When University of Maryland men’s basketball team manager Zach Lederer was diagnosed with brain cancer for the second time, his father took a photograph that permeated a nation. Years later, his closest friends are honoring his memory by participating in the first-ever $500K competition known as ‘The Basketball Tournament.’
Zach Lederer sat in his hospital bed quietly before asking his father to take a picture. Yellowed by either the sterile light or what was inside him, the boy clenched his fists and held up his arms in a strongman pose, his father capturing the moment. The second brain cancer diagnosis put the former University of Maryland men’s basketball team manager on life support. His father took him off, and brought his son home where Zach would fight the prognosis like the herculean effigy captured in his father’s camera lens.
The photograph spread internationally and the pose, now known as “Zaching,” symbolizes a movement, each replication a testament to strength overpowering circumstance.
At last year’s Coaches vs. Cancer breakfast, Ross Aroyo, now a first-year team manager for the Maryland men’s basketball team, sat transfixed while a courageous 20-year-old keynote speaker shared his message, “his words are something that I will always hold very close to me,” Aroyo recalls.
When Lederer passed away two months ago, fellow team manager Kevin Owens came to the funeral. Weeks later at the candlelit vigil held on campus, Owens led the student body in a “Living the Dream” chant to conclude the ceremony. Earlier this month, when Owens won the first Zach Lederer Manager of the Year Award, Zach’s parents handed their son’s close friend the accolade and posed for photographs.
The boy who sparked the strongman pose passed along a message that became lodestone for those unwilling to succumb to an incurable disease. The message stayed fresh in the minds of Owens and Aroyo.
Every year in late June sixty athletes are granted a life-long dream. Fording a stage sluiced in grandiose lighting, the kind that would give Gene Simmons an inferiority complex, their narratives are turned over to us.
What once were boys, uncouth and squalid, become rock stars with chic wardrobes. Kafkaesque public housing projects or lavish duplexes turn mansion and condo. Privileged or handicapped upbringings become multi-million dollar signing bonuses, lucrative endorsement deals, and, at the very least, the opportunity to play a sport most of them grew to love. Of the 17,500 men who are granted the opportunity to play college basketball, 210 will make the roster of a professional team. Many destroy themselves running for a finish line that doesn’t exist; the chances, if you can call them that, are slim-to-none. There’s a reason why the NBA Draft lottery is decided by a ping-pong ball.
Upon graduating, numerous collegiate players become ambassadors of the game, looking to either coach or attain an entry-level position, something that’ll allow them to stay near the court and far from a cubicle. Austin Freeman, Chris Wright, Eric Hayes, Jerai Grant, Isaiah Tate, Erik Etherly, John Auslander, Owens and Aroyo tried something a little different. They corralled a team to play again; they chose to play for Zach Lederer.
A 32-team five-on-five bracket, single-elimination, winner-take-all battle royale known collectively as ‘The Basketball Tournament’ (TBT for short) begins in May. Cannonading until, coincidentally, two days after the NBA Draft, it allows anyone, regardless of skillset, to enter: Cornell University’s 2009-10 Sweet 16 squad, Villanova’s Final Four Team from 2009, a horde of domestic and international professionals, and even those with hopelessly misplaced pipe dreams. 140 teams have entered. Oh, and the winning purse? $500,000.
Jonathan Mugar, a TV producer, came up with the idea three years ago and has cultivated his concept ever since. Mugar has an all-star team of tournament organizers behind him: Chief Operating Officer Vincent Martelli, Vice President Jennifer Todd, Director of Content & Compliance Daniel Friel, Basketball Operations Director Rob Kennedy, Advisors Tony Ponturo and Andy Dolich, Media Rights Advisor Len DeLuca, Security Consultant Mark Sullivan, and Recruiting Director Jesse Leeds-Grant.
You must be 18-years old to enter and due to the financial incentive and contractual obligations, active NCAA and NBA players are virtually exempt from the playing field. There’s no entry fee — just assemble a crew of seven to 10 players, apply on the tournament website, gather a following of at least 100 “fans,” and you’re entered. A team must have a general manager, tasked with recruiting fans to fill out online forms pledging their allegiance; the 24 teams with the most votes earn automatic bids into the 32-team field.
Tournament organizers select the final eight teams based on their fan base, talent and narrative. Online voting runs until May 1, with a majority of the tournament running from June 6 to 8 followed by a break before the championship on June 28.
Based on talent, the tournament organizers seed the tournament, the majority of which will take place at Philadelphia University. Fans will vote to decide the location of the championship game.
Although the event will not be televised, TBT may live-stream the championship game. Talks have occurred with several national networks, but this year will be more of a litmus test for the longevity and potential cosmetic future of the event.
Freeman, Wright, Hayes, Grant, Tate, Etherly, Auslander, and co-GMs Owens and Aroyo form DMV’s Finest. The moniker stems from players hailing from the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia areas. All have played collegiate basketball and some have been playing internationally in the United Kingdom, France, Latvia, and Israel. The common thread weaving them together: Zach.
“We hope to gain an incredible experience that brings together the top talent from across the nation,” says Aroyo, a first-year manager for the University of Maryland men’s basketball team. “We also hope to gain recognition and support for Zach’s story and foundation.”
DMV’s Finest pledge $50,000 to Lederer’s Zaching Against Cancer Foundation if they win the tournament. Falling short competitively won’t thwart the mission, though. The team has gathered numerous signatures from professional athletes and musical artists to auction at the tournament, with all proceeds benefiting the organization.
“Zach has impacted all of the Maryland Basketball family,” says Eric Hayes, who played at the University of Maryland. “He really was an inspiration to us all.”
Although every member doesn’t have an immediate connection to Lederer, each has been moved by his message.
“His story makes me really want to win this tournament,” recalls Austin Freeman, a former All-Big East first team player at Georgetown University. “We are trying to win for a good cause.”
If voting ended today, DMV’s Finest — which ranks 15th overall in number of fans — would make the tournament. Nothing is for certain, but a band of ten brought together by Lederer’s story will likely enter a Philadelphia gym in June. And just as those who held candles illuminating the Comcast Center in College Park, MD in March, they will be celebrating something far greater than a game.
“[At this year’s Coaches vs. Cancer breakfast] Zach explained that if he inspired just one cancer patient or one person to keep on fighting and live life to the fullest, then he felt his life was worth something,” Aroyo recalls. “It’s clear to me that he inspired thousands to do just that.”