The-BALL (or Basketball Alumni Legends League) is a brand-new East Coast summer league for former college basketball stars. Fans who show up to the games get to see famous alumni from local colleges in more intimate arenas. Many of the American players spend the regular season in the D-League or overseas, but this provides them with an additional source of income during the off-season and a chance to get seen by scouts in person or on a local TV network. It is also the most innovative league in the history of the sport, featuring rules such as a 4-point shot, a 5-second backcourt violation, 2-point free throws, etc. Jon Teitel got to sit down with a number of players/coaches after each game and take a walk down memory lane. Former George Mason star Jai Lewis was a member of the DC Dobermans, and talked about what it was like to become 1 of the all-time Cinderellas in the NCAA tourney.
You decided to go to college at George Mason: why did you choose the Patriots? I chose GMU for several reasons. first, it was a little far but close enough to my home. Second, Mason did things in the recruiting process that others schools did not do. Third, Mason was about more than just basketball.
In the 2004 CAA tourney title game you missed a fade-away 12-footer at the buzzer in a one-point loss to VCU: where does that game rank among the most devastating of your career? I do not have a ranking for the games I lost during my career. I look at every loss as a life experience, you have to learn from the experience and apply it to the next situation. However, you better believe I will never shoot a fade-away for a game-winner again!
In the 2004 NIT you scored 13 points and Scooter McFadgon’s three-point shot at the buzzer bounced off the rim in a three-point loss by Tennessee. Did you think the shot was going in, and how big a deal was it to get the school’s 1st postseason win in 18 years? The last two minutes of that game were amazing. There were several major plays during that time. Kevin Mickens had a great block for us at the end. Scooter was making some tough shots throughout the game and I must admit that I was a little nervous when his shot went up.
In February 2005 you had 19 points and 11 rebounds in a five point, double overtime road win over William & Mary. How exhausted were you by the end of that game? William and Mary was always a tough place to play and it was always an ugly game. I am pretty sure that I was exhausted by the end of double-OT, including all the effort it took to get the double-double.
In 2006 coach Jim Larranaga was named national COY after winning a school-record 23 regular season games. What made him such a good coach, and what was the most important thing you ever learned from him? The reason Coach L is great is because he gives you so much confidence as a player and always puts you in a position on the floor to succeed. He recruited a kid that everybody believed was fat, lazy, and out-of-shape every year, but he helped turn me into a first-team all-rookie, two-time first-team all-conference, top-10 in a few all-time stat categories in school history, and a Final 4 participant. The biggest thing I learned from Coach L is how to prove people wrong both on and off the court.
Take me through the magical 2006 NCAA tourney:
You scored 13 points in a 10-point win over Michigan State. How was your team able to get the win despite playing without second-leading scorer Tony Skinn (who was suspended after punching a Hofstra player in the groin in the CAA tourney semifinals)? Before being selected we knew that Tony was not going to play, so we had no choice as a team but to step up and play much harder if we wanted to leave a legacy at Mason. Also, nobody on the team wanted Skinn to end his career on the sidelines because of that incident.
You scored 9 points in five point win over defending champion North Carolina: how on earth were you able to come all the way back after the Tar Heels got out to a 16-2 lead to start the game? UNC really jumped out on us early. When we called the timeout after they went up 16-2, we knew we had taken their biggest punch. When we got back on the floor we were able to take it 1 possession at a time and it worked out in our favor.
You scored a team-high 20 points in a two-point OT upset of #1-seed UConn (one of the most memorable games in tournament history). How big of a home-court advantage did you have playing in DC, and how were you able to bounce back in OT after missing three shots in the final 15 seconds of regulation before Denham Brown made a reverse layup at the buzzer? I believe it was the biggest upset in NCAA history: we beat a team that had 5-6 guys who went to the NBA that year. Playing in DC was a huge advantage for us: it felt like we were playing back in the Patriot Center with all our fans. I think we were able to bounce back for several reasons. One, we were never scared of any team from the very start of the tourney. Two, we wanted it more. Three, Denham Brown’s trash talk during the pregame press conference: they thought they had an easy game ahead of them.
You had 13 points and 11 rebounds in a loss to eventual champion Florida. How did that run in the tourney change your life? The Final 4 experience was a lifelong dream that I will never forget. That team of players/coaches will never be forgotten: I loved it. I cannot say that the Florida game changed my life, but rather the entire tourney did. To this day everybody still recognizes me as 1 of the guys who played on that Cinderella team. The biggest thing the tourney run did was give me an opportunity to continue my basketball career.
After the tourney you played at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, how did you play, and which of the other seniors impressed you the most (JJ Barea/Steve Novak/other)? I played very well in Portsmouth: I averaged 13 points and six rebounds per game, which was pretty much the same as I did during my senior season. The person who stood out the most was Steve Novak: to be that tall and shoot the ball as well as he did was amazing.
A few months later you signed with the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent. What position did you try out for, and how close did you come to making the team? I did not really try out. I signed a contract but it was already known that I would be placed on the practice squad during my first season so I could learn the position they placed me at, offensive tackle. I enjoyed my time there competing with the guys on the team. I actually left on my own because my love and desire was on my mind.
You previously mentioned that one of your favorite GMU players was Luke Hancock (2013 NCAA tourney MOP after transferring to Louisville). What makes Hancock such a good player? Luke was my favorite player while he was at Mason because he was very unselfish. He knew how to make his teammates better and get them involved in the game. Luke was able to do everything well on offense and defense.
You currently play pro basketball in Japan: what is the biggest difference between college basketball and pro basketball, and what do you hope to do in the future? The biggest difference is that everybody you play against in the pros can actually play the game. Pro basketball is more physical and more intense. In the future I would like to either get into coaching or work with troubled youth and help them get into college.