once he said that, I was ecstatic.”
Mental Toughness earned a 13-seed in Wichita, drawing a matchup with the fourth-seeded L.A. Cheaters. The Cheaters boast a talented roster, highlighted by Derrick Williams, the second overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft. It may be an uphill climb to victory over a more established squad, but everyone on Team Toughness is excited for Saturday afternoon.
“We’re really looking forward to Saturday,” Kelley said. “I think we match up well with them. We have a lot of young talent, and they’re a little older. Once we get to training camp, I’m sure I’ll be more confident. It’s going to be a great matchup for sure.”
Win or lose, McGee and Kelley can hang their hats on all the work they did laying the foundation for Mental Toughness, a landmark team in TBT. They know that basketball is just a game and that destigmatizing mental illness is the real goal. Maybe they’ll happen to win a few games in the process.
Edited by Bridget Reilly and Mackenzie Meaney
Photo Credit: Marist Athletics