When you’re rich(er).
Photo: Andrew Mangum (TBT)

When Errick McCollum headed to the bank in August of 2015, he was mostly hoping that his check for nearly $100,000 would clear. He wasn’t broke or anything like destitute at the time—the older brother of Blazers star C.J. was, at the time, making a good living playing professional basketball in China. Still, that extra hundred grand would give him a nice chunk of savings for the future, and he had just earned it by winning what was, to that point, the most important basketball game of his life. The issue was that he wasn’t sure if the money was legit.

A few days earlier, McCollum’s team, Overseas Elite, had improbably won The Basketball Tournament, a single-elimination event then in its second year that featured both a big cash prize and dozens of former college and NBA players who were otherwise playing basketball for a living wherever they could. Overseas Elite almost had to forfeit its first-round game because it didn’t have enough players due to scheduling conflicts, but a fifth guy showed up 45 minutes before tip-off. The team went on to win that game and then six more to capture the championship and the $1 million prize that went with it, with the prize being split among the players. Or, at least, that’s what TBT’s organizers had promised.

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But McCollum was skeptical. The games were real, the competition exactly as formidable as advertised, but he still thought that maybe it was still somehow a scam. After all, no tournament had ever provided its winners with so much money. And then the teller told him the bank would put a hold on the check. “I was like, ‘Okay, we’ll see what’s going to happen,’” McCollum said. “And then it actually went through. I was like, ‘Okay, this is official.’ No disrespect to TBT, but you never heard of a tournament [like this].”

These days, no one questions TBT’s credibility or stature. It has grown from an intriguing novelty into a staple attraction for a stretch of the summer sports calendar when live events are otherwise scarce. The winner-takes-all purse has increased to $2 million, and the games are broadcast on ESPN. The quality of competition has increased, too, with numerous college alumni teams and teams built around multiple ex-NBA players now vying for the title. But while the event has come a long way since McCollum crossed his fingers and tried to cash that first check, one thing has not changed—Overseas Elite has continued to dominate the event. When they cruised to a victory in the final on Friday night, it was the dynasty’s fourth straight win. Overseas Elite’s players have now won $7 million in The Basketball Tournament. During that stretch, no other team has won a cent.

While Overseas Elite entered this year’s tournament as three-time reigning champions, with a 19-0 record and a combined $5 million in the bank, they weren’t quite a Warriors-grade dominant force. They have endured a few close calls during their run—Overseas Elite only won its title games by two, five, and three points—and there were numerous other teams whose rosters featured higher-wattage former college stars and recent NBA veterans. Overseas Elite’s roster, on the other hand, was built around a core that includes McCollum, a guard who played at Goshen College, an NAIA Division II school; forward D.J. Kennedy, guard Paris Horne, and forward Justin Burrell, all former teammates at St. John’s; former University of Arizona guard Kyle Fogg; ex-Iowa State guard DeAndre Kane; former Saint Joseph’s center Todd O’Brien; and former South Carolina center Johndre Jefferson.

None of them were unanimous All-Americans. Not one of them was even drafted by a NBA team; Kennedy, who appeared in two games with the Cleveland Cavaliers in April 2012, is the only one with any NBA experience. That lack of star power caused opponents to sometimes underestimate Overseas Elite. “I hear it every year,” McCollum said. “Guys tell me, ‘Oh, we’re going to beat you. We’re matching up a team for you.’”

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This year, those brash hopefuls almost didn’t get a chance to knock off the champs—Overseas Elite wasn’t sure if it would even compete. Overseas Elite’s core has seen their professional profiles rise thanks to TBT, and the ones I spoke to all noted that they enjoy their time playing together. And of course they’ve won a large amount of money thanks to TBT. Still, it’s not their main job, and their full-time gigs are demanding ones.

Overseas Elite’s players, as the name suggests, spend nine or 10 months of their year playing professionally in such far-flung countries as China, Dubai, Israel, Japan, Lebanon, Morocco and Turkey. They don’t typically return to the U.S. until their seasons end in late May or early June. By then, they are tired and want to relax with their family and friends during the brief period each year in which they get to spend some time at home. They also didn’t really have anything left to prove in TBT, which takes them away from home for three weekends. And there’s always the risk of injury, which could hurt their prospects of securing the next professional contract.

“This is just like a hobby or something extra for guys,” Kennedy said of TBT. “It was difficult for us to come back this year, just knowing guys wanted to spend time with their families, or just enjoy their time off.”

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Getting Money
Photo: Andrew Mangum (TBT)

But a few days before the June 1 deadline, Overseas Elite decided to enter again. Eight of the 10 players from last year’s roster returned, including six who have been with the team since it was constructed in 2015. The only new players were former University of South Florida center Will McDonald and ex-Gonzaga guard Jeremy Pargo, a veteran of 83 NBA games over two seasons—he was, oddly, traded for Kennedy once upon a time—who has been out of the league since 2013. Each had connections to Overseas Elite veterans: Pargo and Kane were teammates in Israel, while McDonald and McCollum knew each other from a stint in China. Overseas Elite could have chosen players with gaudier resumes, but that’s not the formula that has made it so successful. “We don’t pick just any guys,” Kennedy said. “We pick guys who fit our team as far as high character and not being selfish and guys who can really mesh together.”

Overseas Elite welcomed a new coach this year, too. Colin Curtin, who had coached the previous three years, was busy with his duties as Hofstra University’s director of men’s basketball operations. Overseas Elite turned to Marc Hughes, a trainer and former NBA G League assistant. Hughes was familiar with Overseas Elite, and was the general manager of a TBT team that in 2015 and 2016 featured ex-NBA players Jamario Moon and Damien Wilkins. They matched up against Overseas Elite in both year’s editions of the tournament. “My thought process was, ‘I can beat that team,’” Hughes said. He couldn’t, of course, but he was thrilled to join them.

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The push for a four-peat was nearly derailed in Overseas Elite’s regional semifinal game. With the score tied 86-all, a Louisiana Elite player fouled Pargo, a questionable call that didn’t sit well with many in attendance or on social media. Pargo ended up hitting the free throw to seal the game. There was no controversy in the next game, which Overseas Elite won by 12 points over a VCU alumni team to advance to this past week’s Final Four at Morgan State University in Baltimore. Fogg, the TBT MVP in 2016 and 2017, was the difference in Thursday night’s semifinal game, scoring 38 points to lead Overseas Elite to an 85-60 victory over a Marquette alumni team.

That set up Friday night’s championship pairing against Eberlein Drive, which featured Jeremy Evans, the 2012 NBA slam dunk champion; former University of North Carolina star James Michael McAdoo, who was NBA Championship rings from his years on the Golden State Warriors’ 2015 and 2017 championship rosters; and forward Lou Amundson, who appeared in 428 NBA games. At the end of the third quarter, Overseas Elite only led 52-50, but a 9-0 run helped them pull away for a 70-58 win. Afterward, as confetti fell all over the court, the players celebrated improving to 25-0 all-time, winning their fourth consecutive championship, and earning yet another six-figure check.

It was a familiar scene, but a remarkable achievement all the same. TBT is too young, as an event, to properly contextualize just how great Overseas Elite has been. But the NCAA Tournament, another upset-prone single-elimination event, may offer a decent point of comparison. And throughout that event’s history, only UCLA’s men’s program, which won seven straight titles from 1967 to 1973, and UConn’s women’s program, which won four between 2013 and 2016, have matched Overseas Elite’s record.

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A fifth consecutive TBT title might not be in the offing. McCollum and Kennedy, the team’s leaders, both said that they don’t plan on playing again next summer. McCollum is getting married in July, while Kennedy wants to spend more time with his 18-month-old daughter. Other Overseas Elite veterans aren’t ready to commit to another year, either. This could be well be it, the end of an unlikely dynasty. McCollum recalled that opening weekend in 2015 when only five guys showed up for the first game. If Overseas Elite had to forfeit, McCollum had planned to go to the Cedar Point amusement park in Ohio. Instead, he stuck with the team. He was there from the beginning and played a pivotal role throughout the past four summers. If this is the end of the line, it’s a ride that he was happy to take. “As I get older, I’ll look back on this,” he said. “It’ll be something that I hold fondly as a great memory.”