TBT resumes this weekend in Dayton with its quarterfinals, semifinals, and final on Tuesday, bringing the final eight teams alive for the grand prize to one central location to settle the score.
Mike Illiano is one of the few general managers left standing.
Illiano has put together Team 23 for nearly every TBT since 2015. In the team’s first season, it made it all the way to the TBT championship but came up just short, falling to Overseas Elite, 67-65.
“I know the pain, tears, and heartbreak of losing that title game,” he said.
Team 23’s current run to the quarterfinals is the furthest the squad has been since, though the team does hold the record for most TBT games won at 12. It has Illiano feeling cautious but not nervous. It’s all out of his hands now – it’s up to the players and coaches to make it happen – and while some people might pull their hair out at the lack of control, it’s not something that bothers him.
“I never felt like a control freak at all,” Illiano explained. “I’ve had cancer, health problems, etc. You just deal, it’s all you can do. You bob and weave enough to where the world gets tired out and you still remain.”
It’s been a long grind to get to the TBT quarterfinals in Dayton, though. Illiano said he normally begins building his team in the fall before the tournament, but COVID-19 made planning for 2021 more complicated. He didn’t even have his current coach, Marc Hughes, on board until June, the month before TBT’s tip.
“I was very close to quitting,” Illiano said. “I called Marc pretty late in the process. I was ready to pack it in before the phone call. Now I’m sitting in Dayton. I guess it worked out.”
There’s no financial payoff without a tournament title, which Illiano knows all too well. And yet, he keeps coming back. Why?
“I’ve loved the game of basketball since childhood, but not in the may most did where they wanted to play it,” he explained. “I saw it as art – the aesthetic of it fascinated me. I never wanted to play, I wanted to soak up the atmosphere like a sponge. It became my fantasy escape world.”
TBT is allowing him to live out a childhood dream, and it’s the same for most GMs in the event.
General managers in TBT aren’t the same kind of homogenous crowd you’ll find among team owners in massive professional leagues. It’s no billionaires club but rather a totally mixed bag.
“A truck driver, a kids AAU coach, a celebrity, you name it,” Illiano said. “TBT becomes not the Field of Dreams but the Court of Dreams. If you build it, they will come.”
But it’s not for everyone. Illiano has been in this event a long time, and even sitting in Dayton three wins away from the goal, he was wary of recommending general managing a TBT team to just anyone.
“You have to really have a special passion, because this event is extremely difficult on and off the floor,” he said. “This is not for the faint of heart, happy to participate people.”
How would one of the most experienced GMs in TBT history describe what it’s like to general manage in The Basketball Tournament?
“A roller coaster life experience,” Illiano explained.
Featured photo courtesy of Ben Solomon.