The Tournament: A Level Below the NBA, With a March Madness Feel

By Jason McIntyre
facebooktwitter

Christian Burns was back in Gallagher Athletic Center on the campus of Philadelphia University last week for the first time since 2007, when he was named the Division II Player of Year. His #5 jersey was hanging in the rafters, but this time Burns was suited up for the Blue and Gold Club in The Basketball Tournament, a 5-on-5, winner-take-all July Madness – with a $1 million jackpot.

In Blue and Gold’s opening game against Basketball City, Burns looked like the best player on the court from the opening tip: A steal on the first possession.

Swooping in for an alley-oop layup a minute later. After blocking a shot at the defensive end, he caught a pass on the wing and hoisted a 3-point shot.

As the ball was in the air, Burns turned his head down, like Stephen Curry might, to signify that it was going in. It swished. This happened right in front of the announcer’s table, and half a dozen staffers in the vicinity laughed, one even mimicking the head swivel.

With five quick points, Burns helped Blue and Gold race to an early lead. No player carried more hoops credentials onto the court in this game than Burns, a 6-foot-8 forward who left Philadelphia University with an athletic, bruising game, and over the last seven seasons playing internationally, added a 3-point shot to his game. His size – a workout fanatic, Burns is cut up like one of those 1980’s He-Man action figures – and 3-point shooting ability earned him looks from the Memphis Grizzlies and the Utah Jazz in recent summers.

But taking the floor on an undersized team, full of players he’d never met before or practiced with – the exception being point guard Frantz Massanet, who is widely considered to be the best point guard in Drexel history – could Burns carry Blue and Gold in the Tournament?

*

Anyone who has followed college basketball closely over the last 15 years would enjoy skimming the rosters from teams in The Tournament. Notre Dame’s Fighting Alumni, which won the inaugural tournament last year, featured players you probably watched on Big Monday on ESPN for years – point guard Chris Thomas, power forward Torin Francis, and forward Ryan Ayers. This year, the Irish added former Big East Player of the Year Luke Harangody and former Indiana Pacer Ben Hansbrough.

The tournament field tripled from 32 to 96 this year, with Georgetown fielding a strong team – who can forget the Jason Clark-Austin Freeman-Chris Wright Hoya backcourts? – and Syracuse too, featuring the likes of Eric Devendorf, Terrence Roberts, Hakim Warrick and Lawrence Moten.

The tournament is popular in the Northeast, and the guess here is that in the coming years, as the pot grows larger thanks to a TV deal with ESPN, the teams along Tobacco Road will eventually get involved, as will storied programs from the West Coast and Midwest.

“It’s a Democratic sports model,” Tournament founder Jon Mugar told me. “The experience is to try and get March Madness for everyone. To be a fan and say to myself, ‘I wonder if I could do that?’ Not only as a player, but I wonder if I could build a team, a franchise, and compete on that level.”

In the gym, it feels like you’re attending an early-round March Madness game – sparse crowd, three referees, legitimate scoreboard and announcer, coaches screaming – “It’s like prom night out there for my guys – they’re getting grabbed the entire time!” – stat sheets handed out, towel boys and girls, press room, you name it. And just like the NCAA Tournament, one storyline took shape in the early rounds – many of the more talented teams featuring players you’d heard of were struggling against teams that were inferior on paper, but had clearly developed chemistry playing together over the weeks/months/years.

*

Blue and Gold, a team comprised mostly of former Drexel players, came together in April of 2015, somewhat late by Tournament standards, according to the team’s GM, Rob Falcone.

A 2009 Drexel graduate, Falcone looks the part of a millennial basketball general manager – skinny jeans, sharp sport jacket with a pocket square, black-framed glasses, a bracelet, and he’s even got the job to match: He’s in sales for a startup in Philadelphia.

Falcone seems confident he can build something with Blue and Gold, in sort of the same way he helped transform the Drexel student section at basketball games during his time on campus.

“When I was a freshman, the student section looked like it does today – 10 or 15 people,” he said. “My friends and I took it over and it grew into the DAC Pack. Two or three years ago it was one of the Top 10 student sections in the country according to a website.”

Falcone tabbed Jake Lerner, a former Drexel walk-on, as the team’s coach. With his facial hair and joking manner, he reminded me of a more athletic version of Turtle from Entourage.

Lerner has known Burns since middle school, and after finding out two of his initial Drexel targets had already been recruited by other teams, was thrilled to have pulled his old friend onto the team.

He remembered the moment he first knew Burns was blowing up as a basketball player: “I think the first year out of college, we’re working out and playing some 1-on-1 and he threw down a monster dunk and some step-back 3-pointers, and I was like, ‘holy shit! This guy’s a gamer.'”

*

Two nights before Blue and Gold’s first-round game, I watched Burns, 29, take the floor at Trenton Catholic High School in a summer basketball league playoff game alongside Massenat. Burns had mentioned to me that he was going head-to-head with Jeff Robinson, who I vaguely recalled was a Seton Hall standout.

Robinson was an All-State player at the basketball factory St. Patrick’s in New Jersey, went to Memphis and then transferred to Seton Hall. I’d been on the court before with Burns playing half-speed against some weekend warriors, and he’d slaughtered me in HORSE. But I’d never seen him in an actual game.

Robinson was playing on a team that was seeded 1st, and to my surprise he appeared to have added 30 or more unwanted pounds to his once-athletic 6-foot-5 frame. His gut flopped proudly over his waistband. Burns sank three 3-pointers against passive defense from Robinson in the game’s openings minutes, and on the last one, he turned to jog upcourt with the ball still in the air. Robinson had one basket in the first half – when Burns was on the bench. Wearing his Memphis Grizzlies shorts and a confident grin, Burns led his team to an easy 20-point victory.

After the game, Burns took of his shirt to reveal a shredded physique, and heavy tattoos on his torso to go with the visible ones on his inner biceps. Giving bro hugs to the opponents afterward, it was clear Burns – one of two white guys in the gym – was on another level than everyone else.

Watching him dismantle a former Top 40 recruit – that’s what Robinson was eight years ago – and completely control a game at both ends, I asked Burns if he ever thinks about What Might Have Been.

“Everybody wanted me to prep,” Burns said one July afternoon. “Basketball-wise, I was a late bloomer. If I had gone to prep school, I probably would have went high D1.”

Like Anthony Davis, Burns had a massive growth spurt one summer in high school. Davis famously shot up from 6-foot-4 at the end of his sophomore season to 6-foot-8 by the beginning of his junior season (and he kept growing to 6-foot-10). Davis went on to become the #2 recruit in the country in 2011, attended Kentucky, won a National title and now is one of the best young players in the NBA.

*

Burns had his growth spurt later, going from a 6-foot-2 junior guard to a 6-foot-7 post player the summer before his senior year. He missed out on the all-important AAU circuit until it was almost too late to get noticed.

“I was on a Nike team before my senior year and that’s when college coaches first saw me, and one asked, ‘who is this white guy going through his legs in the layup line?'” Burns said. He played soccer for most of his youth, so he had the footwork down; his growth spurt helped him excel in the high jump, where he finished 2nd in New Jersey as a senior. “I was a freak, my jumping ability was through the roof.”

But when it came time for a college decision, he said his family’s financial situation was one in which he couldn’t pass up a full-ride to Quinnipiac. “Plus, there’s the whole D1 thing, you know, when you’re in high school. ‘It’s D1,'” he said.

Burns said he was recruited by a Bobcats assistant coach, but as soon as he got to campus, he was never on the same page as the head coach, Joe DeSantis. “It was a nightmare,” Burns said, shaking his head. “I should have been starting as a freshman.” Burns languished on the bench for much of his first year, had a few bright spots as a sophomore – highlighted by a 13-point, 9-rebound, 5-block game against Central Connecticut State – but decided he needed to transfer.

Instead of sitting out a year and staying in Division I, Burns landed at Division II Philadelphia University, and immediately blew up: 16.7 points and 9.8 rebounds as a junior; 21.7 points and 11.2 rebounds as a senior playing power forward for legendary coach Herb Magee. Burns was named the 2006-2007 Division II Player of the Year, and his basketball future looked bright.

“I thought I was going to get drafted by Portland,” Burns said. “I went to work out for them and other teams, but Portland had back-to-back picks in the 50s.” The 76ers were also interested in Burns, and brought him in for a workout in which he went against Thaddeus Young of Georgia Tech.

Burns wasn’t drafted, and he still remembers what happened next: The 76ers were filling out a summer league roster and picked a slightly taller, slightly heavier power forward, Rashad Jones-Jennings from Arkansas Little Rock, over him.

Burns vented to the Trentonian in July of 2007: “The Sixers made a huge mistake by inviting that kid over me; I’m definitely better than that kid, five times better than him. There’s no reason I shouldn’t be on the roster. It’s ridiculous.”

That anger was channeled into developing a perimeter game to match his inside game, and within four years – Poland, Portugal, the Bundesliga in Germany with former Florida gunner Lee Humphrey and against former Pac-12 stars Casey Jacobsen and Jason Gardner, and then a monster year in Ukraine – he was once again getting looks from NBA teams.

Burns was named the All-Ukrainian Superleague Player of the Year in 2011 (two years later, former Virginia Tech star Malcolm Delaney won the award).

Meanwhile Jones-Jennings, whom the 76ers took ahead of him, was toiling in Taiwan.

But just as Burns was feeling optimistic about his NBA prospects, the lockout hit. NBA players flooded the international market, and as Burns put it, “they low-balled players like me to sign NBA guys.” It was a whirlwind few months – Burns went from potentially leaping to the NBA or at least getting paid top dollar, to suffering a ghastly knee injury in the layup line before a game in Israel a few months later.

“Snapped like a firecracker,” he recalled. “You could just about see my kneecap sticking out of my quad. I never thought I’d play basketball again.”

But there he was, eight months later after working out heavily – “I was a fucking horse; I was like LeBron on steroids running around” – and he quickly was snatched up by a team in Italy, where he says he had the best year of his career (14.9 ppg, 40 percent on 3-pointers) playing center alongside former New Jersey Nets forward Tamar Slay and Alabama guard Ronald Steele.

The Memphis Grizzlies added Burns to their 2014 summer league team, but in four games he didn’t have an opportunity to display his newfound perimeter game, and instead was lumped in with post players like Jack Cooley (Notre Dame) and Matt Howard (Butler). A similar situation unfolded the following year – Burns was the 2nd leading scorer on his team in Russia (former Villanova point guard Corey Fisher led the team) – and the Utah Jazz called.

Burns went in for a tryout that was more of a cattle call, a contract didn’t materialize, and this time it was off to Czechoslovakia in 2014-2015 – “the lifestyle there!” – to team up with a couple well-known college basketball players from the last decade: Darius Washington (Memphis), Derek Raivio (Gonzaga) and even Jiri Welsch, who spent four years in the NBA, including a couple with the Celtics.

Developing something of a global basketball reputation – his Instagram page has the feel of an International Ballers episode – Burns came home for the summer and says his good friend Matt Walsh (who starred with the Florida Gators) wanted him to join the Slam team for The Tournament. But when Lerner called, the opportunity to stay local to his wife and kids in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and play in the gym where he starred in college, made the decision an easy one.

*

Despite the hot early start from Burns at both ends, it quickly became evident that size was going to be one of three problems for Blue and Gold. The other two became apparent as the game wore on: Missed shots and the obvious fact that Basketball City had been practicing as a unit for quite some time.

Massenat missed two layups at the rim against 7-footers. An early 11-6 lead for Blue & Gold was erased under a barrage of 3-pointers by Shaver Richardson (21 points, 5-of-6 three-pointers), a guard who graduated from Florida Atlantic, where he played for the Owls for four seasons.

“They play in like three leagues together, they had like eight sets,” Burns laughed afterward. “Did you hear them calling plays?”

As Basketball City pulled away and Blue & Gold continued to miss layups, Lerner’s frustrations increased: “That’s like five missed layups!” he shouted to nobody in particular.

Basketball City surged ahead 31-14. During a timeout, Massenat, took over the huddle. Soft-spoken, he tried to calm the team. After the timeout, he missed another 3-pointer. Massenat struggled from the field all afternoon: 3-of-13 shooting and just 1-of-8 on three-pointers.

Down 17 at halftime, Blue and Gold’s Scott Rogers implored teammates it was far from over: “We ain’t hit no shots, or it’d be a 10-point game.” Blue and Gold shot just 30 percent in the half and missed 11 of 14 three-pointers.

At halftime, Basketball City grabbed water, huddled up, and ran layup lines. Some players from the Blue & Gold team took random jumpers; the rest of the team looked exhausted and spread out on the bench. Laurent Rivard of Blue & Gold looked like something of an outsider at the end of the bench, just staring onto the floor, a blank look on his face.

Rivard, college basketball fans know, is one of the most prolific 3-point shooters in the history of the Ivy League. A four-year contributor at Harvard, Rivard landed in Cambridge by way of Quebec, and was often brilliant on the biggest stages, scoring 20 points in an NCAA Tournament loss to Vanderbilt as a sophomore, and then 17 points in an NCAA Tournament upset of New Mexico in 2013. He owns the Harvard record for 3-pointers: 287.

Basketball City clearly was aware of Rivard’s shooting ability, as one coach shouted to focus on Rivard anytime he entered the game. Rivard couldn’t get a shot off. It didn’t help that Blue and Gold ran no plays for him. He made 1-of-5 shots, with one three-pointer during a second half rally that helped cut the deficit to single digits.

Rivard, 24, was certainly in basketball shape, but told me after the game, “I decided not to play [after Harvard]. I still play once in awhile, pickup at Villanova, but it’s good to do something else. A different kind of pushing your body to the limit. ”

After graduating from Harvard, he moved to Philadelphia with his girlfriend. He said mountain biking and triathlons were his current hobbies. He is working at Campbell Soup in web development.

Shortly after Rivard made his lone 3-pointer, he had a steal that led to a layup, trimming the lead to 59-50, and the small contingent of Drexel fans – probably a dozen yellow-and-blue clad college-aged kids – sprung to their feet, furthering that March Madness feel.

But the rally was short-lived. One of Basketball City’s three 7-footers, Abdoulaye Ndoye, sank two 18-foot jumpers – Blue and Gold was sagging to help on the glass – to thwart the comeback and prompted Lerner to turn to me and say, “They’ve got 7-footers making 18-foot jumpers and I’ve never heard of these guys.”

Blue and Gold kept missing free throws (16-of-27 for the game) and Basketball City was nearly perfect from the line in the 2nd half (14-of-15).

Burns finished with 15 points and eight rebounds, and not even he was immune to the team’s poor shooting, missing his final five 3-point attempts after the early make. It was a one-and-done debut for Blue and Gold, losing 95-75.

“We never heard of any of these guys,” Burns said. “We took [the game] very lightly, which we shouldn’t have.”

Looming in the second round was a Big Apple team with a few well-known players: Josh Boone, who starred at UConn, Derrick Caracter, a Jersey product like Burns and Chaz Williams, a one-time star at UMass. Boone spent four years with the Nets over five years ago; Caracter played in 41 games with the Lakers in 2010-2011.

But like the team from Slam, or the Grantland team, or the Georgetown team, Blue and Gold will be forced the watch the remainder of the tournament on television, or track box scores to keep up with international friends and foes.

For Burns, he’s begun talks with his agent about the next step in his basketball career. He’s got another few weeks before he has to make a decision. Spain? Greece? A new team and a new country await. At the risk of looking too far ahead, he hopes to return to The Tournament next year.

“This was amazing,” Burns said. “The jerseys, the setup, they really put on a great tournament. Yes, I hope to be back.”

[Photos of Burns via Mark Jordan; Team photo via The Tournament]

facebooktwitter