Over spring break at the University of Maryland, a Facebook message popped into Ross Aroyo’s inbox and the staggering dollar amount mentioned made the junior believe the proposal to be fake. It was from a recruiter, pitching the Terrapins video manager on something called The Basketball Tournament, a winner-take-all basketball event, offering $500,000 to the winner.
“Didn’t think it was real,” Aroyo said recently, until he plugged the information into Google and found an article legitimizing the pitch. It was indeed real. And lucrative. And open to anyone with enough drive to enter and compile a team.
On Thursday afternoon, precisely at Noon, The Basketball Tournament will close its registration. At that point, the squad Aroyo and former Maryland student managers Kevin Owens and Evan Lipinski assembled, DMV’s Finest, will learn whether it will be included in the 32-team field, based off the team’s ability to recruit fans to its page on the event’s website. Only 24 teams receive automatic bids this way. Tournament organizers will choose the final eight.
Through this avenue DMV’s Finest, which currently ranks 23rd in fan voting as of Thursday morning, could still crack the field, which will compete in a single-elimination bracket at the University of Philadelphia in December. Every player on the roster played Division I college basketball, including two apiece at Maryland and Georgetown, and the team is still searching for one more member. If DMV’s Finest wins, outlasting an anticipated field that will feature NBA veterans intermixed with college teammates getting the old band back together, partial proceeds will benefit the Zaching Against Cancer Foundation, named for the Maryland manager Zach Lederer who died this spring.
“For me, just seeing the team taking shape has been very stressful but also rewarding at the same time,” Aroyo said. “If I’m not thinking about it during the day, when I go to sleep I’m somehow dreaming about it.”
Slowly, the roster has taken shape. Aroyo, an aspiring agent, acts as the operation’s de facto president, and says the DMV’s Finest unofficial office has, until recently, been located in his dormitory bedroom. With an eye for operations, Owens handles general manager duties while Lipinski, whose brother Conner plays for the Terps, has been on social media.
The players too were drawn by the event’s uniqueness and lucrative payout. Point guard Chris Wright and shooting guard Austin Freeman were all-Big East standouts for the Hoyas. Freeman, power forward Jerai Grant (Clemson) and shooting guard Isaiah Tate (George Mason) were former teammates at DeMatha. Wings John Auslander, who will also serve as the coach, and Logan Aronhalt spent one season together in College Park.
Throw in shooting guard Rashad Whack (Mount St. Mary’s), small forward Erik Etherly (Loyola), power forward Chris Braswell (Charlotte) and the latest addition, center Mike Morrison (George Mason) and DMV’s Finest fancies itself a contender not because of unbelievable star-power, but well-planned roster composition.
“I love it,” Auslander said. “I think we’ve got a lot of talent. I’m confident going into it. Like I was saying before, I really want to spread the floor and play fast. I think we’ve got shooters and athletes. We’ve got big men who are athletic and can finish and defend and rebound to start the break, which we have.”
About three years ago, in Los Angeles, the idea for The Basketball Tournament came to Jon Mugar. A former Division III basketball player and diehard Celtics fan during the Larry Bird era, Mugar had worked in television production and always loved scheming up tweaks for sports, like if the No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament hosted its opening-round game against the No. 1 seed.
“Stuff like that,” Mugar said, “the freedom to play with things and play with formats.”
With no real model for comparison, Mugar spent the early phases wracked with nerves, wondering what would happen if only one team met the fan support threshold for entry, and whether that team would receive the $500,000 grand prize without a single game played.
Eventually, teams like DMV’s Finest came along, whether lured by a Facebook message or word of mouth or articles or the shining beacon of six figures for charity. Auslander hopes to soon start holding practices. Aroyo, Lipinski and Owens – the front office of sorts – have upgraded from the dorm room and now operate out of Comcast Center. And with the roster compiled, little is left but to wait for a spot and then go.
“I was planning on taking a little bit of time off,” Etherly said. “Then Ross got in touch about playing so I said, ‘Well…I’ll stay in shape a little while longer.’”